Moving to PBL is a challenging (but worthy) task for teachers

DSC01337.pngChanging the way we teach is hard. At times, almost overwhelmingly hard.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I was invited to sit in with a terrific group of New Richmond, Wisconsin, teachers who are using my book (Beat Boredom) for a book study.

The 20 teachers in the book study are meeting for two hours each week (4 – 6 p.m.) to discuss each interactive teaching strategy, then trying new ideas in their classes. The group includes teachers from a variety of disciplines — from phy ed/health to agriculture to social studies to special ed — and they are clearly passionate about their work.

It was fun to listen as they shared how they had implemented new discussion techniques in their classes in the past week. One said that instead of writing learning objectives for a class discussion of a story, she let students generate the objectives — and they ran with it.

Another got his students to have a calm, reasoned discussion about Parkland, walkouts and gun control by asking students to list “what you are afraid of” and “what you really want” first, so both sides were more vulnerable and willing to listen.

But when we turned to the week’s new topic, Problem-Based Learning, everyone had more questions than answers.

What background information do we need to give kids?

What is the teacher’s role?

What if the students shut down?

What if they just want to listen and do worksheets?

How will we address all of the standards they are supposed to learn?

The research shows Problem-Based Learning, or inquiry-based learning, is one of the most effective ways to engage students and create deep understanding.

But the “how” is a major barrier.

How do I take a class where I’ve always lectured on fiscal policy or inflation calculations or graphing monetary policy, and turn it into some kind of authentic, student-run, real-world inquiry?

How do I — even with all of the reading and practice I’ve done in this area — advise a Spanish teacher or phy ed teacher or special ed teacher on how to do this with their unique content?

As I sat and (mostly) listened, I realized again the enormity of the task at hand. Embracing PBL means stepping back from all of our assumptions about what school looks like. It means letting go of our expectations about who leads, who follows, and how learning happens. It means diving deep into what matters about our curricular area, and having to let go of some things.

Honestly, I felt a little panicked when I wasn’t able to immediately offer suggestions. What would Problem-Based Learning look like in a Spanish 1 or 2 class, when students really just need to build vocabulary? I don’t know.

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog post, today, that I realized the irony here. Why would I, as an outsider, be able to easily solve this implementation problem? If this was easy, if it could be packaged into a curriculum and sold, it would already be happening.

Figuring out how to implement PBL is, in itself, a perfect, messy, real-world problem. The teachers involved are the ones who can and must solve it, just as their students must be the ones solving inquiries in class.

That doesn’t seem like much guidance, but I do have a few suggestions for those struggling with how to implement Problem-Based Learning. My first tip is to step back from your day-to-day curriculum and ask yourself the big questions, like:

  • What questions are  professionals in your discipline trying to answer?
  • What are problems facing society (or your school or your community) that students are interested in solving, and how can they relate to your class or content area?
  • How can your students use the skills they are learning in your class to solve problems they’ll encounter in the future?

These questions help us identify and frame problems for our students, like “Should we raise the minimum wage to $15?” and “Do teens need more sleep?” and “How could you explain a medical problem if you were on vacation in Mexico?” And that’s where we have to start.

My second tip? Don’t try to do it all at once. Think of one unit, or even just one lesson that you can build around an inquiry this year.

Try it, see how it goes, and make it even better next year. That’s what this learning process is all about. And that’s why it takes passionate teachers who are experts in their subject areas, willing to stretch themselves — and willing to work together.

If you want to learn more about using Beat Boredom for a faculty book study, contact 

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush





The teacher’s way is rarely the only way


Last week, I asked a few hundred of my former journalism students:

Did you ever feel like you received an unfair grade in high school? If so, why was it unfair?

I asked them to share their stories with me, and I received just one — from Alistair.

His experience is good food for thought, so I asked him if it was OK to share it, and he said yes.

