Birthdays and Unspoken Expectations

My dad’s birthday was last week.  He’s an avid reader of my blog, so let me start by, once again, wishing him a very happy birthday.

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I thought it would be funny to have my class sing him happy birthday.  But which class?  He certainly didn’t need 4 of these phone calls, as charming as they would be.

It was an easy choice.  3rd period.  They are my ‘best’ class.  The fewest challenging students, the highest quiz average and homework completion average, and that class where I always get a bit farther in my teaching than any other class because things always flow so smoothly.  If you’re a teacher, you know that class.  You have one too.  So naturally, if I were going to stop teaching for 5-10 to do something fun, silly, and totally unrelated to math class, I’d do it in 3rd period.

And we did.  And it was so fun.  We put him on speaker phone, ran the line through the speakers of my LCD so it projected quite loudly, we sang, he gave them a spontaneous math problem, we laughed, we made a promise to meet at lunch on that same date next year to call him again, and we then went back to math.

What I hadn’t thought about in advance, was how memorable that phone call would be for that class: it brought the class closer, gave us a moment to laugh, be silly, connect us all around a family birthday, something each one of them could relate to.  As soon as I hung up the phone, feeling all warm and fuzzy, I realized I had chosen the wrong class.  3rd period already felt warm and fuzzy.  By making them the special class, the one that got to call my dad, they felt even more special.

I should have had my most challenging class call.  THAT’S the class where we need more warm, fuzzy, silly moments.  It never occurred to me to call during that class because we are always behind in that class.  Management takes more time.  Keeping kids on point takes more time.  Heck, even expecting students to put papers into binders takes more time.  I didn’t feel I had time to ‘waste.’

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It reminded me of the Invisibilia Podcast, “How to Become Batman.”  It haunts me.  I believe it was Andrew Gael who mentioned it in his Shadowcon talk at NCTM last spring.  Listen to it here if you don’t know it.  

In brief, scientists discovered with rats doing mazes, if you simply expect them to do better, talk to them more kindly, they perform better.

As I hung up the phone, I realized that I was recreating this before my eyes.  By giving my ‘easy’ class more silly, fun, and bonding time; by telling them that we were going to do something fun, because I could count on them to get the same amount of math work done in a shorter period of time, by making plans for a class reunion next year at lunch to call my dad again for his birthday, they will now perform better on tests, focus more quickly when asked, and feel more trusting of one another when they need help.

So mom, since you’re also reading, when your birthday comes in October, you’ll be getting a call from my ‘hardest’ class.  Because expectations matter.

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