Back-to-School Series: Minisode 3 with Teresa Meredith in Indiana on Teachers in America

21 Min Read
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Photo: Fourth-grade teacher Teresa Meredith

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

We are joined once again by Teresa Meredith, a fourth grade teacher in Indiana and HMH Contributor. Teresa is a 30-year seasoned teacher who is dedicated to cultivating a collaborative teaching and learning community. In this 24-minute minisode, Teresa will share classroom management tips.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris.

We’re starting off the school year with bite-sized episodes that feature back-to-school tips from your favorite former guests.

Today I’m happy to welcome back Teresa Meredith, a fourth-grade teacher from Indiana. As a 30-year veteran teacher, Teresa has learned to navigate the ins and outs of the back-to-school season, especially classroom management.

In today’s minisode, Teresa will share her expertise on creating a classroom community space and establishing expectations in the first weeks of school. Plus, she’ll give insights on how to structure morning meetings and address different student behaviors. Now, let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Hey, Teresa. Welcome back to Teachers in America. I'm so excited to have this special conversation with you as a minisode for back to school. I want to kind of share with everybody that you're already out of school, so we're going to be talking about back to school as you just finished your last year. So, before we get into the conversation about classroom management, is there anything great and awesome that you could tell us about how you ended your school year?

Teresa Meredith: Oh, my goodness. The past school year was probably one of the best in my 30 plus years of teaching. It was an amazing year, and I can't really point to any one specific thing other than to say that there were lots of pieces that just seemed to play into it and COVID isn't over and gone forever, but it is certainly in our rear-view mirror or beginning to be. And I just kind of took the attitude this last year of, "Well, you know what, my students didn't lose what they never had to begin with, so I'm going to have to work really hard and just really encourage and support." And I did that, and we started with morning meetings every day, we ended with a closing meeting every day, and I just think it was one of the best years. My data seems to support that as well. And it just was a fantastic year, and I hope I can pick up some of those pieces and carry them into this brand-new school year.

Noelle: I definitely think that you can, and thinking about that as we talk in this back-to-school episode, I want to focus on classroom management. And so, let's just start with the classroom management of how you have framed a morning meeting and a closing meeting. How do you set those up with your students and how do you set the expectations for what that time is for the class?

Teresa: So, we are committed as a school and a particular social and emotional learning program, and so part of that is a morning meeting and a closing meeting. But my morning meeting begins shortly after the bell has rung and attendance has been posted. And I go at it with the concept of a community rather than a family. And I don't know that there's much difference, but in my mind, we've been talking about communities, we know there are rules and things we have to do in a community. So, in our classroom, we are a community, and we have a community space in our class. Some teachers do their morning meetings at their desks, I prefer to bring students together. I think it creates a closer, more intimate, more personal interaction. And so, whatever it takes to create that little corner in my classroom, I do, and I will do that again this year.

And in that space, we will establish some ground rules and we'll do that in that very first meeting. And two of the biggest ones are when someone has been given permission to speak, we turn and listen to the speaker and that person will give us that same respect when we have been given permission to speak in this community space. And then another rule in the community space is we do listen to each other. We can respectfully disagree, but we will listen and show respect to each other. We also start with a framework sentence of how to have a disagreement. So, if our morning meeting topic is, “would you rather have pizza or would you rather have the yogurt fun lunch, why?” And you have to explain that and defend your answer. We give them the framework of, if I say, “I want pizza for lunch,” and you disagree with me, you would say, "I disagree, Teresa, with your support of pizza for lunch, because I think yogurt fun lunch is much more fun," or whatever your reasoning, or you might say, "I agree with you, Teresa, because..."

And we practice that very intentionally with some very silly things in those first few days, and it just establishes a very safe, trusting, respectful space. And part of that also is if you cannot manage yourself in that respectful space, there is actually a place in my classroom where you can remove yourself for a moment if you feel that you're not ready to actively listen and actively engage and participate as a respectful community member. And there's no punishment with that, it's just if you're coming in and you're not regulated and you're having a hard morning, it's okay to go to the cool down space and stay there for part of the morning meeting. You’re not allowed to check out for the whole thing, but you may stay there for part of it until you feel you can come back, and then there is a list of things there to help you regulate so that you can come back.