Here’s Alistair’s grading story:

When I was a freshman in high school, I had a very stubborn math teacher who would consistently fail me on every assignment and test. This wasn’t because I answered the problems incorrectly, but because I almost never solved them “her way”.

The main reason I didn’t follow her exact method was that at the time my ADHD was untreated and I only paid attention to maybe 20% of the class. This led to me teaching myself how to do the math problems, which would very often differ from her ways (which in my opinion were often needlessly convoluted as well).

I would always answer the question correctly and show my work, but she would give me a zero based on the work I showed. Towards the end of the semester I was literally failing the class, however, I aced the final due to it being multiple choice without needing work to be shown. This bumped my grade up to a D- and caught the attention of my dean who later on notified the associate principal.

After the associate principal interviewed me, my grade was changed to what it would have been based solely on correct answers.

I was reminded of this experience when my math professor in college took me aside to discuss the method I used to solve a problem. Rather than treating it like my high school teacher, however, he praised my method, calling it “prestigious” and “very impressive” and encouraged me to continue to find multiple ways to solve his problems.

There’s certainly debate to be had regarding both teaching philosophies, but I’ve learned, especially in culinary school, that the teacher’s method is almost never the only way.

. . .

What strikes me most about Alistair’s story is that it exists outside of our conversations about grading practices. None of the popular new grading methods (which I wrote about last week) addresses this fundamental problem.

The issue here — and I don’t think Alistair’s experience is unique — is that his teacher was assessing him on too narrow a set of skills, rather than on the big picture: his mathematical thinking and reasoning ability. He was being tested on his ability to memorize a procedure, rather than on his ability to generate viable solutions to a problem, which is a far more valuable skill.

The grading mechanism wasn’t “unfair” exactly, but its priorities were wrong.

To be fair, there are many cases where specific procedures must be taught. It wouldn’t benefit my AP Macro students if I let them develop (and stick to) their own method of measuring unemployment. It wouldn’t help our English students if they never learned punctuation rules. We can’t have students doing science labs without safety protocols or the scientific process.

But we need to distinguish between these essential procedures and the lessons where we can, and should, encourage students to reason for themselves instead. Provide them the tools, and they can figure out so much for themselves — it’s the whole basis of Problem-Based Learning.

And then, assess students on their solutions and their deep understanding, rather than their compliance with our ways of thinking.

I know, it sounds difficult or maybe even impossible. But teachers are doing it, and they’re seeing incredible results. (You can read about Jose Garcia’s STEM classes and Mary Chin’s math classes in my book, Beat Boredom.)

The first step is just to realize that your method probably isn’t the only way — and open your mind to what works for your students.

The kids, like Alistair, will thank you. And the grade will be a much more authentic measure of what they know.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

New grading schemes seem logical, but do they improve student learning?

pexels-photo-256417.jpegI have one question for anyone promoting an overhaul of their high school grading system: How will it impact your students’ mindset, motivation, and learning?

OK, maybe that’s three questions wrapped in one. But I feel like these are questions nobody is asking, and I want answers.

If we’re investing time, money and teacher energy changing any aspect of our education system, shouldn’t we be confident of its ultimate impact on student learning?

In the past few years, I’ve been swept along in my district’s movement toward “80/20” (80% of a student’s grade is performance, 20% practice), the school-wide implementation of re-learning and retakes, the elimination of Fs (we’ve replaced them with incompletes), and equal-interval grading (reducing the impact of 0s).

I’ve also read a few books and articles on this subject, and two weeks ago at ASCD, I got to hear the arguments straight from Tim Westerberg, one of the gurus of the standards-based grading movement.

Westerberg, a former principal, is a high-energy, no-holds-barred, persuasive speaker. He’s passionate about getting rid of 0s, removing work habits (and extra credit) from grades that are supposed to measure content knowledge, and encouraging re-assessment.

He doesn’t allow much room for dissent in his presentation, accentuating every point with a loud and resounding: “Right?!?”

