A kinder, gentler classroom?

January 19, 2013 at 4:44 PM 2 comments

What IS it that makes some teachers so much more beloved and effective than others? I’ve been watching and paying attention for years. It’s not something that comes naturally to me.

Watching “Wit” with Emma Thompson crystalized the need to do things differently. If you haven’t seen it, be warned, it’s not a witty comedy, instead a roller coaster journey through a lonely academic’s battle with cancer, as she addresses the central question of how she’s lived her life. Being smart, or being kind? She missed the way to be both.

Many, memorable ways not to do it in a classroom:

A biology teacher who would breeze in and ask what we wanted to do that day, or her colleague who looked like Jane Goodall but was unable to maintain any kind of order, asking children much too politely to do things that they ignored. Feeling  powerless sympathy for the victims of the incredible cruelty of children, as they march to the beat of an instinctive drum, attacking those they sense to be lower down the pecking order.

Mr.Ford, a gentle man of God who couldn’t teach us religion, girls smearing Vick’s Vapor Rub under their eyes so he’d think they were crying and send them to the office. Chaos, day after day.

A brilliant, obese woman who taught science without moving from her desk, the equipment piling up in un-managed mountains while children talked smack about her to the administration, making up cruel stories to get her fired. Completely undeserved and yet, you sort of understood.

And worst of all, a quiet history teacher who was lured into the book cupboard by my sister’s classmates and then locked in for the rest of the period. She left shortly after that and took her own life.

The truth is, the classroom is a whole world unto itself, rife with bad behavior both ways – a colleague in another school who would cut his toenails in front of the class, a German teacher who tucked his shirt into his brightly colored underpants and picked his nose, as if he thought he was surrounded by an invisibility shield.

We had another colleague, now thankfully retired, who overtly favored the pretty, popular kids and who somehow manipulated his classes into giving him a cashmere sweater every year for Christmas.

A high school English teacher in a neighboring district who has piles of mess around the edges of her room and a blue tape line that students are not allowed to cross, so she can keep safe behind her desk.

A computer teacher who frightened so many students with harsh discipline and crazy, personal stories that no one signed up for the computer elective. She’d tell stories in the faculty room about how highly her classes thought of her. Imagine living your life that out of touch -it’s sort of terrifying.

And then of course, the darker side, Mr.Jones the librarian and economics teacher at my high school who had a cupboard that he would lure 11 and 12 year old girls into by making them feel special and singled out. The favoritism and perhaps the sexual abuse, rattled through the girls for years and in at least one case, a life time. It took the school about 20 years to not even fire him, but encourage him to leave. He got a job at another school.

It’s pretty clear that inadequate adults have plenty of scope in classrooms while the culture of closed doors and overwhelmed, under-trained principals remains. They give the whole profession a bad name, all these years later and we still remember florid misbehavior more than the dedicated, well-prepared teachers who gave a real foundation in geography or math or whatever.

It’s so hard to tell from an interview who will be what kind of teacher. You have to, have to see prospective colleagues in front of a class to make good hires. The enormous waste of making the wrong choice – kids turned off a subject, perhaps for life, colleagues investing in helping someone and then being disappointed and disillusioned when their by now friend, is not re-hired.

And for the wrong hire themselves, the absolute misery of being a poor fit for the classroom, the unrewarded effort, the stress and enormous hit on your self-concept from unhappy children.

I have to mention Catherine Raw here, a young teacher like that, a friend of the family, who jumped off Bristol Suspension Bridge rather than go back to her job as a teacher in Didcot. Catherine, I think of you often. I am so, so sorry that I was not more there for you, and that you didn’t see your own strengths as a way to do a different job that you would have loved. Catherine was kind, humble and loyal, a graduate of Cambridge University, who still felt she didn’t quite measure up.

Other than a personality-ectomy, what strategies help move toward a kinder, gentler classroom for teachers as well as students? Because in the end, it’s for us all. We are family for a year. And perhaps that’s the key. Family.

If I frame it like that, I have difficult kids that I think of with affection as ‘spicy’, as ‘eclectic’, ‘quirky’ and know that somehow, we’ll all get through. Classrooms that have a feel of family are found in the research, to be much more successful academically and by all measures – drop outs, tardies, absences etc.

