After Fawn’s recent post about Jerks and some of the earnest frustration and heartache coming from the Classroom Chef book club on Voxer, I had a chat today with one of our administrators about some struggling teachers.
These teachers have unruly classes that don’t cover the required content and regularly send students to the office for discipline issues. Obviously, I won’t name those teachers or give any hints, but my chat with the Admin was meaningful, so I present portions of it here for your feedback.
“If I had to boil it down to one thing,” Admin leaned back in her chair, “it’d be Classroom Management.”
Having been in these teachers’ classes before, I cocked my head sideways and said, “Yeah… but that deficit looks different in each of these classrooms. I think–generally–effectively managed classes have three things.”
“Kids are smart,” I explain. Admin nods from her seat. “Kids will figure out exactly what the teachers expect them to do, and will rise (or fall) to meet the bar we set.”
Admin exhales slowly, “Yeah, I’ve seen a few who truly don’t think their students can learn. It’s a real bummer.”
Teachers who struggle with high expectations might say:
“Ugh. It’s one of those years. I’ve got some low kids this year.”
“I don’t know what those <one year below> teachers are doing; these kids don’t know anything. They’re so unprepared for <this grade>.”
High Expectations is first on my list; it’s the entire reason we are teachers. Why on Earth would you sign up to help students expand their minds if their instructor believes they can’t?
That sounds exhausting.
Conversely, the best classes I’ve seen have teachers who are excited and energized by students’ ignorance. Huzzah! these teachers cry, I’ve found another place I can help my students!
A class where the teacher expects miracles will likely garner a few.
A class where the teacher expects “little monsters” will have dozens.
Respect for Students
“Why do you say it like that?” Admin asks me.
“I taught in low-income, gang-affiliated neighborhoods and those students taught me quite a bit about authority and respect,” I said, closing her door. “A common mantra among students was, ‘You gotta give respect to get it.’ It was often just an excuse to be little turds to the teachers who treated them like… well… like little turds.”
Admin laughed, “We have a few kids like that.”
“But that same kid then comes to my class, puts forth effort, and speaks to me with eye contact in full sentences.” I paused, thinking about Eddie, who had his Mexican hometown tattooed on the back of his neck.
I smiled, “And he only rarely asked stuff like, ‘Where the fuck is the Y= key on this thing?’ ”
Teachers who struggle with student respect might say:
“*sigh* Well, I kicked Fernando out again. He’s just so defiant.”
“I had a parent conference for Erika from 3rd period on Tuesday. Surprise, surprise; her mom’s a hoochie, too.”
Effective Use of Instructional Time
“Omigod, yes,” Admin nodded fiercely. “There is so much wasted time in these classes.”
“This is the big one,” I agreed. “A class where students go from task to task, bell to bell, is least likely to have those issues we talked about earlier. That doesn’t mean they’re wasting time doing boring work, the ‘effective use’ has to be based on high expectations and delivered with respect.”
Admin leaned forward and pointed at my paper, where I’d sketched our conversation. “And all three of these go hand in hand. A really strong set of high expectations won’t be enough if there isn’t respect and good use of time.”
I nodded, “Yep. Even a medium amount of all three is better than a bunch of one and none of the other two.
Teachers who struggle with effective use of instructional time might say:
“It’s so hard to get them motivated.”
“Frank calls out, ‘Boring!’ right in the middle of class. What a little shit!”
“They’re just so disrespectful.”
Light to Drive Out Darkness
Classroom Management is my favorite example of the duality of discipline; focus on decreasing negative behaviors doesn’t work. Focusing on increasing positive behaviors drives out the negative behaviors.
It’s easy to find stuff to hate when visiting classrooms or describing particular students. The challenge is finding what my psychologist sister calls the “positive opposite” and focusing on that, instead.
When my 3-year-old daughter hits her brother, instead of saying, “Don’t hit!” we say “Use nice touches.”
This morning’s podcast from Cult of Pedagogy had an excellent list of 10 Ways to Sabotage your Classroom Management, and #6 hints heavily at the focus above. It’s a clever twist that I’ve come to expect from Jennifer Gonzalez, the author.
Your feedback is–as always–welcome.
~Matt “The Y= key is next to the WINDOW key, and watch your language, please.” Vaudrey
P.S. Unfortunately, all of those quotes are from real teachers. Thankfully, I haven’t heard them in years, and thankfully, my professional circles now include several times as many awesome teachers as miserable ones.
UPDATE 9 JUNE 2016: David Butler shares the new-teacher perspective on those three items, with some honest frustration and helplessness.
These are all great points, but I think there are some (possibly a whole group of) teachers who they miss. When I was a teacher, I really really struggled with classroom management and I’d say my big three issues were (based on your list):
High Expectations of Myself
Looking back, I did not have high expectations of my own ability to help all the students learn, or to help them manage their behaviour when they needed help to do so. It quickly became a vicious circle as the less success I had with classroom management I had, the less I expected myself to be able to do it.
Respect for Myself
I didn’t give myself the permission to change the classroom environment for my own teaching purposes. I didn’t respect myself enough to ask the students to stop or do other activities. I didn’t trust that the things I was choosing to do were necessarily the right things to do. When I did feel passionate about something that didn’t match with other teachers’ way of doing things, I didn’t have the confidence to do it anyway. I didn’t respect myself enough to ask for help from other teachers or my superiors (partly because in my first school I learned no-one was willing to give me help). Without this respect for my own place in the classroom, how could the students respect me?
Skills to make effective use of time
I didn’t have a good feel for how much time an activity might take or how engaged students might be with it. I didn’t have a big enough repertoire of different activities to fall back on if my first choice fell through. And I didn’t have a list of routines I could fall into to help me and the students know what to do next. Often I felt over pressured to make my own resources rather than find out what existing resources were there or ask others to use theirs. (It didn’t help that at my first school I was explicitly told there were no resources and that I did have to make them myself.)
If someone had told me to have higher expectations of my students, respect them and make more effective use of instructional time, I would have thought internally, “Yes but how? I have to be in there tomorrow and I don’t know how.” What I needed was guidance in the day-to-day and a friend to help me learn, which for some teachers in some schools is not the easiest thing to find.