I’ll give him credit for this: His arguments had an internal logic and coherence. Of course it makes sense not to give kids points for donating Kleenex. Of course teachers teaching the same class should measure learning consistently. Of course we should encourage students to keep learning and let them prove it (by reassessment) later.

Of course we should do our best to measure understanding, not arbitrary point-getting.

But I still left the session with more questions than answers. (I tried to send them to Westerberg, by the way, but his site just keep processing and never sent the message.)

Here are a few of the questions I jotted in my notes, as I listened:

  • How do students react to an overhauled, standards-based grading system, where everything is assessed as a 1, 2, 3, or 4? Does it change their motivation and performance?
  • How do these ideas align with the growth mindset? (Westerberg actually referred to a student who did poorly in chemistry as a “theatre kid” — which didn’t seem very growth mindset-like to me.)
  • Are you confident that this system can’t be manipulated by teachers who still want to reward good behavior, homework completion, Kleenex boxes, or whatever?
  • How is this system manageable, time-wise? (Some of his rubrics for a single assignment were over a page long, single-spaced.)

My first question (at the top of this post) is the only really important one, though.

How will this change impact students’ mindset, motivation, and learning?

Last week in AP Psych class, my students had a socratic seminar discussion about the growth mindset, IQ, and which one has more impact on success in school, career and life. The students frequently returned to discussing our school’s grading system, especially “80/20” and equal-interval grading, which is being piloted in some classes this year.

There seemed to be a consensus that the 80/20 system, with its emphasis on performance, actually undermines the growth mindset and hurts motivation. They were divided on whether equal-interval grading will help or make things worse.

I know this discussion is purely anecdotal, so I don’t want to read too much into it. Instead, I want to ask the experts: Is there proof that changing the grading system does more than just change the grading system? Will it help build a growth mindset and encourage persistence? Will kids learn more?

Let me be clear: I don’t think Westerberg and others are promoting bad ideas. I don’t think our old ways of assessing students were all that great, and I admire much of the thinking in the new systems. I just worry that we’re all jumping on the “change grading” bandwagon because it’s a relatively easy fix — a cheap change — compared to fixing the things that really impact teaching and learning.

Compared to adopting new teaching strategies, for example, changing the grading system is easy to impose from the top down, very easy to enforce, and if it makes it harder for kids to fail, it looks like it improves student performance. 

But if the payoff isn’t great — if a new grading system doesn’t really produce better student engagement, more motivation and deeper learning — then I’m not sure it’s the place we should be spending our scarce educational dollars. Let’s see the evidence.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Let’s stop teaching like it’s 1899

vintageclassroomHave you seen the picture? You know, the sepia-toned one with all of the kids sitting in desks in straight rows, representing American public schools 100 years ago?

Or the newer version, the stock photo that got many of us riled up at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos?

Because no, of course we don’t teach like that any more.

At the ASCD Empower conference last weekend, I saw that picture so many times, in so many different versions and venues, it became a cliche. Every speaker made the same point: We still teach like this, and it’s a problem.

We need to stop teaching like it’s 1899.

If you know me, you know these presenters were preaching to the choir.

But here’s a few fun facts I picked up from my fellow active-learning evangelists.

From Wendy Ostroff, a developmental psychologist and researcher who trains teachers in California:

  • Students lose their curiosity as they progress through school — because we don’t encourage inquiry. Curiosity is one of the main predictors of success in life, college and career. “Extra curious people learn more and perform better.”
  • If we want curious students, she said, “Teachers and administrators also have to be curious and engaged. … Are teachers teacher-scholars? Experimenting? Trying new things? We need to be playful learners.”
  • And also: “One of the #1 stressors for our students is boredom. Boredom is very stressful.”

