Motivate Students to Learn Without Rewards

Basic behavior management tells us that you need to give something back when you take something away. It’s not good enough to say, “Don’t do this” without saying “Do this instead.” Mediocre teachers master the art of saying “don’t” very quickly, with mixed results. The well-mannered, bright, motivated students from positive home environments want to please, and they will many times “don’t” do something “just because I said so.” That’s what they were trained to do. And they will work for an intrinsic reward such as grades because of the motivation from home.

But how many of those students do you have in your class? Most of us work and teach in a school setting filled with students who come from less than ideal home situations and have less than maximum motivation to learn. How do we motivate them? Grades aren’t enough. And I strongly reject the notion of using physical rewards, incentives, and bribes. Those types of incentives are gimmicks that won’t result in long-term changes in behavior. There are a variety of alternatives. Here are three that are easy to implement.

  • Show Genuine Care for your Students. Think of the best teachers you ever had. What do they all have in common? They got to know you as a person and genuinely cared about you. They recognized you when you came into their classrooms. You felt welcome, safe, and validated as a person. They recognized your feelings and your needs. They laughed with you, encouraged you, and celebrated your successes.

We have limits on the time and manner in which we can develop relationships with our students, but research is clear that one of the single most important factors impacting student motivation is a relationship with a caring adult at school. You can be that adult. I’ve posted two personal stories of my own in Loving the Unloveable Student and You are a Teacher.

  • Demonstrate a Constant Excitement about Personal Learning. Remember the excitement of learning something you didn’t know previously? All of us have an innate desire to learn. As teachers, we must kindle that fire inside students. Practically every student entering kindergarten wants to learn to read. They love new experiences, the wonder of new worlds opened to them. What happens? How do schools suppress that love for learning?

I don’t have the answers to all those questions, but I do know that we must find ways to bring enthusiasm back into learning. And the best way is by exhibiting enthusiasm ourselves. Show your excitement about new concepts, new ideas, and make that learning relevant to students.

  • Introduce Appropriate Challenge. I remember playing ping-pong with my father. I hardly ever beat him, but I improved with each game. And once in a while I reached that magical 21-point plateau before he did. I begged him to play me every night, even though I knew I would most likely go down in defeat. I never thought about playing my six-year old cousin. That wouldn’t be any fun, even though I could beat him easily every time.

We rarely choose to play a game when we absolutely know we will win. We want the challenge. So do students. Providing appropriate challenge to students is one of the best rewards in motivating students. The trick is to find the right level of challenge. If the task is too easy students have little motivation and too hard leads to frustration. Let students choose. Provide various levels of challenge, with no reward or punishment attached.

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Loving the Unloveable Student

I recall clearly an experience I had early in my career that changed my perspective on teaching forever and made me an immeasurably better teacher. On the day before school started we received our class rosters in our mailboxes. I was teaching three hours of ninth grade Physical Science and three hours of Pre-Algebra. As I looked over the roster I quickly noticed that every student in my Physical Science classes were tenth graders or above. That meant one thing: they had all failed the class before. Oh no, all these kids were failures! The last thing they wanted was to be in my class and the last thing I wanted was to have them there. I wanted the good kids, not these rejects.

I ran to an assistant principal, who had nothing to do with the schedule, and moaned my woes to him. He looked me in the eye and said, “Mike, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to complain all year about what somebody has done to you or are you going to set the tone in your classroom tomorrow that will give those kids a chance?”

It was the best thing anyone could say to me. I went home and reflected. I chose to not complain about how these kids could never learn. I chose instead to stand at the door every hour and look every student in the eye and welcome them to my class. Many of them didn’t look back at me. Most didn’t appear to be very lovable. Remember you don’t have to like every student… just act like you do! But something happened. In just a few days they began to respond to me. And I responded to them. I actually began to like them. Well, most of them, anyway.

The first thing I said to each class was, “Look around you, go ahead, look around. You will notice that every one of you are in the tenth grade or above. That tells me one thing: all of you have failed this class before. But one nice thing about school is that you can start all over each August. The slate is wiped clean. This is a new year, with a new teacher. I don’t care what you did last year, and neither should you. I’m going to give you a chance to succeed that you never had before and I expect every one of you to do just that.”

