No more “problem” students

I was recently reading a post by a friend and it immediately got me wondering, “what are the actions and behaviors of students that teachers find annoying? How did I view and react to them before, versus now?” I agree with the premise that there are just things people do that irk others, including the most well-intentioned teachers, and I think it ought to be a given that we treat those kids (and colleagues) with respect, regardless. But it got me wondering…

Before this year, I’d say that the behaviors that annoyed me were things like kids who bullied other kids, kids who were fidgety, or whiny, or smart-asses. Now I’ve got students who sexually harass others, use aggressive/intimidating language toward each other or teachers, and refuse to cooperate. I think, before, I would have just seen these things as annoying behaviors I needed to tolerate, ignore, constantly address, or navigate around.

I now have a different approach, and am struggling against tolerating behaviors that get in the way of their learning or the learning of others’, and I’m struggling against indirect or passive-aggressive approaches of discipline. So, instead of saying things like, “Max, stop talking.” Or, “Max, I’m waiting for you to stop.” Or, “I see Abby sitting the smart way.” (Those last two wouldn’t cut it in high school anyway! Haha).

Teachers always have rules in their rooms, usually that magic number five, and include things like, “respect people and property, raise your hand and wait to speak, stay in your seat when working, do your best work always.” But there is a lot unspoken in that short list of what we really expect and know kids need to do to be “good” students.

So, instead of doing that list of rules, I taught students about their rights and responsibilities as students in a NYC public school, using the blue code of discipline book as an official document. Using this document shows them that my job dictates what I need to do and what I expect from them; it’s not personal. You, Stevie, are not expected to sit quietly and listen during the lesson because I asked nicely or authoritatively, or threatened to move your name to red. It’s not something you owe me because we’ve developed an “understanding”. You are expected to do that because those behaviors are required for learning to happen for all in this room.

After discussing their rights and responsibilities, we discussed how hard it actually is to always live up to them, and how there are behaviors that get in the way. I then asked them to name those behaviors (see chart below). I then had them discuss the kinds of things they could do in place of those behaviors (after they admitted, in part, that those behaviors come from not knowing what to do in class, or it being hard to focus). We then agreed upon a list of responses that I would give, to get them back on track.

This was a big shift for me — I now could no longer ignore those behaviors, or just give “teacher looks” — I needed to make them aware of the behaviors they were exhibiting and make apparent to them what behaviors were expected. So, I had to say things like, “Jim, right now you are throwing papers at other students. The expectation is that you are reading the whole time. You need to do that.” If he refused, or tried and failed, we went to the next reminder, and often make our way to the behavior conference where they reflect on the actions, what was causing them, and how to address them.

This is really challenging because we’ve been trained as teachers to avoid these kinds of kids, so as not to provoke them further, or because we “just don’t know what to do with them anymore”, or because we have the idea that it’s hurtful, maybe, to point out to them what they do that makes learning hard for them, or because we’ve been trained to think that just exerting a certain kind of authority, or having a certain kind of relationship with the kid contains those behaviors is enough. But the problem with this is it hides from the kids the kinds of things they need to learn to fix, and it hides from them what “annoys” teachers and why. Creating a social contract in this way empowers students to identify, self-correct, and help others to correct these behaviors—not just because you create this document, but because of how you then use it and teach them to use it.

So, it’s no longer just this vague list in my head of behaviors that are okay, and behaviors that aren’t, so that kids get labeled or label themselves “good” or “bad”, depending on the response they get from me for whatever they happened to be doing. There is a clear list of what’s expected, and students are challenged to self-correct those behaviors and learn to self-regulate. Now the challenge for my class is getting them to engage in shared regulation, where they are saying things to each other like, “talking during the lesson interrupts the lesson and gets in the way of my learning, so please stop.” We’re not quite there yet, but the maladaptive behaviors kids have learned as ways to avoid learning or avoid feeling stupid, or whatever, are becoming minimized and increasingly isolated. Together, we are creating new social norms and expectations they can hold each other to.

The way I see it is those behaviors will always exist because we are just starting to unearth years of “I’m a bad kid and this is what bad kids do” beliefs, but there are no more “problem students” in a fixed sense.

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A humbling curriculum

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I feel I have always been a very reflective and responsive teacher; if I saw something I was doing wasn’t working properly or supporting the kids enough, the next day would be different. Sometimes that meant a new center, chart to reference, a new approach to behavior management or reorganizing the room. I was self-critical enough to learn from my mistakes but not dwell on them. I believed I was a good teacher because my students grew quickly; I could assess their learning and it was even obvious to them. They often made more than a year’s progress, sometimes going from a first to a fourth grade reading level.

So, why was I worried every time I stepped out of my room to let a cluster or sub teach them? Why was I scared about what would happen to them in middle school?

Even though part of my worry was knowing how little some teachers understand about ELLs, or truly horrible experiences my kids have had with other teachers, it was also because the students themselves were worried. They weren’t entering middle school as confident language learners and problem solvers.

It wasn’t until I became apart of the Learning Cultures curriculum that I realized just what a disservice other forms of teaching are, especially for ELLs and special education students. This curriculum, which puts student independence and student-led problem solving as the pivot around which everything else moves, really humbles you as a teacher. You start to see all the things students don’t realize about their own strengths and weaknesses or how to identify, initiate and solve problems, and you start to really wonder about yourself as a teacher.

In trying to conceive of ways for students to learn things without my constant guiding hand, I have had to really examine my beliefs about learning and teaching, and I’ve had to re-imagine some activities that used to be student centered but very teacher-directed (such as teaching academic language to ELLs). I have constantly asked myself, “what do they need to learn? Why? How can they learn it through real practice and independence, which requires them making mistakes to learn from?”

It has not been easy, and there are teachers who look at a curriculum like this and say, “that’s not teaching. How are the kids learning? Where is the rigor?” Kids as similar questions, like, “why won’t you help me?”. That one question absolutely defines how students have come to see teachers, and it’s the students who say that most frequently who need me to intervene (in that sense) the least so that they can unlearn that self-destructive habit.

Of course the help or instruction I give comes via the joint intentions we create through 1-on-1 conferences where I learn the work the student is doing (since everyone is doing their own work dictated by both Common Core standards and their own interests), their perception of their strengths and weaknesses, and then we problem solve together in a way s/he could replicate without me. (It’s not as neat and easy as that sounds, but it is definitely the first time I ever felt student conferences truly mattered and had a place in the curriculum since it is where I get my lesson ideas — unlike the TCRWP approach I was initially trained in).

This curriculum is humbling but only if you allow it to be. It’s too easy to try it out, half-commitedly, and then declare it isn’t working and kids aren’t learning. Spontaneity will always drag you back to what’s familiar and the “norm”, even if it was honestly not better. Going against the grain by nearly totally upending the ways you have been teaching, before you see the benefit,is definitely a challenge for the daring. It is also for those who want to stop worrying about how their kids will do with the sub or with next year’s teachers. I want to believe, when I wave at kids at the end of June, that they are leaving me more self-aware, and more equipped to self-advocate than before.