From Alexis Wiggins, author of The Best Class You Never Taught:

  • Nobel prize winner and Stanford Prof. Carl Wieman (the 2004 U.S. professor of the year) experimented on his own classes and found that only 10% of his students could answer questions taught just 20 minutes prior in a lecture. What people learn from lecture — “it’s just really small.”
  • More and more institutions, now including Dartmouth’s Geisel Medical School, are banishing lecture completely in favor of inquiry, discussion, and other forms of active learning.

From Jon Bergmann, one of the founders of Flipped Learning:

  • “[Robert] Marzano studied 2 million classrooms — that’s a pretty big sample size — to see what instructional strategies are being used. 58% lecture. This was K-12 data. 36% practicing problems. Only 6% were more cognitively complex tasks.” High school was worse than lower grades, he added, and social studies was worst of all.
  • “The single biggest change that has to happen is a shift from passive to active learning.”

Bergmann went one step further and asked, in reference to our continued reliance on lecture: “Why are we being casual about what any other profession might label malpractice?”

Harsh words, yes. But if we know what works — and active learning beats lecture hands down — then we need to do more of it. I couldn’t agree more.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush


Girls need grit, too


I’ve noticed a small but disturbing trend in my AP Macroeconomics classes: Girls are more likely to give up.

Although very few students drop my class — only a handful in the past five years — so far it’s only been girls. When I hear from their parents, I often hear things like:

She’s so frustrated that she is crying inconsolably.

I just can’t see her this upset and think it is good for her.

It’s not that girls are performing worse than boys or finding the material more challenging. In fact, boys with much lower grades are soldiering on.

So what is happening? Why does temporary “failure” seem more likely to crush girls’ self-confidence? Are we not teaching our girls resilience?

I know this is not just my problem. Girls are woefully underrepresented nationally in the fields of economics and finance. One expert, who was doing research on this issue for the Federal Reserve, told me women are less likely to major in econ or finance than even STEM fields.

We females are also less likely to be entrepreneurs than our male counterparts.

I don’t believe this is an innate gender difference.

Here’s what I do believe: I think our girls learn to be really good at school. They outperform boys by most measures in elementary and middle school, and they are more likely to be identified as gifted. They follow rules, do their homework, write neatly, speak politely and generally master the system before they hit high school.

And we encourage this. We praise them for their eager compliance, their willingness to be perfect students, their report cards filled with 1s and As.

I remember — I was one of those girls. I loved getting things right. I loved seeing positive comments on my papers and bringing home good report cards. I loved making my parents proud — something that seemed of no consequence whatsoever to my brilliant but less diligent older brother.

All of this compliance leads too many girls toward perfectionism and what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”. Our girls pride themselves on doing everything right, and they become less willing to take risks. They become obsessed with protecting their perfect GPAs. They aren’t as confident in their ability to wing it and figure things out later.

When they do meet a challenge (and it happens to all of us eventually), it doesn’t just frustrate them — it undermines their entire sense of self.

This isn’t just my hunch. Research by Babson University found that the reason we see fewer female entrepreneurs is not because women are less likely to launch businesses. They are equally likely to do so… the first time.

But they’re a lot less likely to try again if their first attempt fails. And guess what? Most first attempts at entrepreneurship fail. So too many women just give up and walk away, while the men (who are no more talented) are trying again and again until they succeed.

If we want our girls to break the glass ceiling and access many of these careers (which, by the way, are very lucrative), we need to think about how we’re communicating expectations around success and failure to them.

Are we focusing on grades — or on learning?

Are we encouraging perfectionism — or risk-taking?

Are we letting them give up — or expecting them to bounce back?

We need to make sure our girls know that it’s OK to struggle, that straight A’s aren’t really what life is about, and that we expect them to persevere, the same way we expect their brothers to. 

We can’t let their energetic focus on being “good at school” block them from learning strategies to be successful for the rest of their lives.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Let’s get real about financial literacy



  • 11% of 18- to 25-year-olds have more than 10 checking account overdrafts per year.
  • 40% of Americans spend more than they earn.
  • Nearly 20% of African-American and Latino households are “unbanked” — meaning they’re not part of the formal financial system in this country.