Oh, those classes were hard work. There were few discipline problems, but it was hard work to prepare lessons that were relevant to them without losing the rigor of the course. It was hard to establish relationships with them. I found it difficult to involve parents until I began making personal phone calls. I searched for reasons to call home. When a student made his first C on a test, I called home. You can imagine the conversation.

“Hello, Mrs. Smith? This is Mr. Prater, Johnny’s science teacher.”

Long pause. “What’s he done now?”

“Nothing bad, I just wanted to let you know that he is working hard for me in science and he just made a C on a really difficult test. I’m proud of him, and you should be, too.”

One young man came in the next day after a phone call and he actually had tears in his eyes. “Mr. Prater, my dad took me out for pizza last night after you called. He’s never done anything like that for me.” You know, I never had to cajole him again that year to turn in his work or study for a test.

I’ve had National Merit Scholars who attended West Point or Harvard. I can count as my former students judges, doctors, research scientists, and military generals. But by far my most rewarding teaching experience was that group of kids and others like them. I really had little impact on the judges, doctors, and all the rest. They would have made it without me. Maybe they made it in spite of me.

 Did I reach every child? No. Some are in the prison system today, some are hooked on all sorts of things, and some are no longer with us. But I know that I made a difference in lives. The phrase “make a difference” is practically a cliche now, but nevertheless it is still true. YOU teachers touch lives every day. Never lose the passion for loving children.

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No More Teaching

When thinking about teaching, many of us conjure images of a wise sage standing in front of a group of youngsters, dispensing knowledge as eager students absorb new enlightenment. In fact, Webster defines teach as “to cause to know something,” or “to impart the knowledge of.” Unfortunately, the model of many modern classrooms continues to follow the industrial-based model of the last century: students sitting in neat rows as a teacher hands out knowledge (and not a few worksheets in the process.)

In case you haven’t noticed, the times are a-changin.’

Schools used to be a place where parents sent their kids to learn stuff. Now they are places where we facilitate learning.

Several factors create this huge paradigm shift, but one of the most powerful influences is the rise of technology. Students simply learn from a wide variety of sources besides school. The schoolteacher’s voice is only one of countless voices sharing new information constantly.

Do you realize that the graduating class of 2012 is the first batch of “Internet Explorer® Seniors?” That is, they are the first group of students who were born after the popular web browser was released to graduate from high school. They know no other environment besides a wired world.

My grandson’s first word was “da-da.” His second was “omputer.” Ethan is four now, and it no longer impresses him that I have a computer, an iPhone, a Blackberry, an iPad, or any other technological gadget. It’s simply the world he knows. I can count on him navigating through the icons on my laptop quicker than I can. He and the other children of his generation are growing up bilingual. They communicate in their native language and in technology-ish.

What does that mean for us in schools? First we recognize the evolving landscape, welcome it, celebrate it, and make adjustments in our approach. We don’t want to echo the wise words of Dilbert: “Change is good. You go first.” We want to be on the front edge of the change, integrating technology and a new learning paradigm into our school culture.

Second, we establish meaningful relationships with students. Many students no longer respect us simply because we are teachers and contain knowledge they need to have. They respond to us because we respect them, demonstrate our concern for their entire well-being, and personalize their learning. In short, we show that we like them and are happy to have them in our class!

Third, we make the learning relevant to our students. With the wealth of technology at their fingertips, kids can easily turn off the voices that don’t interest them or the ones that don’t seem applicable to their life situations. They can just as easily tune us out.

Finally, learning must be fun. That doesn’t mean we need to put on a circus act with every lesson. But a teacher’s natural curiosity and love for learning new things exudes to students. Remember that we facilitate the learning, guiding students to explore and recognize the wonder of learning.

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What Effective Principals Do

Do principals really have an impact on student achievement? Of course they do! Research including my own indicates clearly that principals affect student outcomes. Browse my publications link to find more detailed discussions, but here is a quick summary of key behaviors that effective principals exhibit. Effective principals:

Ensure the school is operating smoothly on a day-to-day basis.

