You Make Me Feel Brand New
Despite the sincere and wonderful meaning of this Stylistics song title, for a veteran teacher, this phrase is like the kiss of death.
A few years ago, I decided to go back into public education after experimenting with private education. I ended up landing a part-time job with a non-continuing contract. One of the issues I had when I took over the classes after being their third English teacher for the year (yeah, you read that correctly) is that the kids would repeatedly speak over me. It was obvious that the practice had been going on for a long time, but it was foreign to me because I had always been able to cultivate a classroom of respect for verbal communication. However, I had never been a replacement. I had always started the year with my own classes, so I had my methods down. They weren’t working here.
Frankly, their behavior was embarrassing to me as a teacher. I didn’t have control. I couldn’t get control. They didn’t even care when an administrator was in the room which told me a lot about myself and the district that hired me. I did what any teacher might do in that situation: I blamed the kids. Why couldn’t they just be quiet long enough for me to get through a set of instructions? Why couldn’t they just let me do my job? When another teacher or administrator walked into the room, my face was hot with embarrassment and shame. I looked like a teacher who didn’t know how to command a classroom. While I’d had a couple of bad classes in the past (three, actually, during my seventeen years of experience at the time), they occurred earlier in my career. I felt like a brand new teacher all over again. It made me doubt whether or not I’d made the right decision to go back to the public classroom.
The Power of Google
For the first few weeks, I blamed the kids for their behavior. One day, out of sheer frustration, I googled “Why is my classroom out of control?” Apparently other people googled that exact phrase, so I felt some small comfort there, but it was short-lived. I came across an article that made me feel even more shame. You can read it here. Ultimately, the article kicked me in the butt and told me to take control of my room again and to stop blaming others for my mistakes–something I’ve always told my students. It was my fault, and when I chose to take control again, it would happen. That’s just what I did.
I invited an instructional coach into the room to get an outsider’s perspective. I had already determined a few mistakes on my own and figured out ways to correct them:
- I needed more consistency at the beginning of class. In the past, I had simply greeted the students and discussed what we’d done the previous day. This wasn’t enough. These kids were used to Early Work in most of their classes. Because they had no specific task to complete when class began, it became a free-for-all with kids standing and speaking to their friends long after the bell rang. Once I started creating Early Work in the form of journals, the kids would sit down right away and begin writing. Such a simple idea.
- I was trying to teach to the kids as if I’d had them all year. In the past, I taught the kids to raise their hands in order to speak for any reason. After the first quarter, the students organically moved to speaking in turn without raising their hands. I was expecting these students to automatically take turns speaking as if I had already trained them during first semester. Silly, silly teacher. At this point, it was too late in the year to train them, so I backed off. I stopped getting so upset since they were doing what they had been taught was acceptable by other teachers. I did, however, work on getting them more engaged so that the conversation was about the topic at hand. This was by no means perfect, but it drastically changed the culture of the classroom and my attitude by the end of the day. This time, they were still talking over each other, but they were doing it in excitement to respond to other students’ comments.
- I was trying to move on even when the kids were out of control. This was dumb. I would simply tell them to be quiet and try to continue going over directions as if that would really work. I started making them practice silence. They really hated this which made it extremely effective. There were times we would wait in silence for three minutes before moving on. If I didn’t elongate the time, they would simply begin speaking again within seconds of stopping the first time. Trust me, it was torture the first few times I did it. The seconds dragged on, and I wanted to move forward so badly. But I couldn’t. The point had to be made. It didn’t take long before the silences became significantly shorter without the fear of having to stop again.
Strategies From the Instructional Coach
One of the practices the instructional coach noticed was my lack of movement in the class-room. In my old district, I would have the kids stand up and stretch to wake them up and get the blood circulating again. This seemed to be enough for them. However, it wasn’t enough for these kiddos. Kelly (the instructional coach) suggested more activities that would get the kids up and moving. We talked about 4 Corners, group work, small presentations, and acting out scenes from reading. These were activities I had done in the past, but this group needed to do them much more. The activities worked to help the kids focus when they needed to.
The classroom was never perfect, but it improved, and my relationship with my students improved greatly along with my attitude. These examples worked for me, but there are so many more you can try if you find yourself in my situation. Remember that you can always get control back when you want to.
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