Particular strategies that are shifting the culture in my classroom are

1. Greeting everyone by name as they come into class and personally handing them or showing them what they will need to have out.

2. Being as clear and concise as I can with instructions and concepts – if they know exactly what’s expected, it’s a huge stress reducer both ways. Task descriptions, rubrics help take the tedium out of grading allowing me to be less tired and tetchy when handing work back.

3. Too much teacher talk is tremendously tiring for all, I try to find ways for students to discuss the topic or interact with the information at least every 5 minutes even during ‘lecture’ classes. Whiteboards. Turn and talk. Think, pair, share. Line up by if you think the answer is yes, maybe or no. Thumbs up if you agree, down if not, and wiggle if you’re not sure. It’s called ‘whole body response’ but I think of it as playful ways to check in.

4. Having a redo policy so I can give honest feedback and hold high expectations, without fearing I’m killing a kid’s grade. Plus that way, it’s coaching, not judging.

5. Use a rolling chair to visit desk groups (rather than looming above them), checking work and doing a little hanging out and chat about stuff we are interested in outside of school.

6. Checking in with everyone via a weekly journal write – what did you learn last week? How are you? I hear about stuff to congratulate them on, as well as flags for students in distress. I hear about troubles with seat mates, trouble at home, illnesses, deaths in the family and often just a “I’m fine.” Mostly, they are a very happy and grateful lot, bucking the popular wisdom about teens.

7. Dealing with students directly first, before going behind their backs to parents. Treating them like adults as far as they are able or choose to be.

8. Framing correction, advice and discipline as if I were their boss in a work scenario, rather than their teacher. In the end, I’m trying to train them to be successful adults.

9. I try very hard not to get into a direct conflict of wills with students or parents, instead I look for what we do agree on, the success of a student in class, in a way that doesn’t interfere with the success of others. It’s like target fixation in motorcycling – look where you DO want to go, not where you don’t. The bike follows your gaze.

10. At the end of the period, I say good bye and have a parting word with several students as they rush on with their day.

“You seemed really interested in ___.” “Hope your swim meet goes well.” “I’m sorry about your kitty, I’ll be thinking of you.” Or, very quietly “I loved your questions about ___.” or “I really appreciate your help with __.” “Say hi to your mom for me.” Or whatever occurs to me that is a real compliment, concern or congratulation. It has to be sincere, and I’m careful about privacy issues because embarrassing them in front of their friends. No.

11. I make an effort to keep my life balanced. If I’m not kind to myself, I will subtly sabotage efforts to be kinder to others. That thought helps me to eat well, get some exercise and enough sleep, spend time with people I love, read books that wrap me up in different worlds, learn something new each year so I can remember the frequent humiliation of being on the other side of the red grading pen.

These days I bring in a tiny jar of milk so I can make a cup of tea in the middle of every day. The warm steam and gentle fragrance reminds me to be grateful for what I can do, for the possibility of helping at least a few students, a moment to look out the window and consider… that it may also be time to take a quick trip to the restroom.

Entry filed under: Class Management, Education Psychology, Reflections. Tags: , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Pete Brown  |  January 20, 2013 at 3:04 AM

    This is really thought-provoking stuff Sue, both from the point of view of a lifelong educator and a pupil (no saint by any means) who remembers the good, bad and ugly members of the staffroom. Teaching in secondary school is one of the scariest, most exhausting things I’ve ever done. It sometimes felt like swimming with sharks: you know that they can scent the slightest weakness and will attack instinctively. Teaching takes dedication, skill and an enormous amount of emotional and intellectual energy. I think you’re absolutely right that you can’t nurture others unless you take care of yourself. You need massive reserves of self-confidence, patience and love. It’s a long time since I faced a class in school – working in museum education is a lot less intense, which I guess is one reason why we get paid less – but the principles are the same. We are the interface between learners and learning and that is an awesome responsibility. Teachers everywhere, I salute you!


    • 2. Sue Boudreau  |  January 20, 2013 at 8:55 AM

      Thank you Pete, for your thoughtful and kind comment. I am disappointed though, to hear that you are not a saint 🙂



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