  • “Run a tight ship” by organizing tasks and personnel efficiently.
  • Make sure students and staff are in a safe, secure, and well-maintained environment.
  • Develop appropriate rules and procedures and provide information to staff and students.
  • Evaluate employees in a fair and consistent manner.

Are competent in instructional and curriculum matters.

  • Have a working knowledge of best instructional practices and commit to those practices in the school.
  • Work with teachers to support implementation of those best practices in the school.
  • Work collaboratively with teachers to examine and analyze classroom engagement and learning and develop strategies for instruction.
  • Coordinate the curriculum and monitor student progress both within individual classrooms and across grades.
  • Work with teachers to develop effective formative and summative assessments.
  • Work with teachers to read and interpret data, as well as develop intervention procedures.

Lead the school in a collaborative and transformational manner.

Did you notice how many effective instructional and curricular practices use the words “work with teachers?” Research is clear that transformational leadership practices have the greatest impact on student achievement. Behaviors of this type highlight and depend on social interactions and relationships to motivate all stakeholders to work toward a common higher goal. Principals really don’t influence student achievement directly like a teacher does in a classroom, but the activities of the principal have a trickle-down effect on teachers and students.  Effective transformational principals:

  • Emphasize a collaborative approach to decision-making and governance processes.
  • Establish appropriate meaningful relationships with staff members that support and empower individuals with a sense of self-worth and value.
  • Set an example for staff members to follow consistent with the values the principal espouses, inspiring others with his or her vision of the future.
  • Foster a group set of goals that transcend personal ambitions.
  • Use the expertise and leadership of teachers and give them the sense that they are an integral part of the success of the school.
  • Spend a significant proportion of their time working collaboratively with staff to solve the key issues of school improvement.
  • Invest in the development of individuals, particularly teacher leaders.
  • Inspire through their personal efforts and their support and encouragement of others.
  • Build leadership capacity throughout the school and develop a culture of collaborative problem solving.
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What Students Want Us to Know

In all our talk about education reform, why don’t we listen to the group who is most affected by our actions: the students? Many schools administer surveys to various stakeholders, including students, on a sporadic basis in response to state or accreditation agency requirements. Rarely do schools solicit feedback on a regular basis from the folks they serve. Even if they do, I have a sense that decision makers tend to place more credibility on responses from teachers and parents than those from students.

 One essential component of any organizational improvement is the ability to listen to the brutal truth. It may hurt our leadership pride to hear what people are really thinking about us. But systemic improvement will never take place without us listening to the facts, being reflective, and making necessary changes.

So, what are the kids saying about us? As a teacher I made a practice of surveying my students at the end of each semester regarding my effectiveness. I usually wasn’t surprised by the results. I knew my strengths and weaknesses, and so did they. But the very practice of soliciting their responses enhanced my relationship with them and gave me that “kick in the seat of the pants” to improve my teaching.

In a broad sense, what do students want us to know about our schools? A recent post by The Innovative Educator discussed a student panel hosted by Ann Curry on NBC’s Education Nation that provided young people the opportunity to express their insight into what they think needs to be done to improve schools. The educator listed 20 top comments made by the students. A summary of their comments:

  • Students want teachers to establish relationships with them. Of the 20 top comments, 8 of them involved the need for students to have an adult connect with them, listen to them, and provide a sense of family. The old mantra “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” has almost become a cliche, but its truth remains.

If you listen to the students in your classroom or school, you will hear them say things like: “I can’t learn from you if you aren’t willing to connect with me,” or “caring about the students is more important than teaching the class,” or “when you feel like a family member it means so much.”