Are you surprised by these stats (from The Unbanking of America)? Or not really?

We’ve been talking about the crisis in financial literacy since before the Great Recession, but we don’t seem to be making any progress. Most studies have found that even when teens take classes in personal finance, it doesn’t translate into real-world adult skills. (See this Fox Business article.)

A few weeks ago, I met several young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds and heard a bit of their stories. They are high school graduates, but they do not have bank accounts or savings. They live in a cash-only world. It’s not just that they don’t understand mortgages or the power of compound interest — they don’t interact with our financial system in any meaningful way.

How is this possible in our country?

Maybe it’s because when we do teach personal finance in high school, we treat it like an academic subject, and it just doesn’t fit. Take a look at many of the financial education resources out there, and you’ll find three commonalities:

1 – The curriculum is one-size-fits-all. Every student is supposed to learn about budgeting, saving, buying insurance, buying a car, planning for retirement. The focus is on vocabulary words and calculations, just like many math classes. There are even multiple-choice tests.

This approach ignores the fact that some of our students have zero financial literacy, and our lectures seem as relevant as trigonometry. I’m not disrespecting trigonometry, but personal finance needs to be grounded in students’ experiences.

If your parents don’t use a bank, own a car, or hope to retire, where do you fit in these lessons?

2 – The lessons are written from a voice of authority. You should have a bank account. You shouldn’t use a payday lender. You should never rely on a credit card for major expenses.

Worse than authority, they border on condescension.

Do you know what it’s like for someone at the poverty line to try to get a bank account? Have you checked recently on minimum balances (and the fees for dipping below), wait times to cash checks, and overdraft fees? What makes perfect sense for middle-class income earners isn’t necessarily good advice for all. (Seriously, read The Unbanking of America)

3 – The lessons lack heart. There’s more to managing money than vocabulary and formulas. People don’t make money “mistakes” because they forgot the compound interest formula.

They overdraw their checking accounts because they need to pay a medical bill — or sometimes, just because they want new shoes.

They don’t fail to open savings accounts because they don’t know what they are. They don’t open savings accounts because they don’t have enough money for the minimum balance, or because the interest rate is 0.01%, or because they’re living on $7.25/hour and don’t have any extra.

No subject needs high student engagement more than financial literacy. We cannot afford not to teach our young adults these skills. They cannot afford not to learn them.

But we need to develop meaningful lessons that demystify the financial system without preaching about it. We need to address students’ questions and needs, not talk at them about upper-middle class savings strategies.

We can help young adults learn important skills like saving, but we need to be smarter about it.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

For students, doing beats listening

people-woman-coffee-meeting.jpgA few weeks ago, I wrote about launching my experiment with “no lecture” AP Macroeconomics this spring.

I should note — I didn’t start this experiment because my students were performing poorly. 61 of my 65 students passed the AP test last year, and nearly all of them were freshmen.

It was a pretty successful class just the way it was.

But it’s also always been an uphill battle, because students seemed to forget what they’d learned from one day to the next, they rarely did any homework, and we spent as much time re-teaching and reviewing every day as we did on new material.

Also, a rather large percentage of students were retaking every unit test, and that was frustrating.

I’d read enough about flipped classrooms, whiteboarding and inquiry learning to think that a new approach was worth trying. And so far, results are very positive.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in the first four weeks:


  • More students are reading the textbook than ever before. In the past, my students took it for granted that I would tell them everything they needed to know. Now they know that’s not the case, and they actually read.
  • Formative quiz scores are through the roof. Last year, students averaged 60-70% on daily quizzes; this year it’s more like 85-90%. They actually remember what we did the previous day, now that they’re solving problems rather than passively listening.
  • Twelve students earned 92% or above on the first test, compared to five last year.
  • The lowest score on the first test was 54%; last year four students scored lower than that.