And then we wrap up our day with a very short reflection of the day—very, very short. But I think it's important to come back together as a community, reflect on the day, what were our challenges, what did we find were successes, and how can we be better community members tomorrow, and that has been amazing.

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In Teresa's classroom, students have access to a cool down space where they can practice grounding techniques to self-regulate.

Noelle: Definitely, because part of classroom management is understanding the expectations, the norms. It doesn't mean that we can't adapt and change, but I've always sensed that having clear closure of what I learned, letting somebody know I may not still understand something is also a sense of calm that always supports the next day's learning. Teresa, in your 30 years of teaching, now that you think about classroom management and you have a process, what advice would you have to the first-year teacher in you about classroom management?

Teresa: Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid, you can do this. The biggest thing I think that has helped me from my very first year was advice that a veteran teacher gave me, and that was reach out to families however you can, if you can do it before school, but definitely in that first week of school, if you can't get to them before school and just make either a personal phone call or personal interaction in some way to say, "Hey, I'm really glad that the student you are sending is in my class." And that sets a tone of expectation, and some families respond to that and some think it’s kind of weird and I'm okay with that.

But I have found that all of the years that I have called home before school starts and sent some sort of note home within that first week via mail—good old-fashioned mail, because no one gets mail anymore—I have found it just establishes this tone of partnership and it lets a parent know that, or a family member, it might not even be a parent that's caring for a child, but it lets them know that, "Hey, whatever has happened in the past has happened in the past. This is a brand-new school year and I want to work with you, parent or guardian or family member, to make sure that your student is as successful as possible."

And that's kind of intimidating to reach out to a family member or a parent of a child if you're brand new in the profession because you don't know what you're getting on that other end, but I don't either as a 30 plus year veteran, so I just have to know that I have my message. And even if it's just leaving a voicemail on someone's phone, that's okay. The family knows I'm trying to connect with them in a positive way. And then I would say, know your structure and setup of your classroom. Once you think you have your room ready, pretend to be a student. Walk through every facet of your day as a student would. Sit in their chair, sit on the floor, go to the center, take supplies, sharpen pencils, whatever it is you've established, practice it yourself. And if it doesn't flow well, fix it. Don't wait until students show up to try it, you really need to practice it before they come to make sure it's going to work.

But that confidence piece and not to be fearful, I mean, you are the professional, you're the expert. You have been trained in this, and although there's so much unknown, you're going to do it, you're going to be fine. Don't be afraid to reach out to those around you for some guidance if you do begin to feel just a little bit wobbly on your feet.

Noelle: I really like your idea of walking the room. It's similar to what I did, and I added one piece to that because my students were middle school, Teresa. So, I would ask them, "Look around the room, where do you have the most potential to be your best and to be on task? Where's a section where you could see that you might get off task?" And I would let them give me a lens in to where they saw that, and then we'd be like, "Okay, well, let's talk about setting an added procedure or expectation."

Teresa: That's great because if they're helping fix that, there's a level of buy-in that you don't have if you just say, "here's the rule and here's how you're going to do it." When you say, "Hey, how are we going to manage that? If you see that as a potential problem, how are you going to manage that?" Yeah, there's a level of buy-in there that I think is extra special.

Noelle: Speaking of buy-in, let's just talk about what is challenging behavior. I've never really liked, “the behavior is so challenging,” like it's so broad. Tell us different behaviors and how you're supporting them in the classroom before it escalates.

Teresa: That's a good question. I think different educators have different perspectives on challenging behaviors or challenging problems when it comes to discipline. But for me, I think if I can't manage it in my classroom and it needs to be escalated to the level of, “I need help,” it has to be a pretty big behavior. So, in my classroom, the kinds of behaviors that I have managed in this past school year that I said was probably one of my best, I had a range of emotional challenges, things that probably 30 years ago would've been labeled differently than they are today. A student who has a very serious attachment to an object from his childhood because of some trauma he has experienced. Another student is extremely unpredictable and untrusting because of trauma he has experienced that did not come in school. It was several years ago back in his early childhood, but he still struggles with that. So those are two challenges.