  • Students are unique individuals who are interested in different things, learn at different rates, and need adults to help them set goals and feel good about personal achievement. Five of the top 20 comments involved the need for teachers to understand students’ individuality and help them set personal goals. Students feel frustrated when everyone is expected to meet an arbitrary benchmark at a pre-determined time with no regard to individual differences.
  • Students don’t want to take standardized tests.Following closely the previous thought, we aren’t fooling students when we give them high-stakes tests. Three of the 20 comments related to the notion that tests are given for the sake of the school, not for the sake of the students. One young lady commented, “we do tests to make teachers look good and the school look good, but we know they don’t help us learn what’s important to us.”
  • Students want to learn what is relevant to them in an engaging and interesting environment, especially using technology. Three more comments involved using technology in teaching. Young people graduating in 2012 are the first “Internet Explorer” graduates. That is, they were born after the first version of Internet Explorer was released. They have no concept of life before the digital age. Our schools used to be places where parents sent their kids to “learn stuff.” With the vast number of online learning resources, our schools now are places where we facilitate learning rather than being the sole repositories of knowledge.

It’s time to listen to the children we serve. They have more insight to the way things really are than we many times realize. 



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Grouping Students for Effective Learning

Many educators have a natural aversion to grouping students by ability level. Granted, leveling in a traditional sense by dividing entire grade levels of students into high, medium, and low groups is an ineffective practice. That’s because learning is too fluid for single-level groups. Kids will master some ideas faster than others. Even within a content area, students will learn one concept quickly and struggle with others.

Many schools address this diversity through teacher collaboration as part of their professional learning community (PLC). It may be helpful to recall the critical questions that Rick and Becky DuFour believe should guide the work of educators:

  1. What is it that we want students to be able to know and do?
  2. How will we know when our students have mastered those outcomes?
  3. How are we going to monitor progress toward those outcomes?
  4. What will we do as a school when students don’t master the outcomes or need extended study?

I cannot overstate the importance of creating time to allow for structured dialogue among teachers about student learning. I’ve seen too many school leaders trying to establish the components of a PLC without addressing the culture of a learning organization. You simply must carve out time to give teachers the opportunity to analyze student portfolios and collaborate about the data they yield. Otherwise, PLCs become a burden for teachers and another “hoop to jump through” without a change in the culture of community learning. I recall one elementary principal who remarked, “it was amazing the amount that learning increased in the building when we stopped talking about ourselves and started talking about the kids.”

With that culture of collaboration established, teachers can begin sorting for specific lessons by asking questions in the spirit of the Dufours’ critical questions: Which students appear to have mastered the concepts? How can we work together, creating small flexible groups to support students at all levels of understanding? How can we check for mastery incrementally and how will we adapt our groups in order to meet the individual needs of students?

For example, suppose a group of fourth grade teachers has decided that composing text with: a) a beginning, middle, and end; b) a logical sequence of events; and c) sentence variety is an essential outcome for their students. They might begin by establishing exactly what they expect to see from their students at the present time in the school year  and then develop a rubric that would help both teachers and students understand what mastery looked like.

After spending time teaching students about writing they would collect student work and use their rubric to assess student mastery. After analyzing the data, the teachers could decide if there were students who needed extra help in writing. Teachers particularly adept in teaching writing or who have a special passion for teaching writing might work with small groups of students in need of remediation (or enrichment, for that matter).

In this case, grouping is based on student progress toward a mutually defined outcome rather than a collective “make the grade or else” type of leveling. Key to this type of leveling is regular intervention times when this kind of grouping can occur and appropriate assessment at intervals to ensure flexibility of the group for students to move in and out as they master concepts.

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Engaging in a Process of Formative Assessment

With everything being said today about assessments, we should fully understand the process and how it impacts learning. But I fear that many educators fail to use formative assessments to their maximum potential. Much of the fault lies in thinking about formative assessment as a kind of test. In fact, many vendors now tout their pre-packaged interim tests or their standardized tests administered every few months as “formative assessments.”

Let’s step back and briefly review the distinction between formative and summative assessments. Summative assessment refers to the assessment of learning and summarizes the performance of students at a particular moment in time. Formative assessment, on the other hand refers to assessment for learning. It is a process used during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement. I have developed this simple diagram that details the difference visually.

The primary objective of formative assessments is not to assign grades, but rather to inform the teacher and the student of what they know or do not know. More important, formative assessments allow teachers to monitor their instruction and make decisions based on immediate student performance. The evidence that is gathered comes from a variety of sources, including traditional tests as well as informal procedures such as students’ own assessment of how well they understand a concept. In fact, I personally believe that student self-evaluation methods are vastly underused as tools to gather formative assessment data.

