Collage by an 8th grader (cropped & desaturated)
(memory of an attack when he was a very young child)

No one understands what it is like to be mocked by a group of students until they have experienced it themselves. This is a real, live power struggle and it can crush the life out of teachers. It doesn't happen all the time, but the reality is that this happens. There are quite simply some students who relish taking us down, one day at a time. We are outnumbered, as a matter of fact! I have heard students brag that they got teachers to quit, that they were going to get so and so fired, etc. One group of students was proud of the fact that they made a teacher cry.

This is the story of the worst day of my teaching career, and what I decided to do in order to manage a huge group of 8th grade students in an impossible situation. 

......A few years ago, my school transitioned to a new intervention system which required all of the elective and P.E. teachers to monitor VERY large groups of students while the core academic teachers worked with small groups in need of remediation inside their classrooms. 

This meant that:
 #1: I couldn't work with my own art students who needed remediation during those 30 minutes.
#2: I had to keep upwards of 60- 90 eighth graders quiet, seated, and working on (something). 

No, I am not exaggerating - there were a LOT of kids. 

The administrators did take the time to explain their expectations to the students, and they were there to help us teachers for the first day or two, but eventually we were on our own.

This was like a study hall of sorts, but we were not in a classroom. These 60-90 kids (not my art students, mind you - I didn't know most of them) were seated all along the hallway wall and my job was to keep them under control for 30 minutes, every day. There was zero opportunity to develop relationships or motivate them with fun things to do. 

The first few days of that were a nightmare, to say the least. The kids baited me, throwing paper and making noises, mocking me when I tried to correct them. They knew that I did not know their names, so there would be a chorus of, "Who, me?" innocently said in a sing-song voice when I would try to call one of them out.  

Do you know what I am talking about....feeling the negative energy swirling around in the air, seeing the smirks on faces looking at you, waiting to see what you will do after they have brazenly defied your authority? All the kids are watching, even the good ones. They think it is really funny. 

You feel intense frustration, deciding what to do in this situation when your frontal cortex is shackled by emotion, the fight or flight reflex kicks in. You are tempted to yell, you feel like screaming. 

Some teachers do explode, yell, try to intimidate the students. This automatically backfires because the negative energy also explodes, feeding on itself and the laughter increases. The kids are enjoying the show and will repeat the performance just because.

I lost my cool one day, and it felt like the very air around me was crackling with this horrible energy and, needless to say I never lost my temper again. I KNEW I had lost the battle. That day I went straight to the principal, told him what had happened, and gave him a list of names (I held about 4-5 kids back when the bell rang and had them write their names down). He assured me that he would back me up, encouraged me, dealt with those boys, and lived up to his word. If I ever needed to refer anyone else to the administrator, that kid was disciplined.

BEING PROACTIVE: coming up with solutions to the problem.... I can only control how I respond, I have no control over anyone else but myself......

I started looking up classroom management strategies. I did my homework and came up with 5 things that saved my sanity: 

1.    I learned their names. I asked each of the 3 teachers whose homeroom classes I was monitoring to give me a roster. I looked up each kid on the school computer, and memorized their names and faces. 

2.    I kept a clipboard of this list of names and had a place to check-mark as to who was working, being respectful, and being quiet (I had to force myself to put this in positive phrasing as my temptation at first was to keep track of who was disrupting). This simple act of keeping up with behavior was enough to calm a lot of the kids down. They didn’t know what I was writing on that clipboard!

3.    I used strategic positive reinforcement; at the end of some of the weeks (not every week, because I wanted it to be a surprise) I handed all the kids who had behaved for the entire week a note that said something to the effect of, “You have been respectful, quiet, and hard-working all week long. I am very proud of your efforts. You may stop by Mrs. Nichols’ art room to pick up a small prize.” Honestly, there weren’t very many kids who were eligible for this small recognition, but this procedure helped to changed my attitude and forced me to think more about who was doing well instead of who was acting like a fool. (I love the power of positive thinking; in Proverbs it says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he!”)

4.    I did not ignore the misbehavior, but I found a way to deal with it without yelling or lecturing. Every time I saw a student who was fooling around, talking, etc., I had a discipline assignment ready for him or her that said;
“Because you have chosen to disregard the study hall expectations of being respectful, bringing your work, or working quietly, you must copy this statement 50 times; ‘I will bring my work to study hall and I will work quietly, respectfully, and without disturbing others.’ If you choose not to complete this assignment, you will be written up for defiance.”
All I had to do was hand this sheet of paper to the offender and be on my way. At first the kids would try to argue about it, but I just looked at them and eventually they would just give in and start writing, after all, they all had heard the expectations and had been reminded of them! It is true that you need to use very few words when correcting students.

5. Correct students in private. If I made the mistake of talking to these students in front of their peers, this created what seemed to be a circus side-show of sorts and everyone on the whole hallway would excitedly watch to see what would happen. So, if I needed to write-up a student due to talking, throwing paper, etc., I would ask that student to meet me in my classroom when the bell rang. I didn't explain why. Immediately following study hall, I could then talk to the student in question, s/he could sign the blue form, and we would go our separate ways.   

Eventually, the kids actually started behaving, unlike the groups assigned to the other teachers. My elective and PE colleagues continued to experience major behavior problems with their sections; I will never forget looking down that long hallway at the other teachers, who only reprimanded students and/or ignored the poor behavior. My group actually responded to all my efforts to keep them calm and the dynamics became peaceful, believe it or not. They were quiet, working on homework or reading, and stayed still instead of being loud and boisterous. 

I survived that year, I didn't quit even though I came close. 

I learned that I can only control how I respond to a situation, I can't control what anyone else does. If I control myself, my emotions, my attitude, the potential for positively influencing other people abounds. 

Calm = strength........ upset = weakness.

"The teacher's attention is THE most powerful reinforcer in the classroom. Think about it - when you give more attention to the students who are doing well than the students who are acting up, what happens? What happens when you focus on the bad behavior? Of course, you don't want to ignore the disruptors, but holding them accountable while simultaneously FOCUSING on the good behavior will work wonders. I have seen this happen again and again in my classroom. Where is my attention? Am I thinking about the bad behavior or the good behavior? Students will work for your attention, whether it is negative or positive. What are you acknowledging more of? The vast majority of students WANT to please, they WANT to be the recipient of your nurturing, your mentorship, your acknowledgment. Are you noticing the accomplishments, whether they are behavioral or academic? What behaviors are you purposefully nurturing in your classroom? The answer is whatever you pay attention to the most, whether positive or negative."

disclaimer: These are a set of ideas about being proactive in teaching based on classroom experience as well as various education authors. Many times there are circumstances in the classroom that are beyond any teacher's control, especially when serving at-risk populations or in environments where those in administration fail to provide effective leadership in a school. Sometimes, regardless of the prevailing theories about teacher responsibility, the teacher is not to be blamed for out of control students. Finally, we do NOT recommend that you put any of these strategies into practice if your administration disagrees with them.

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I absolutely loved this article! I too have had to deal with a large number of students with similar behavior and have found myself trying to get the upper hand, then realized the kids were baiting me. I have learned to not take it personally and take the kids aside to assign them something to remind them they were missing out on class time. I am going to try some of your ideas- thanks!