Another would be someone who likes to blurt out because he's just so excited about everything. Another one who thinks that if he doesn't control the tempo of something, then other kids might see him as not very smart. A student who is so shy and so withdrawn, has difficulty making friends that she sometimes has difficulty even just participating in a one-on-one conversation or lesson with the teacher. So, behaviors can be anything from really drastic that impact the whole class to really personal on our one-on-one. So, in my room, they're all interesting. I have a check engine light in the front of my room and it looks like a gas tank or a half circle, and it's blue and green and red. And I always start with any interaction with a student where there is a behavior that maybe isn't supportive of our community with a one-on-one, a private conversation of, "Hey, where is your check engine light today? Where are you right now in this moment?"

And then at the beginning of the year, I should have said with the morning meeting piece, we do a check engine light, we color it in blue and green and red, and at the bottom, if you're blue, you're really low, you're having a hard time in engaging, you're maybe withdrawn, what would it take to move you from blue to green, and we brainstorm ideas. Likewise, if you're in the red, you feel like you're out of control, whatever it is, what does it take to help you get in the green? And so that one-on-one conversation is easier when we can go to the corner of their desk and say, "Hey, let's take a look at your check engine light. Where are you? How can I help you get to the green?" And that's a one-on-one private conversation, and I have found that has been much better than any raising of the voice or demanding of the class or taking recess away or any of that.

And sometimes it's a few words too. It's getting to a student and saying, "Hey, let's have a conversation in the cool down corner." Or, "Hey, let's step out in the hallway for just a minute." And sometimes when we're in that space, simply just saying, "How are you? Where are you on your check engine light?" And then letting them share if they want to. In my past, I probably would have said, “talked too much,” and I might have said, "You shouldn't be doing that. You know it's the rule, and you broke the rule, and you can't do that, and it's going to be five minutes recess." I've learned if I can just keep myself in the green and be very serious and very focused on that one-on-one, that it goes a long way.

So, behaviors are very different from community to community, but I do see a lot of trauma in my particular school. And so, my students come in with a lot of trauma in their background, some of them, and it's important to be aware and to know. Then you have to know that that impacts other students too who haven't had any major traumas in their lives. So, safety is huge, and that's part of our discussion in our morning meetings every day, safety and respect.

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The check engine light in Teresa's classroom is a social and emotional tool that helps students reflect on how they're feeling.

Noelle: Teresa, how do you all go about this as a team to agree on a grade level set of expectations?

Teresa: We've been fortunate to have some very specific training, a program called TBRI®, it's a social and emotional learning framework. And so, as a team, we have agreed through a lot of conversation and through some guided conversation from this training that we've had to be able to work through some differences of opinion on how severe a punishment should be, and changing from the term punishment to consequence that for every action there's a consequence and sometimes it's a good positive thing. You've worked hard, you've met your goals, and now there's this reward or it's a consequence because you chose to not stay within community and follow this particular rule or complete this particular project, “What's the consequence of that?”

So, it's sort of been a change in mindset of moving from punishment to consequence and then coming up with a list of consequences that we felt as a team were acceptable. And then letting administration deal with the bigger things, the bigger, more difficult things that we really truly—we call it tapping out here—that we just can't manage within our own classroom. And that it's okay for a teacher to say, "This is just too much for me. I need to tap out and ask for help."

Noelle: Describe to us what “tap out” means. Does that mean the teacher is having a conference with the administrator or is there a referral that's being written?

Teresa: It could be any number of things. It could be I'm the one that's dysregulated that this has triggered me in some way, and I am so upset by this that I'm the one that needs to leave my classroom. I'm the one that needs to step out for two minutes to go get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, have a self-talk. It could be that it is a student that really has done something that has violated our school code of conduct and needs to have a consequence, and it's bigger than a classroom consequence. So, it is a writeup and administration may need to talk with that student, or it could be something that is so big that maybe it needs a consequence, that means the student is no longer part of the room for a day or something like that.

