Do. Not. Engage.
During my first year of teaching when I was thrown to the wolves and left on a "tiny island" (you may know this feeling) with 4th graders ranging ages 8-14, I quickly learned that I needed to survive or die. I was in a new city, my keys were stolen on the first day of school, I cried everyday for the first week and the insults that were thrown to me each day were something I had to learn to ignore. There were all kinds of battles to fight and I did not want to give up. I scoured resources and asked for help from anyone who was willing to work with me. It was that year I learned a powerful, yet simple statement can go a long way. My Assistant Principal came to my room and modeled a math lesson and I noticed something profound. She was at the front of the room, writing a multiplication problem on the chalkboard and a student tried to get up from her chair. Mrs. Alexander turned to the student and said, "Destiny, go back to your seat. Thank you!" turned back to the board and kept on with the multiplication fact. I couldn't believe it, but Destiny actually sat down! She repeated this with a couple of other students who tried to get off task and they listened as well. That day, I learned the power of the words "thank you". Not because it's polite to say or that the student did what was asked yet. I learned the key was to say "thank you" (feign confidence) and move right onto whatever it was I was doing. Not giving the student the opportunity to argue. By moving to the next thing quickly, I communicate that I am not giving them the time of day. This also shows the rest of the class that I expect the kid to do what I asked. I often was worried about looking like I had zero control. By saying "do this, thank you." you are communicating that there is no room for the student NOT to do what is asked. It's a very subtle strategy that continues to work to this day. So simple! I suggest you try it if you are struggling with a student or students who are not following your directions or misbehaving.
Try this the next time a kid talks back when you ask him or her to do something. "I need you to stop flicking your pencil at the desk and finish your math sheet. Thank you. Is there anyone who is having difficulty completing the first few problems on this sheet?" The student may or may not stop what they are doing, but it's important to act as if the behavior did stop and move on. Then later, go back to the student and simply take the pencil without a word about it . Or motion to have him give it to you. Whatever you think would be best given your classroom culture. Soon they will realize that they need to listen to your directions.
90% of the Problems in the Classroom are the Fault of the Teacher
This one was hard for me to swallow at first. However, when I sat back and thought about it, the expert was correct. I am always the adult in the classroom. The one who can control the situation. For the first few years of teaching, whenever I found myself overwhelmed or feeling defeated, it was always related to student behavior/classroom management. This piece of advice was empowering. It meant that I could solve the issues in my classroom. I can't control others, but I can control the expectations I set and teaching students how to follow those. If it takes a week of trying to get to the carpet from their seats without interruptions and chaos, then it takes a week of doing it over and over until the class get it. If all of the methods I tried are still not working then it means I need to try something new! If a classroom is seemingly out of control, it's the job of the teacher to fix it. A classroom cannot run well without procedure and structure and if those two things are not in place then yes, it's my fault.
Trust me, I know this is difficult. Find resources to help you if you're struggling. If you see a teacher whose class is well-behaved, take some time and observe her with her students. Ask your instructional coach to model lessons in your classroom. I found that watching other teachers with my students is very helpful. Ask your principal if you can attend a classroom management professional development. Read books that come recommended by colleagues. Check out blogs of teachers who talk about classroom management. Smart Classroom Management is one of my favorite sites for advice. Books I still refer to are First Year Teacher's Survival Guide by Julia Thompson (a bit overwhelming at first, but amazing! So many good things to help you get organized) and The First Six Weeks of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.
If Something Isn't Working, You Practice Until They Get it All Right
My second best piece of advice brings me to my third. Practice. Practice. Practice. It was once suggested to me to not even attempt teaching academics until I have finished teaching the procedures and expectations in my classroom. And I will admit, I do not like the beginning of the school year because of this necessary evil. It just feels so boring to me and if it's boring to me we know it's torture for the kids. Going over the syllabus, practicing using the assignment books, starting over a bunch of times because they are not listening to each other during classroom conversations. I get it. It's not very engaging and the days feel long. However, it's imperative! If you put in the time to do this you save yourself so much. Do not forget, if it's in the middle of the school year and you feel like your students are all over the place, go back to this! This is not something you do only at the beginning of the year. You do this whenever it's needed.
There have been plenty of times in January or March when I had to stop lessons early in order to set aside time for students to get out their assignment books. I will read directly from the board their assignment, students copy word for word and then I go around and check everyone's books. I take the time to make a list of who does not have an assignment book and email parents that night to ask them to please remind their child to bring it to school tomorrow.
Building Relationships with Kids is the Key
This should probably be number one and a piece of advice that I figured out on my own because it's such a huge part of what we do. By taking the time to get to know each one of our students, we are showing them that we care. If they believe us that we care, they will do whatever we need them to do because they know we have their best interests at heart. They understand that it's my job to set them up for success. So when I have to move them away from a friend, I say "It's because I love you and want to set you up for success." Knowing students well also helps me to know how to communicate with them, when it might not be a battle I want to pick and how to help them when they are struggling with friends, academics, etc. Connecting with students on a personal level also makes for a more enjoyable school year! I love hearing about my students lives outside of school. They are so funny and remind me of a time why I became a teacher in the first place.
Some ways I connect with my students is by asking them about what they did over the weekend or after school. I follow up about a game they had or a performance. I have a public teacher Instagram account. They love peering into our lives as well ;) I ask about what they like and bring that into my lessons whenever possible. At our school, we do project-based learning, so there is often outside of school activities we do as a class which helps us all form bonds. When I am teaching writing, I use a lot of my own life examples and get personal. I teach 6th grade and our current project is writing and performing spoken word poetry. I needed them to open up and get personal with their writing, so I did exactly that. In front of a bunch of 6th graders can feel intimidating at times, but it's so important for them to see us as humans who have just as much going on in our personal lives as they do.
Make Time for Yourself
This is also really important. It took me 10 years to learn having a life that does not involve teaching is imperative to my happiness. When I took the job I am currently at now, I drove from Pennsylvania to California alone and had 2 weeks to think about what happiness meant to me and vowed that when I got to San Diego, I was going to start doing those things. I'm not saying you need to go to these extremes and pack up for a cross-country solo trip, but if you feel like your life is lost in teaching then take time to reflect on what makes you happy. I remembered that I loved learning Spanish and that music fills my heart and traveling helps me to feel alive. So since that trip across the country, I enrolled in Spanish classes, traveled to all different kinds of counties and US cities and now I am learning the piano. I like taking classes that relate to what I love because it holds me accountable for leaving school to do something that makes me happy. I also enjoy staying healthy, so me and my friends makes dates to workout and get brunch. I love to write, so I have journals for all different things: a workout journal, a daily happiness journal and a passion planner. I also enjoy writing this blog!
What do you love to do? What used to make you happy before you even left for college? When was the last time you truly enjoyed yourself? What were you doing? What hobbies have you always thought about trying, but still have not?
And finally, know that you've got this. There is a reason you are a teacher and you can do this. I believe in you and so do your students. There will be tough times, but there will also be amazing, unbelievably inspiring and heart filled moments that make these struggles all worth it. When those moments happen, write them down. Save the email from the parent that brought happy tears to your eyes (burn the ones that made you cry). I have a box for notes from my students. Whenever I am having a particularly hard day, I open that box and read the first few notes I pick out. Reach out to an old student and see how they are doing. Remind yourself of the good that comes from being that special person in children's lives.
I hope this advice has helped you in some way. I wold love to hear about what has worked for you in your classroom! By sharing our experiences together, we can support each other in making our school year awesome!
6th grade Humanities Teacher, Writer, Resource Creator, Curriculum and Course Developer