It is almost cliche to blame the previous year’s teacher for what this year’s students don’t know. Inevitably, we receive students who seem at a loss for what we consider basic skills, which leaves us lamenting the fact that we have to begin the year teaching/reviewing last year’s content. We feel behind before we even start! Of course, if we talk to the previous year’s teacher, he or she insists that all these basics were taught thoroughly. We tend to believe them, because the teachers of the students we had last year are coming to us with similar concerns.
Why then do we have third-graders who don’t begin sentences with capital letters? Why aren’t all of our fifth graders correctly spelling the highest frequency words? Why is final punctuation still an issue in middle school? One would be hard pressed to find that any of these students can’t recite these rules or tell us how to find the information they need to spell any word correctly.
In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott says, “You get what you tolerate.” Our concern is that, too often, we tolerate limited application of the concepts students already know, which leaves us reteaching and reteaching. Not only does this cause students to develop bad habits, such as leaving off ending punctuation or spelling high-frequency words incorrectly, but it also exacts an opportunity cost. That is, we can’t teach students new information when we are busy reteaching “old” concepts.
When we talk about this with teachers, it is easy to find certain things we don’t tolerate. Many of us have strict rules about students putting their names on their papers–consequences range from writing your name 25 times to redoing the assignment. Teachers explain that the children complain about these consequences, but they learn quickly. It is inconvenient at the beginning of the year, but it pays off in time saved with well-established routines and procedures.
No one thinks these teachers are “mean.” In fact, most of us think of this “tough love” as the mark of a good teacher. So, why don’t we have habit-forming consequences associated with those things we find ourselves teaching year after year. Why can’t we make third-graders who don’t start all their sentences with capital letters rewrite their papers? Wouldn’t they be really careful to reread and double check every sentence? And wouldn’t that be good for them? They would probably ask their friends to read over their papers for them. It would be tough once or twice, but then it would be over, both for this year and for years to come.
We believe in process. We believe that content is more important than mechanics. We understand that spelling isn’t correlated with intellect. We think, however, that there are some developmentally appropriate expectations that we could… well…expect! Do we sound mean? Weigh in. We want to hear your opinion on helping children practice grade-appropriate skills in order to form habits that both support their independence and give next year’s teacher time to teach new concepts. Tired of teaching the same thing over and over? Tell us about it.