We are very fortunate, we have a behavioral—wouldn't call her a consultant—we have a behavioral resource where she can come and if a student is at a point where they need a regulation break, they need to get a drink of water, they need to go for a walk, they're really mad and they want to punch a punching bag. If they need some way to release that energy, they need to go swing or whatever, we can call her and ask for her help. Now, we're a huge elementary school. We have over 700 students. We only have two administrators. We have this behavioral assistant. So, with700 kids, she is rarely available, and our administrators are very busy. But we are finding as we focus more on the behavior and helping the student regulate and helping the student then move to repair of whatever damage they've caused and the behavior that we're beginning to see less challenging behaviors.

The morning meetings that we're having are creating a sense of community ownership, and there's some of that. I hate the term peer pressure because, I don't know, I just don't like that phrase. But there is that sense of community like, “I belong in this group and this group understands that I've really messed up, but they're looking to me to do better, and they haven't kicked me out, they're welcoming me back in because I've tried to make right what I messed up.” And I think that's powerful for a kid to know that, “okay, yeah, you messed up. We all do. We all have days like that. We all have days when we flip our lid, but there's a way to do that that lets us release that. And if we do something that is damaging or harmful, we have to find a way to make that right so that our community still will welcome us and we can continue to be part of that trusting community.”

Noelle: Wow. I can just hear it and see it and see that moment where the student realizes like, "Okay, my classmates...it's forgotten." And that's one of the things that I love about this generation, so much empathy for each other and what they observe. My last question, if you're comfortable, Teresa, do you have some self-talk guiding questions that you run through when you're having a moment where you feel like you might be getting frustrated or wondering like, “what can I do to stop this?” I would love to share what you think—if you're comfortable with that.

Teresa: Yeah. I can tell you have to know yourself well physically. I know when I start to get warm on the back of my neck and my face, I can feel my face flush, or when my lips go tingly, that I am definitely way off-the-charts red. So, hopefully I can catch myself before I get to that point. And when I begin to feel frustrated with my class, I ask myself things like, "Okay, who's in control of you? You. You can't control them, but you can ask them for help. So, is that something you can do?"

And if I don't feel like I can go to my students and say, "Hey, I'm having a problem and I need some help. Here's the situation and I need your help to fix it." If I can't do that because perhaps they're a little out of control or a little dysregulated, then I move on up and ask myself, "Okay, what are the things that I need to be doing right now? What have I read? What have I promised to my class? What have I said I would do? What are those things that I need to be doing so that my class gets a notice that, hey, Mrs. Meredith is ready to flip her lid?"

And we do, we have a code, and it's kind of a funny one. I saw it online somewhere and my students absolutely love it. I say, "Mrs. Meredith is about to flip her lid." And I just say it in a very normal voice, so I don't yell it. And then I yell, "Hear ye, hear ye!" And they all respond with, "All hail the queen." And when they do that, they are absolutely at a level zero, what we call level zero silent, and they're turning to me to listen for direction. And that has only been used three times this school year because it is an emergency call. It's saying to my class, "Something is not okay and I need help." And all three times they have come through, but it causes them to stop and suddenly go, "Okay, I need to get to a zero. I need to see what's going on with me and get regulated because Mrs. Meredith has flipped her lid for whatever reason."

Noelle: "And we will forgive her tomorrow."

Teresa: That's right. That's right.

Noelle: So, Teresa, thank you so much. This has just been a great really focused conversation that allows me to continue, and our listeners to continue, to get to know you as the amazing, dedicated educator that you are. I wish you the best school year. You ended last year in a great way; I wish you the same for this year. And most importantly, thank you for just loving, not just the profession for yourself, but really wanting to give to other teachers so that they have similar experiences that you've had.

Teresa: Well, thank you. I do love what I do, and I just think everybody who teaches should find a safe space and really enjoy it and find a way to teach so that they can really enjoy the work.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Until next time, your friend, Noelle.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed, and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.  

Thanks again for listening!


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