An added bonus: I feel less stressed. The planning part is stressful — mostly because I have to go through every lesson and rethink how to construct it. Yuck. That means 1-2 hours of work per hour of class, for a class I had pretty well planned out before.

But during class time, there’s a lot less stress. The students know what they need to do — and they are doing, rather than listening — so there’s a lot less off-task behavior. Fewer phones out, fewer side conversations, and a lot more outward signs of student engagement.

Also, more time for me to help struggling students one-on-one, while they’re in class.

When I do stop and interject a 5-10 minute mini-lecture — for example, explaining Okun’s Law and the connection between potential GDP and the Natural Rate of Unemployment this week — the students actually pay attention. They’re not burned out on listening to me — so I’m no longer Charlie Brown’s teacher.

I won’t prematurely call this a success. We’ve still got three more units and an AP test to get through. But right now, it’s looking like a change for the better.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

What can I even say?

pexels-photo.jpgIt feels ridiculous to write about anything but the Parkland shooting this week. It’s on all of our minds in every single high school in this country, even as we try to keep things normal yet again for our too-vulnerable students.

How could we not think about it when we locked our doors yesterday for a practice lockdown drill? Or when 250 of our students walked out at 10 a.m. yesterday to protest America’s gun laws?

How can we not think about it when we scan our students’ faces today, looking for who is paying attention and who looks disengaged or sad or possibly angry?

And how can we not be proud (especially as social studies teachers), seeing teenagers step up to civic action in the days since this tragedy?

Unfortunately, although this is weighing on all of our minds, I don’t think I have much new or insightful to contribute to this dialog.

I side with those who want more gun control. I don’t believe semi-automatic or automatic weapons should be available for non-military/non-law enforcement purchase. I grew up in a staunchly Republican, pro-Reagan, anti-gun family, and I don’t understand why those views are so incompatible today.

I’m idealistic enough that I still long for the pre-Columbine days, when students were free to walk outside in our courtyard between classes. I won’t arm myself; I’d sooner resign.

I hope we will finally see a turning point with Parkland. I’m afraid we won’t.

That’s really all I can say today.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Teamwork: Annoying AND essential


Should high school students work in teams — or solo?

When I was a student, we did about 90 percent of our work alone. With the exception of lab work in science and the occasional English group project, we were expected to learn independently, so we would be prepared for individual success later.

Back then, working together — even asking a classmate for help — always carried the taint of cheating.

After all, you don’t get into college or get a job as a team. The important thing was individual achievement.

But something changed on the way to the 21st Century. Even by the time I entered the workforce in 1989, management everywhere was talking about teams, teams, teams.

Suddenly, employees had to not only have the requisite content knowledge for their job — but also know how to communicate, collaborate, argue effectively, involve everyone, incorporate diverse perspectives and deal with slackers. It wasn’t easy to adjust.

Most adults (including me) have spent a lot of time since high school complaining about teamwork. It seems no one ever carries their share of the load; no one recognizes our expertise; and we’re all tired of hearing the know-it-all’s nit-picky perspective on every single issue.

But here’s the thing. Experts (like the leaders at Google) have researched this issue to death, and they have found that effective teams are far more productive than individual stars. And the best teams often don’t contain any stars.

Being valedictorian doesn’t really count for much in most workplaces today.

So what does that mean for us? Does this whole “team” thing really translate to school? And if so, how?

For years, I’ve heard so much frustration from parents and students about group work — you know, the kind that really becomes solo work with a bunch of free riders.

Is it really fair for a group to drag a bright student down? Won’t it be different in the workplace, when everyone is at least competent?

Last week, at the Minnesota Council on Economic Education’s trade show for young entrepreneurs, several 20something entrepreneurs tackled this question. Surprisingly, to many students in the audience, these individual stars championed group work.

