Cicely Cobb

English teacher Dr. Cicely Cobb speaks with her class at Desert Vista while her blog is projected on the screen Wednesday. [David Jolkovski/AFN]

May 24, 2013 marked my last day of work for the 2012-2013 school year. As soon as I received notification that my final paycheck was available, I literally “threw up the deuces,” hugged my colleagues, and “eased on down the road.” I was determined to have a carefree summer — one devoid of daily commentaries regarding instructional strategies and the effectiveness of Common Core.

My summer dream became a faint memory as soon as I saw Paul Tough’s “Help Children Succeed” at my local bookstore. In his study, Tough addresses the rationale for student achievement. Although a significant number of scholars have argued that student success derives from excellent college test scores and middle class values, Tough contends that character strengths such as “grit, perseverance, optimism, and self-control” are what enable students to successfully transition to college and to excel once there. In order to help students develop character strengths, Tough notes the importance of educators’ need to update their “playbook.”

“How Children Succeed” inspired me to have a conversation with a fellow educator who shared a syllabus that she thought might help me to implement some of Tough’s ideas; the syllabus was from a college course that her daughter had enjoyed, and I decided that I would use this document to develop a more effective classroom atmosphere. Our conversation led me on a self-reflective journey. I realized that in order to create and foster a positive learning environment for the 2013-2014 academic year, I needed to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses associated with last year. As Michael Jackson once said, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change.” The question that I said aloud was, “As a 21st century instructor, what measures must I implement within my classroom/curriculum in order to keep my “train” on the “tracks?” Are my “plays” outdated?”

From the 10 rules that my friend shared with me, I selected the three that would best suit the needs of my high school student population. I developed a new playbook that consists of the following “moves.”

Learn professionalism

As educators, we take for granted that our students are mini professionals. High school teachers, especially, fall into this trap. A significant number of secondary instructors quickly assume that once recently promoted middle school students arrive to our high school, they will be prepared to sit for 57 minutes and actively engage in daily discourse while providing both their peers and instructors with the utmost respect. As noted in Harry Wong’s study, “The First Days of School,” behaviors have to be introduced, practiced, and revisited. During the first week of school, teachers should introduce new students to their definition of professionalism. Educators should create homework assignments that allow students to understand professional attitudes and behaviors within a school setting. Next, teachers should assist them in viewing your classroom as a microcosm of the institutions that they will co-exist in upon graduation.

I am a product of a Catholic school education. Several of my high school teachers referred to me as “Miss Cobb.” I use this strategy in my high school classrooms. I explained my background to my freshmen and seniors, and I shared with them the rationale for referring to them by their title. Many said, “Dr. Cobb, thank you. Please continue to embrace this practice.”

Do not get behind

One of the major hurdles that impacts student achievement is ineffective time management. As teachers, we are guilty of being overwhelmed by professional and personal commitments that affect our ability to meet deadlines. Therefore, we should anticipate the same for our students — those who are still learning how to become professionals. During the first week of school, strategies for effective time management need to be introduced and practiced. We cannot fault our learners for failing to meet deadlines if we have not properly modeled and guided them to embrace this practice.

Revisit your late work policy. Ask yourself, “Is this policy created to teach the students a lesson in responsibility, or is it designed to help me keep on top of your grading?” If it is the latter, then possibly consider creating fewer individual assignments. Quality, not quantity matters.

A strong teacher should not give a late assignment merely to teach their students a “lesson.” If you embrace this practice, spend some time reflecting upon the following question, “Exactly, what does this ‘Gotcha! Punishment’ teach your students?” Based on personal experience, it does nothing but create a wider rift in the relationship between children, their parents, and teachers. Instead, time should be spent to see if the missing assignment is due to poor time management skills or a student who is struggling with the material. This requires teachers to spend time getting to know their students. Some questions to consider are: Who is this child? When I check their progress on synergy, are they failing all of their classes, or mine? Does the child have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that possibly was not emailed to me? Is there a learning disability that has not been diagnosed?

Encourage students to apply concepts in new contexts

Students should be taught that the material presented in your course is not limited to your classroom. Instead, it should be shared when the opportunity presents itself. Children need to be provided with a clear definition of what constitutes curriculum.

This year, I encourage you to embrace one (if not all) of the following strategies:

• Select a better path that will allow both you and your students to excel.

• Keep your thumb on the “pulse” of America’s educational system. You must do more than simply attend professional growth workshops in order to learn this year’s “buzz words.” Peruse your local bookstores for new books regarding curriculum instruction. Join professional organizations, attend conferences, and consider publishing articles about issues in education.

• Learn from your failures. Develop the grit to get up and move forward.

• Dr. Cicely Denean Cobb is an English instructor at Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee Foothills. She specializes in American studies; multicultural children’s and adolescent literature; and the usage of digital literacy in English classrooms. Reach her at

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