The Game of School

Greg, a high school sophomore walked in my Economics class day one. He was odd compared to the other kids. Distracted easily, wore a beanie cap and seemed to be in his own world. I had researched my students. He wasn’t listed with an IEP, BIP, or any other overwhelming acronym that gets thrown my way so I know how to properly categorize students.  I did the only thing a rational, non-teacher would do. I started talking to him, listened to what he said verbally and non verbally and helped him stay focused. I watched him for the first two weeks of class. Found out he struggled with staying focused when given traditional learning activities like reading and taking notes. I found out he liked to work in groups.  He was in college algebra as a Sophomore and that he refused to have an IEP.  

Now I needed to know his WHY.   The motivation, his purpose.   He loved the culinary program but felt defeated as he was in credit recovery for his freshman year which disqualified him for the program. He was brilliant and scattered.  He was demotivated and needed to know why he should care about grades when he just wanted to be a chef?  I realized what we are teaching and how we are teaching it is secondary to the WHY.   The WHY is what comes across in how we speak, our enthusiasm, effort, and passion.  It is the basis of a trusting relationship with students that will improve engagement and effort.  A concept Simon Sineck made popular in his book, “Start with Why.”

It’s the why that determines persistence and our value in all things, such as, relationships jobs, and getting an education. It is why I am blogging my experience.   I want to inspire teachers to transform their class by using relationship management as the foundation of being more fulfilled. I want you to develop a mutual purpose with your students to make your class something you and your students will look forward to.

Here are the steps I take in the first 2 weeks to set myself and students up for success.

  1. Greet each student with a smile, handshake or reaffirming touch each day. Students who arrive late should also feel welcome. Continue speaking but walk up to them and nod your head, smile or greet them quietly.
  2. Tell them about yourself. Share your why, your reasons for teaching and be authentic. Show them pictures of your children, become a storyteller. You can use your life experience to make connections to the subject matter. This is what makes you a real person to them. Someone they can relate to and care about. Someone they respect and want to make proud.
  3. Spend the first week on team building activities, teaching them the technology they will be using and showing them your classroom expectations. It is imperative you build a community in the classroom. The culture should reflect your WHY. My classroom culture is fun, focused on the subject and interactive. We are all equal partners in learning the material. Here are some simple team building activities:
  4. Learn the student’s names and expect the students to learn each other by using the group team building activities the first week. I have emoji balls that I ordered from Amazon. A 12 pack costs $6 and we stand in a circle and throw the ball. Whoever catches the ball says their name and their favorite food or game or anything you want to know. They throw the ball to another player and the next catcher says the name of the person who threw it, then their name and favorite fruit, color etc.
  5. Have a clearly defined classroom management plan and share it with the students the second day of class, after you have built rapport. People do not care what you know until they know you care. Do not start a new semester with going over rules until you have learned your student’s names and their why. You must set the class culture first. What does student engagement look like to you? They need to know this. To me, its talking and interacting with others about the topic at hand. It also means no phones or headphones in my class unless I am using it as part of the lesson. Can they just go to the restroom or is their a procedure? Harry Wong has some amazing resources to help develop your strategy. More on classroom management:
  6. Share the end game. In the first week, they should know how you are delivering content. What projects are due in class. The names of each student and their purpose in your class. Day 1: get to know students. Day 2: Let them know me, share classroom expectations and course requirements. Day 3: Show them the technology we will be using and how to turn in work and access resources. Day 4: Small group project tied to a standard. Day 5: Review expectations for next week. Ask for student feedback on how it went this week and what they would change and what they are looking forward to.
  7. Set high expectations and allow them to show you what they know. Do not become the professor of punitive punishments. If a student prefers to write a paper instead of working in a group why would you not allow it? If a student wants to put a video together using the rubric instead of writing a paper allow them to. Does everyone have to do the same thing all the time? When it comes to district-mandated standardized tests, yes. Otherwise, no.
  8. Allow students and yourself to fail. That’s right. Allow failure. Why should we grade or punish the practice activity? I use standards-based grading. I have key activities that allow students to practice before I grade their proficiency in the standard. I use Microsoft teams and OneNote to build all my activities online with multiple videos, activities, and resources they can use to learn the concept. The responsibility to utilize these resources is theirs. The responsibility of providing resources and engaging activities to be completed during class time are mine. They learn quickly that if they do not do the practice they will not be proficient. For more on standards-based grading:
  9. Manage by walking around (MBWA). This effective business concept encourages collaboration and project completion by making me a project manager. Having students working on different projects at the same time can seem unmanageable but think in terms of business. Does everyone do the same task or does each person have a different task and the manager supervises the process? This is what you will bring to the classroom. It ensures everyone is on task. You can provide leadership and build relationships with each student naturally. You will be surprised by the creative ideas your students come up with. I often get excited to see their end project as the development of it seems so promising and the end results often help me revise my rubric for the next semester.
  10. Manage by exception (MBE). Another business concept that allows maximum performance by the entire class. Each week set time aside to speak with a student that is doing average. One who is always quiet, who may have had a behavior change, who didn’t turn in their work. Invite them to your class at lunch or take five minutes during class to have a private conversation and find out what is going on. I had a student who did okay in my class. He was passing but was very quiet and was always gone when we had work due. He was an ELL student and I provided the required accommodations, but I wasn’t reaching him. I asked him if there was anything in his experience at home or in life that could relate to the cultural diffusion project he didn’t turn in. He began telling me about his parents being from Thailand and how the market in Thailand related to the topic. From there he was able to put together a presentation for me about cultural diffusion and his culture. From that day forward he would not stop talking and I wished I had asked sooner!

These are the techniques I used with Greg in the hopes of altering his path of failure into one of success. After many real discussions, negotiating entrance into the culinary program, and having him spend his free time working on his other classes he passed Econ with a B. He also passed most his classes for the first time. I am not so extraordinary that I believe I did this for him. The impact I had on his life and high school career was based on establishing a relationship before trying to teach him anything. I developed an ongoing, sometimes frustrating, skin in the game relationship.

I felt his failures. I celebrated his successes and I listened when he was frustrated with me for holding him accountable and we moved forward with a plan. We cut our losses on classes he would not be able to impact and focused on what he could. When I noticed he passed all his tests in another class but was failing due to not turning in completed homework I reached out to that teacher to see if standards-based grading was an option. I also held him accountable for completing his work and scheduled time each day for him to do that.

The game of school says you must redo work to earn points even if you pass every test. Standards-based grading says students can move on once they show proficiency in the standard. The game of school says our goal is to prove we taught. My goal is student learning. I don’t assign homework for the sake of it, I don’t deduct points for late work and I don’t give extra credit. These life-changing techniques are not for the faint of heart. I encourage you to take the leap away from the game of school to embrace true learning. I will support you in building your classroom community using relationship management, standards-based grading, MBWA and MBE. I promise it will free your time as a teacher, help you become confident in what you are teaching, and empowers your students to show you what they know in a way that is unique to them. Let’s avoid the game of school and really focus on learning, not proving we taught.

For more resources or information please contact me at

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