Book Summary: ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire By M. Fontaine

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Replace Fear with Trust

On the first day of school, within the first two minutes, I discuss this issue with the children. While most classrooms are based on fear, our classroom is based on trust. The children hear the words and like them, but they are only words. It is deeds that will help the children see that I not only talk the talk but walk the walk.

I use the following example with the students on their first day. Most of us have participated in the trust exercise in which one person falls back and is caught by a peer. Even if the catch is made a hundred times in a row, the trust is broken forever if the friend lets you fall the next time as a joke. Even if he swears he is sorry and will never let you fall again, you can never fall back without a seed of doubt. My students learn the first day that a broken trust is irreparable. Everything else can be fixed. Miss your homework assignment? Just tell me, accept the fact that you messed up, and we move on. Did you break something? It happens; we can take care of it. But break my trust and the rules change. Our relationship will be okay, but it will never, ever be what it once was. Of course kids do break trust, and they should be given an opportunity to earn it back. But it takes a long time. The kids are proud of the trust I give them, and they do not want to lose it. They rarely do, and I make sure on a daily basis that I deserve the trust I ask of them.

I answer all questions. It does not matter if I have been asked them before. It does not matter if I am tired. The kids must see that I passionately want them to understand, and it never bothers me when they don’t. During an interview, a student named Alan once told a reporter, “Last year, I tried to ask my teacher a question. She became angry and said, ‘We’ve been over this. You weren’t listening!’ But I was listening! I just didn’t get it! Rafe will go over something five hundred times until I understand.”

We parents and teachers get mad at our kids all the time, and often for good reason. Yet we should never become frustrated when a student doesn’t understand something. Our positive and patient response to questions builds an immediate and lasting trust that transcends fear.

Children Depend on Us, So Be Dependable

Far too many times, an adult promises a child a reward for good behavior. This in itself is a problem, but even more problematic is when the adult breaks his or her promise.

I know a well-respected teacher who once told her class, on the first day of school, that at the end of the year she would take them on a very exciting trip. Practically every day, students who were not behaving properly were threatened with the punishment of not going on the special trip. Many students even did extra work to make sure they would be included. During the last week of school, the teacher announced to the children that she was moving away and would not be able to take them after all. I wish she had stuck around long enough to hear the bitter comments of her students. This betrayal not only ruined anything good she had done with the kids that year, but soured many of them on school and adults in general. I can’t blame them. A broken trust has to be avoided at all costs.

Parents and teachers have to come through. If I tell the kids we are beginning a special art project on Friday, I have to deliver, even if it means running out to a twenty-four-hour Home Depot at 4:00 A.M. to get extra wood and brushes. Being constantly dependable is the best way to build up trust. It’s a cliché, but our actions truly do speak louder than our words.

A nice bonus here is that, if trust has been established, the kids are far more understanding on the rare occasion when a promised activity needs to be postponed.

Discipline Must Be Logical

You need to maintain order in your classroom. However, never forget this basic truth about discipline: Children do not mind a tough teacher, but they despise an unfair one. Punishments must fit the crimes, and too often they do not. Once the kids see you as unfair, you’ve lost them.

Over the years, children have related to me their pet peeves regarding unjust punishments and illogical consequences. It usually goes something like this: A child is acting up in class; the teacher decides the entire class will miss playing baseball that afternoon. The kids take it, but they hate it. Many are thinking, Kenny robbed the bank—why am I going to jail? Another classic example: John does not do his math homework; his punishment is to miss art during the afternoon, or sit on a bench at recess. There is no connection here.

In Room 56, I strive to make our activities so exciting that the worst punishment for misbehavior is to be banned from the activity during which the misbehavior occurred. If a child is misbehaving during a science experiment, I can simply say, “Jason, you are not using the science materials properly, so please stand outside the group. You can watch the experiment but you may not participate. You will have another chance tomorrow.” If a child is a poor sport during a baseball game, he is asked to sit on the bench. It’s logical, and I make sure that when a child plays correctly, he will be allowed back on the field.

You Are a Role Model

Never forget that the kids watch you constantly. They model themselves after you, and you have to be the person you want them to be. I want my students to be nice and to work hard. That means I had better be the nicest and hardest-working person they have ever met. Don’t even think of trying to deceive your kids. They are much too sharp for that.

If you want your kids to trust you, it takes consistent caring and effort on your part. Some of my students laugh bitterly at a teacher they once had. They discuss her in the most unflattering of terms. She often comes to school late. She doesn’t even realize it, but she’s lost them. Why would the kids listen to her lessons when her constant tardiness tells them they are not that important to her? When she lectures them, they smile and nod their heads. Inside they are thinking, Screw you, lady.

This teacher talks on her cell phone constantly. Even when the kids are being taken somewhere, their fearless leader walks in front of them gabbing on the phone. Of course there are family emergencies and situations in which a teacher legitimately needs to take a call, but this woman is on the phone with her boyfriend. The same teacher thinks she is “secretly” shopping online while the kids do their science assignments. She believes the kids do not know what she is doing. She is very much mistaken.

As a role model, the students need us to be advocates, not tyrants. I played the dictator enough as a young teacher to understand the futility of the role.

But that’s the beauty of the job: You can learn from your mistakes. You can get better. In the process you may even stumble upon precious moments that can allow your students to soar higher than they ever thought possible. I had such a moment just recently.

Lisa was a very nice little girl in my class who struggled with all her work. She was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and she had a father who got angry when I wrote on her papers that I felt she could do better.

One day I was walking around the room collecting a homework assignment. The children were supposed to have finished a simple crossword puzzle about Chief Crazy Horse, but Lisa could not find hers. It was early in the year and she desperately wanted to do well. I watched as she furiously searched several folders in her desk. Knowing I was behind her, she continued her desperate hunt for the missing page.
Rafe: Lisa?

Lisa: Rafe, give me just a second. I have it. I did it. Please…

Rafe: (Gently) Lisa?

Lisa: Pleeease, Rafe. I really did it (still frantically looking).

Rafe: (Practically singing) Leeeesa?

Lisa: (Stops the futile quest and looks up) Yes?

Rafe: I believe you.

Lisa: (Silence—a quizzical stare)

Rafe: I believe you.

Lisa: You do?

Rafe: (Gently, with a smile) Of course I do, Lisa. I believe you did the assignment. But you know what?

Lisa: What?

Rafe: I think we have a bigger problem here.

Lisa: (Meekly, after a long pause) I’m not organized?

Rafe: Exactly! You need to be better organized. That's exactly right. Now, how about picking two friends here whom you trust.

Lisa: Lucy and Joyce.

Rafe: Okay. Today after lunch, how about having your friends help you reorganize your folders? Would that be all right?

Lisa: (Relieved) Okay …

These are the opportunities to seize upon. Of course you’re frustrated, but you can take potentially bad moments and turn them into good ones. In the course of a few minutes, I went from Lisa’s potential nemesis to her trusted teacher and friend. The class, watching my every move, saw me as a person who was reasonable. These are the moments when you build trust.

Lisa never missed a homework assignment for the rest of the year.

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