We must also not forget the value of the teacher in making qualitative instructional decisions. One of the most valuable forms of formative assessment is simply teacher observations of student mastery of content matter. Formative assessment can occur as a teacher is observing students’ work, discussion, debates, etc. and then reacting to what he or she sees. As I pointed out in another post, one veteran teacher observed, “I can see it in their eyes when they’ve learned it.”

In summary, educators must use a variety of tools to inform them about the level of learning of individual students and be ready to make appropriate adjustments.

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College isn’t for Everyone

Over the past decade or more, policy makers and educators have focused intensely on college readiness programs at the high school level.  A well-educated student is one who has mastered the skills necessary to be successful at the college level, the argument goes.  I agree that we must increase rigor at all levels, but shouldn’t the rigor be accompanied by corresponding relevance for the student?  Not all students will be successful at the college level, nor should they be.  Common sense tells us that many people do not have the academic ability, motivation, or learning style that is necessary to succeed at the four-year college level.

A growing chorus of education experts are calling for schools to better prepare students for futures that might not include four-year degrees.  A recent Harvard University report summarized some of the concerns that practicing educators have been expressing regarding the notion of pushing students into a four-year college path.  The “Pathways to Prosperity” study, released in February, argued that job-market and college-completion realities demand that schools pay more attention to the large group of students who graduate from high school but might not earn four-year college degrees.

Two thirds of the jobs created in the United States by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, but of those, nearly half will go to people with occupational certificates or associate degrees.  In addition, many of those jobs have very good wages: one-quarter of them pay more than the average job requiring a bachelor’s degree.  The study also questioned whether the focus on college preparation is justified, noting that only 56 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.  What happens to the other half?  And what about the huge debt they have incurred without receiving a degree?

Fortunately, many high schools, vocational institutions, and community colleges are forging partnerships that cross traditional boundaries to expose students to career options.  Partnerships of this type focus on training for higher-skilled jobs that will continue to be in demand, especially in the technical and medical fields.  A recent article outlined some of these successful programs: “College for All Campaign Getting a Second Look.”

I see some key areas for educators:

  • Educate parents and students about career opportunities outside of the typical four-year college track.
  • Remove the elitist view that some in education have.  Trade school isn’t “just” trade school.  Our world functions because of very skilled people who can manufacture and repair our cars, homes, roads, ….  You get the idea.  Additionally, our world functions because of trained service people who might have “only” a high school degree.
  • Partner with those in vocational/career education and industry.  They are not “dumping grounds” for anyone today.  Learn those skills that students are required to have to be successful in their industry. It might not be a bad idea to spend a half-day professional development opportunity by loading high school teachers on a bus and letting them tour a career education facility!
  • Provide more curricular options for students in grades 9-12.  Make the learning more relevant for those who may not be interested in a four-year college track.  As an example, (I’m going to step on the toes of my English teacher friends now) does the skilled auto mechanic really need to be able to analyze The Scarlett Letter?  He or she needs higher-level reading and writing skills, but maybe we should rethink what form those skills take.

Some related articles:  The “Career” Part of College and Career Readiness; Merging Career Tech with College Prep: Why It’s Succeeding


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Student Achievement: Principals Do Make a Difference

The principal’s role has become increasingly complex and difficult as the nature of society, political expectations, and schools as organizations have changed.  Principals today can no longer simply “run a tight ship” and expect things to sail along nicely.  The modern principal must become an educational leader, operating with all the skill and finesse of a successful CEO of a large corporation – but with a much smaller salary!  To be effective, principals must study leadership theory and be knowledgeable of practices and behaviors that impact student achievement.

Do principals affect student achievement?  We would like to think so, and common sense tells us that they do, although it may be through indirect processes.  Attempting to help answer the question, I conducted an extensive study as part of my dissertation.  The study examined the relative impact that principal managerial, instructional, and transformational leadership had on student achievement.  The study has been published in the March 2011 NASSP Bulletin, 95:1 (pp. 5-30).  The full article can be accessed online for those with a subscription to the Bulletin. Additionally, you can find a shorter discussion of the study through the “Publications” tab at the top of the page, or simply click here.  I would be happy to send anyone a full copy of the dissertation if you wish.

