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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 07 2012

Turning the ship

I grew up in a big Navy town and my father was a Coast Guardsman.  Nautical analogies come easy to me.  Here’s one for you. Classroom management is like turning a really big ship.

I used to watch the big aircraft carriers or the large container ships sail out of the Chesapeake Bay with some degree of amazement.  “How do they steer something that big?” I’d wonder.  The rudder that steers the ship is pretty small compared to how big the ships are.  Yet, with time and persistence, the ship makes the desired course correction.

I think classroom management is like that.  Since the beginning of the year, all of us new TFA teachers have struggled with it.  I was talking to one of my mentors the other day–a teacher with over 35 years’ experience.  She complained that her classes this year were giving her trouble.  I took some consolation in that because, if a teacher with more than three decades of experience is challenged by student behavior, I guess I’m not doing too badly.  However, ten weeks into the school year–and I’ve been cranking “hard to starboard” the whole time–the great “ship” is beginning to move perceptibly.

I can’t say it is all due to me.  I did receive some unwitting help from the outside.  Two of my worst attitude-cases moved away a few weeks ago.  Thank goodness!  Another was expelled for the remainder of the school year.

As teachers, we don’t have a lot of options.  The best option is to call home and get a parent on your side, but many of my students (particularly the habitual offenders) either don’t have an involved parent or the parent doesn’t speak English.  We have a couple of folks at school who make calls for us non-Spanish speakers, which is  great help to us.

I’ve found that lunch detention is a joke.  The kids actually prefer it to the lunch room.  Saturday school is the administration’s preferred solution, but it doesn’t have an immediate impact to solve an immediate case of outrageous misbehavior.  In-school suspension doesn’t provide much of a deterrent either.

However, I had to try.  My eighth-graders were starting to show up increasingly tardy for class.  Classroom behavior was starting to deteriorate.  Whenever I had given Saturday school in the past, they’d just roll their eyes at me.  So one day, I announced that on the morrow, I would assign Saturday school to every single student who was even one second tardy.  The next day, I followed through and gave ten students Saturday school.  Half the class period was wasted as they stalled and whined about filling out the forms.  I thought I was going to have a minor riot on my hands.  Nevertheless, I got all the forms filled out and signed, even by those who postured and blustered over their refusal to do so.  Then to their amazement, I handed out the work assignment halfway through the class period and the exit tickets and told them that they had half the class period to get it done.

Believe it or not, I got every one of those exit tickets back and the work was of good quality!

When Saturday school came around, half the ones assigned didn’t show for it–but ever since, the worst offenders have actually come to class at a full run to get there before the bell.  That’s a significant improvement.

The narration they taught us to use in Institute is difficult to implement with my kids.  They don’t like being singled out and praised individually.  Doing so separates they from their peers.  I’ve seen kids actually rebel and get worse because I praised them to another teacher.  It’s more important to them to have the approval of their peers than their teachers.  Thus, I’ve learned to praise them privately in ways no one else can see–little notes on papers that get returned to them, etc.

There was an instance at school the other day when there were rumblings of a fight brewing after school.  A new kid–a white kid–had come into school for his first day and he got into an exchange of insults with one of our Mexican kids.  Some names were exchanged and, unfortunately so were some racial epithets.  The Mexican kid was ready to rumble after the school day.

I found out about all this at the beginning of my class that is right after the lunch break.  To get the Mexican boy–who is often a behavior problem for us–cooled down enough to be teachable, I told him that I’d handle it.  If he’d settle down, I’d take him to the class next door where the new kid was, and I’d get him to point him out to me.  I promised I’d handle it from there.

Five minutes before class ended, I took my student over to the class next door and had him point out the new kid.  I asked the teacher for permission to speak to the boy outside the class.  Then I sent my student back to my class.  I interviewed the new boy briefly, welcomed him to the school, and inquired about the incident.  Knowing every ear in my class was probably pressed against the door (all but one of my students in the class are Mexican), I explained the facts of life at our school to the new kid.

“You should be aware that ninety-eight percent of the students here are Mexican,” I explained.  “If you have a problem with Mexicans, you’re going to have a tough school year.”  I taught him in no uncertain terms that using racially-charged name calling was a sure fire way to make enemies and that it was unacceptable.  I reiterated that the kids here are friendly and welcoming, but that it would be expected that they’d test him the first few days.  I encouraged him to hang in there, be humble, and to make friends instead of enemies.

The boy surprised me by producing a note of apology he had already written to the Mexican boy he had offended.  I accepted the note from him and sent him back to class.  As I opened the door to my room, there was the sound of rumbling feet and scooting desks as the students scurried back to their desks.  I took the Mexican boy back outside and showed him the note.  I explained that the new kid had made this before I talked to him and that it was clear he was sorry.  I suggested that they give each other some space for a day or two and then see if they could patch things up.

The next day, there was a whole lot less tension in that class.  Maybe I passed a test of some kind.  Maybe they know now that a white teacher can have positive feelings towards his Mexican students.  A couple of days after the incident, the Mexican kid (the one who always makes me want to pull my hair out because of his behavior) said that my class was one of his favorite classes.  The best part is that actual teaching time is increasing markedly.

Like a big aircraft carrier doesn’t turn on a dime, it is taking time to get the classes to go the right way.  I’ll just have to keep turning the wheel and praying for the best.

 

 

About this Blog

YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

Region
Oklahoma
Grade
High School
Subject
English

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