Sunday, January 6, 2008

Struggling Teachers

I was a struggling teacher once. Twenty years ago…and then yesterday, during my first period class. And several times in between. The difference between the way I dealt with the struggle as an inexperienced teacher and the way I dealt with it yesterday is considerable. To me, it’s all about relationships.

In 1987 I began teaching a class of eighth graders in February. They were quick to tell me that they had “run four teachers off already.” That class made me realize something that has become a mantra throughout the course of my professional life: “If you make them the enemy, they will win.” Those eighth graders were the enemy that year. Each day was a battle, and if I was able to drag my weary body out of the school every afternoon, having only cried once, I considered myself a winner. The next year, and every year after that, I did what was necessary to build relationships with my students.

I started small, throwing out compliments here and there. I soon found out that if I told a girl she had pretty hair or that she had on a nice outfit, she was a little more attentive when I was teaching. And the boys? I noticed that if I told them they were athletic, they didn’t only listen, they made sure their friends did, too. It was difficult with some students, but I managed to find one nice thing to say to every single student, every single day.

Soon I wasn’t only telling the boys they were athletic, I was attending their ballgames and making sure to comment on their performance the next day. I found their parents in the stands and made only positive remarks about their children. As tempting as it was to say, “He never brings a pencil to class,” that just wasn’t the place. And all of that praise? The students knew all about it when they got to my class the next day.

As the years went by, I found it easier to recognize the positive characteristics that each and every student brought to me. One student I taught a couple of years ago came in angry every day. He would turn my homeroom upside down ranting and raving about his bus driver. He never owned a pencil that I didn’t give him, and during class he drew orange stick people. One day I told him that he drew the most beautiful orange people I had ever seen. (I now am the proud owner of thousands of Orange People Pictures.) That was a turning point for us. After that, he gave me the best work he could, every day. Later that year, I saw an Orange People Picture in my school district’s art display at my local mall. I cried right in front of the exhibit.

Now, in the middle of all the stress of high stakes testing and all of the instructional demands that are placed on us, I can feel my blood pressure lowering when I see my students coming down the hall to me. Those goofy middle school kids are my family during the day, and they know we’re in it together. Our class motto is “Whatever It Takes.” We’ll do whatever it takes to be successful, together, like a family. That motto is hanging on the front wall of my classroom. Right beside it is my message to my students: “I believe in you.” And they know I do.

Oh, I did struggle yesterday. I watched as a grumpy and not-quite-awake seventh grader attempted to disrupt the learning of others. A grumpy and not-quite-awake teacher almost made a seventh grader the enemy. Instead I walked over to him, spoke calmly, and wrapped my arm around his shoulder. In three seconds he was grinning, and we were all back to work.

Whatever it takes. That’s my advice to all of us who struggle.


lbilak said...

I loved this blog post! We are both at the same stage of our careers(23 years in for me), we both teach MIDDLE SCHOOL, and we both still have to sometimes find ways to get through the period-let alone the DAY! I sat here with a cup of coffee and smiled at the end of your post. Thanks for making me feel like we just had a chat in the staff lounge. Your thoughts are something I will seek out again! ~Linda

mindelei said...

Your stories bring tears to my eyes. In part because I'm an overworked college student, but also because I have something I can reflect on when my time comes. Thank you for sharing. :)

RH said...

I believe so much in what you are saying. I struggle though, between being positive and being taken advantage of. How do you draw your lines (behavior boundaries)?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your experience and a little pointer of how you get over the hump as a teacher. I will try what you said, to praise a student on something specific everyday from now to the end of the term.

It's comforting to see that teachers across the globe have similar problems, and similar triumphs. (I am a teacher from Hong Kong) :) Continue the good work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, I needed it today. Tomorrow is a new day and I believe that my 13 year old students and I will have a great year - whatever it takes.