As a beginning middle school special education teacher, there were so many student behaviors that I didn’t understand. I made wrongful, misinformed determinations, thereby disciplined students in frustration, raised my voice to regain control and get the disruptive behaviors to stop. Gaining ‘control’ is the wrong approach to classroom management, particularly when students are adolescents. There was one particular student, who had great difficulty with the classwork, even at a remedial level. His daily routine was to enter the classroom habitually late- avoidance, need to belong, accepted, supported? Maybe.
First thing in the morning, before he sat down, he would stand where all could see him, and perform this ‘shaking’ dance. It was strange and looked as though he were having a seizure. He did it so often that I wished for his absence from homeroom. But, with regular attendance, he performed his daily dance.
I felt so inept as a teacher-no control of the learning environment. At home one night, I saw this music video program on TV. There was that awful dance and I got it, right then!
Common sense along with research tells us that many of the problems among our youth are rooted in their basic desire to belong to a group-one in which they are respected, supported and depended on. Children who feel they don’t ‘belong’, feel anonymous, isolated, or unsupported will often either disrupt or disengage. This leaves us somewhat powerless to affect them socially or academically.
Teachers, as individuals, may not be able to increase funding, change class size, or remedy the conditions which place children at risk, but they can have a critical impact on students’ sense of belonging. When we show interest and genuine concern, demonstrate respect, and still hold students up to high expectations, we can foster both emotional and intellectual development and a greater receptiveness to learning.
Caring and compassionate teachers can turn a sullen and uncooperative student around in the classroom. Children come to school with a wide range of experiences that impact engagement and academic performance. Children who may have been rejected or put down in critical stages of their development, will need an emotional connection to school and the learning process. Teachers who listen, assess student strengths, and create ways for them to express themselves and demonstrate understanding, find that students become more engaged and will take more risks in the classroom.
Problems teachers face every day like: discipline, motivation, responsibility and isolation necessitate the creation of cooperative classroom environments that respond to these issues. Encouraging statements point out strengths or improvements to take the place of praise or comparisons. In these classrooms, teachers avoid discouraging actions and setting unreasonable goals, being pessimistic or sarcastic with students.
A multicultural approach to teaching helps to establish better relationships with students, which means infusing the curriculum with diverse cultural studies. Appreciating students’ home cultures and studying about other cultures helps the development of sensitivity, tolerance and respect for diversity in all forms.
Understanding student culture lays the groundwork for mutual respect between students and the teacher. When teachers lack social and cultural insight, communication is less effective, strained, which leads to misinterpretation, misdiagnosis and classroom management also suffers, which leads to discipline disparities. To stay in touch with students, here are a few recommended strategies:
- Expose yourself to students’ culture. Know what students are listening to, watching on TV, new video games, dances, etc…..
- Affirm students’ “weather”. Show that you are in touch with school events and other interests that may be distracting your students on any given day. Events such as the latest music video, a neighborhood tragedy, family concerns, bullying, etc…..
- Teach using images that interest your students. Metaphors that relate to current trends, relationships or feelings will be heard better, more clearly and also remembered longer.
- Know your students. Attend sporting events and school performances, read the school or local paper, and chat with students as they come into the classroom. Not just greeting them with a “good morning”, “read your instructions on the board”, “or take your seats please”, talk to them as individuals. Let them know that you recognize each one and care.
- Share your humanity. Great teachers are bold and unafraid to show their strengths and weaknesses in the proper context. It demonstrates to students that it is ok to show vulnerabilities, and their strengths should be owned, as well. It is also an affirming act to help encourage risk-taking, and informs students that teachers, too are human. There is always room to grow and that’s why learning is so very important for everyone to engage as a life-long journey. Even teachers are life-long learners!
“According to students, the best teachers are strong classroom leaders who are friendlier and more understanding and less uncertain, dissatisfied, and critical than most teachers. Their best teachers also allow them more freedom than the norm.”
“Students may find it “cool”, and being a ‘cool’ teacher is not a bad thing. Teachers whom students feel are cool are being complimented. It does not imply that the teacher is not ‘strict’, competent, or unprofessional. It means that teachers connect with students on all levels, and want to stay in touch with them in ways that enhance the learning process, and solidify meaningful relationships. It also demonstrates that teachers recognize the developmental stage of children, and are better able to identify needs and strengths and discern behavioral motivation-intent in lieu of impact.
My students enjoyed my totally embarrassing attempt to learn the dance that a student performed in front of the class everyday. I initially was very disturbed by his behavior, but when I realized that my student had just learned this dance, and wanted everyone to see, it became clear. He was also insecure regarding his inability to keep up academically, too.
I redirected his behavior and used his ‘disruptions’ positively. Adjusting his classwork, we reserved his performances for academic successes and joined in…. for no more than 15 seconds. After the class had their morning laughs, everyone prepared themselves to engage as learners-no more disruptions.
I used that dance, I forget the name[‘Harlem Shake’ or something like that!], in recognition of completed assignments and when the entire class received passing grades on exams, any exams-even from other classes. I learned each student so well that I anticipated behaviors and kept ‘in the loop’ regarding both their in and out of school experiences. I also learned that a few students were food insecure. So, at least once a week, I brought in healthy snacks, and occasional donut ‘pop ’ems’ for the class.
Around the school, I heard that I was known as the cool teacher, and couldn’t keep the students away from my classroom-at lunch, my free periods, after school. Overall, being a teacher who connects with their students is definitely ‘cool’.
Certainly, you have a similar story. Tell me about it!