Listen to my interview with Thom Gibson (transcript):
This might be the perfect time for this topic. At first I just thought it was a neat idea, something teachers could implement pretty easily, something that would be a nice change of pace from what we usually talk about here.
But now I’m thinking this might actually be the thing that helps wake up a lot of our remote and hybrid classrooms from the white-knuckle, just-get-through-it mentality many of us have settled into as the ’20-21 school year grinds through its second half. Just maybe.
I’m talking about classroom jobs, the tasks we assign to students to help keep our classrooms running. This is typically something we associate with face-to-face classrooms during normal times, but I was absolutely delighted—and I don’t use the word ‘delighted’ every day—to learn that not only is it totally possible to assign jobs to students in remote classes, the jobs can make those remote classes really, really enjoyable. On top of that, they’ll help students discover and develop passions and talents they can take with them well beyond your class.
When I was a middle school teacher, I didn’t do much with classroom jobs. I was too much of a control freak, for one. The other reason was because it wasn’t really a part of middle school culture. Elementary teachers are fantastic about assigning jobs to students, but as kids get older, teachers use these kinds of systems less and less. As a result, secondary teachers often work themselves to the bone, doing everything themselves as their students, ironically, grow more capable of taking on responsibilities every year.
Now that I have talked with Thom Gibson about this topic, I wish I could go back to the classroom so I could put some serious effort into establishing a robust system of classroom jobs. Gibson is a middle school STEM teacher from Austin, Texas. He has basically mastered the art of managing a whole program of classroom jobs, and he’s made that process work for remote learning, too.
In our conversation on the podcast, we talked about why setting up students jobs is such a good thing to do, how to troubleshoot common problems with a jobs system, and what some of Gibson’s favorite classroom jobs are—once you hear some of these ideas, I know you’re going to want to try them.
Why Setting Up Classroom Jobs is Worth the Effort
- It builds positive classroom community and culture. “Students feel like they are actually contributing in a meaningful way that is helping you as the teacher or helping their fellow classmates with something,” Gibson says.
- It gives students opportunities to explore interests and develop talents. Gibson started to see more value in classroom jobs when he had students create things that could be shared with a wider audience, like podcasts, newsletters, and art. “I started seeing an opportunity to tap into the students’ interests with these class jobs as opposed to just getting something done for me.”
- It lets students learn job application skills. In Gibson’s class, students aren’t just given the jobs; they have to apply for them. So they gain experience with the job application process.
A Few Cool Job Ideas
Classroom jobs have really evolved past board cleaner and line leader. Gibson has compiled a list of over 25 unique student job titles. Here are ten to get you started:
- Podcaster: Produces a regular brief podcast on a topic of interest to students, using tools like Soundtrap or GarageBand to make it happen. To keep it manageable, Gibson recommends only having students do one podcast per month, and keeping each episode under 3 minutes.
- Athletic Trainer: Sets a timer for the middle of a class meeting to lead students in a movement activity, whether students are in the room or in a video meeting.
- DJ: Plays music for 5 minutes before class. This can be done through the videoconferencing platform if you are remote.
- Motivational Speaker: Records a one-minute Loom video each week reflecting on a motivational idea or quote to share with the class.
- Visual Display Artist: Creates posters for in-person class or graphics to be used online for remote learning.
- Zoologist: Cares for the class pet (or their own pet in remote learning) and lets the rest of the class check in once a week to see how the pet is doing.
- Tech Guru: Sets up the teacher’s classroom tech and helps other students with tech in-person, or troubleshoots and provides help to other students through screen sharing during virtual learning.
- KonMari Organizing Specialist: Keeps classroom supplies organized. This one works best in an in-person setting, but many teachers probably also have online spaces that could use help with decluttering.
- Assistant Grader: Helps the teacher with grading. In person, this student would highlight mistakes on assessments for the teacher to look at later. Virtually, this student could assist with some online grading and notify other students when assignments are missing from online platforms like Khan Academy.
- Tutorial Creator: Makes YouTube tutorials for all kinds of tasks that other students need in the classroom.
Making it Work: The Logistics
A system like this doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere; it requires organization and maintenance. Gibson shared a few key components of how his jobs program works:
- Job descriptions are provided ahead of time. Students first get a chance to look at all job listings, which include a description of each job along with notes on what personality types would be a good fit.
- Students apply for jobs. Gibson has found that this maximizes student buy-in. In the application, students choose their top three jobs and explain why they’d be a good fit.
- Job holders get checklists. After students are “hired,” (and multiple students may be hired for the same job), they are given job-specific checklists of responsibilities, including when their job is performed, how often, and how to do it.
- A teacher’s assistant keeps it all together. Although it was not mentioned in the above list, it is essential to have a teacher’s assistant whose job it is to remind everyone else to do their job. Gibson recommends looking for “super type-A” students to fill this role.
- Teach the jobs like any other curriculum. Students will need practice and feedback to do the jobs right. If a student isn’t doing their job correctly, “Make them do it again,” Gibson says, “not as a punishment but just as a way of, okay, so now let’s try it again.”
At a time when we are all hungry for human connection, when classrooms feel more fragmented than ever before, when we sometimes go days or weeks without talking to each other, adding classroom jobs to the mix could be the breath of fresh air we need for our schools. They will give students a new reason to show up, to participate, and to stick around, because in a meaningful way, the classroom will become theirs again.