Without using too much “researchy” language, I want to discuss the various important findings from the study over the next few weeks.  First, I can say that the study very definitely answered in the affirmative.  Principals DO make a difference in student achievement! Here is a quick outline of the study: 131 high schools in Missouri participated in the study.  443 teachers from those schools gave survey responses measuring their perception of the principal’s leadership skills.  Those responses were then compared to the schools’ performance on the MAP, Missouri’s high-stakes annual test. Briefly, here are the highlights of the findings:

  • Factors from all three leadership types – managerial, instructional, and transformational – had an impact on student achievement, leading us to believe that all three are important in developing a model of principal leadership.
  • The only principal demographic variable that was linked to student achievement was education level.  Even when controlling for all other factors, the education level of the principal impacted student achievement.
  • While all leadership behaviors were linked to student achievement, five were significant statistically: Instructional Improvement; Curricular Improvement; Providing a Model; Identifying a Vision; and Fostering Group Goals.

 I will discuss the results in more detail in future blogs, especially focusing on several areas of competence that can inform principals who wish to become more effective.  But suffice it to say for now that the answer is clear. YES! Principals very definitely make a difference in their buildings.  It is clear that principals who are perceived to be more competent influence student achievement in spite of school and community contexts in which they operate.



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Developing Better Teacher Evaluation Systems

With many states passing merit-pay laws, it is imperative that we find a good method to evaluate educators effectively. A new report from The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., says a way to accurately judge student progress, or a teacher’s “value added,” needs to be developed. The report also calls for uniformity among school districts. I’m going to wade into the debate with the following points.

1.  Do not eliminate teacher tenure. Some reformers point out the inordinately low number of teachers who are fired or do not have their contracts renewed. The problem, they say, is teacher tenure. Simply remove the legal protection that teachers have and administrators will have the freedom to get rid of bad teachers. Regardless of how we feel about those reformers’ political views, we have to face truth of the matter. In schools across the country, too many mediocre (and in some cases downright bad) teachers are given new contracts and shuffled from one school to another. The students ultimately lose under the current practice.

The answer is not be found in weakening teacher tenure laws. My stance might surprise some who know me as a principal and superintendent who placed high expectations on teacher quality. But teachers must have the protection and security found in tenure, not only to preserve academic freedom, but to protect them from capricious decisions made by administrators and school boards. The answer is found by unions and other teacher groups working collaboratively with policy makers to develop honest and effective methods of teacher evaluation that results in teacher improvement. Yes, in some cases those methods must include parameters to remove ineffective teachers. We must reject the notion that we will defend teachers at all cost.

2.  Develop an effective teacher evaluation system based on various measures.  I’m troubled by the notion that teacher quality should be determined by student performance on a single high-stakes test. Some districts use student progress as a measure, but even that fails to address many contextual issues such as socio-economic status, student motivation, and class size.

Just what constitutes good teaching? Student performance must be the starting point to measure quality teaching, but unfortunately the task isn’t as easy as examining test scores. I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, How do Principals Model Good Instruction?  that teaching and learning are very tacit occurrences. At the same time, we all know what constitutes good teaching, and we all know the best teachers. Ask any principal and he or she will quickly give you the names of the best teachers in the building. Ask the students, ask the parents, ask the community. You can even ask the staff, and you will get the names of the best teachers in the school and those who are not as effective. The task facing us education professionals is to develop both qualitative and quantitative measures of teacher quality.

3.  Invest in frameworks that support quality teaching in every school. Teacher pay and benefits, smaller class sizes, appropriate technology, and clean, well-maintained buildings are only the beginning of supporting good teaching and learning. One component of effective schools is teacher collaboration. If we put teachers in competition with one another to receive a certain amount of bonus funding, teacher trust and collaboration will fall by the wayside. Most teachers get into the field because they care about children and really want them to learn. Give them the tools to do this by providing appropriate student data and the time to plan together. Place expectations on teachers, but treat them like professionals.

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