Erik Brust, founder of JonnyPops, and Meghan Sharkus, founder of ExpressionMed, agreed that working on group projects in high school is really frustrating. But guess what? So is working with teams in the real world. You never escape the free rider problem, and your team members will always let you down.

And yet, teamwork works. It’s necessary. So students, you might as well learn how now.

For teachers, though, this is not as easy as just putting kids in groups. Not any old team works. Teachers need to figure out how to build effective student teams, in ways that reduce that tension between group effort and individual understanding.

I think the answer lies in carefully creating our student teams, teaching them about effective communication and collaboration, and monitoring their performance.

When I assigned my AP Macro students to teams this year — teams we use every single day for discussing and working on problems — I started with a teamwork survey to better understand each student’s individual work habits and expectations.

I wasn’t so concerned about their academic skills; I’ve read studies that promote heterogeneous grouping and ones that promote homogeneous grouping. Instead, I wanted to know things like: Are you a leader or a slacker? Do you do your part? Do you try to take over? And how often do you get distracted?

So far, the resulting groups have been functioning pretty well. I’ve only noticed one group with bad dynamics (one student expecting the others to do the work), and I think I persuaded that student to get with the program. (We’ll see.)

Next week, we’ll also see how the no lecture + teamwork strategy has prepared them for the first test. 

If you’re interested in seeing the teamwork survey, email me at

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. Listen to Martha’s interview with Vicki Davis on the CoolCatTeacher podcast. @MarthaSRush


First, don’t embarrass anyone

pexels-photo-459971.jpegOne of my former students, now a sophomore, visited the other day and reminisced about last year’s econ class. It was a hard class for him, but he pulled through with a B-.

Out of the blue, he said: “I wasn’t afraid of you.” 

I was a little taken aback. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “Are other students afraid of me?”

“No, no,” he said. “But I am afraid to ask teachers questions in other classes. I wasn’t afraid to ask you because you didn’t make me feel stupid.”

Well, good. I do remember him asking lots of questions, even repeating back to me things I had just said, like, “So when interest rates rise, investment falls? Do I have that right?”

But now my curiosity was piqued.

I didn’t want to know who, exactly, is making students feel stupid for asking questions. I don’t encourage students to complain about other teachers. But I wanted to know how teachers are making kids feel stupid. What is it they say or do?

Because I can’t imagine any of my colleagues doing so intentionally.

The student explained that sometimes teachers get visibly impatient with student questions. The classic case is when a student asks a question that the teacher just answered, so the teacher naturally responds, “I just said that! Were you even listening?”

I get that. I told him: You know, I’ve been in those shoes many times, and I’m sure I’ve said those exact words to a few exasperating students. Especially when I’ve just given specific instructions, and someone pipes up, “What do you want us to do?”

Then he added that sometimes, teachers also laugh at questions. Students might even laugh along, realizing how absurd the question was.

But deep down they’re not laughing, he said. They’re shutting down. Once any student has been embarrassed in front of the class, most kids won’t risk it happening to them.

By this time, I was feeling pretty bad. I know I’ve done that too. Some questions are just so absurd, and so are some answers.

I remember the kid years ago who raised his hand when I asked: What gives our money value? He answered: “God! It says in God we trust!”

I admit it. I started laughing. I wonder how he felt?

My former student’s observations were a good reminder, as we start a new semester, that our students are constantly observing us, gauging whether it is safe to ask us questions, whether it’s safe to answer our questions, whether they’re going to lose face by participating in our class.

As annoying as it can be, we have to be as patient as we possibly can, because snapping at them or laughing at them or ignoring them are all bad options — they send a loud signal to all of the students that we can’t be trusted.

Perhaps the best thing to do, if you really can’t stand one more dumb question, is to talk privately with the offending student and explain that it’s frustrating for you to constantly repeat yourself. Listening is important, too. Respecting your teacher’s time is important, too.

But not embarrassing or intimidating students? That has to be #1.

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