Challenging students, challenging moments

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Student artwork from High School of Language and Innovation.

Student artwork from High School of Language and Innovation.

My first year of teaching 8th grade English was tough for the most common new teacher reason: classroom management and discipline.  I struggled to get my students’ to listen for longer than 3 minutes.  As I blogged on classroom325.nyc, my assigned mentor, Norma, drastically improved my management by telling me to start smiling.  But management was still a struggle, and I vowed that I’d have it all figured out by my second year of teaching.

Perhaps for that reason, my second year of teaching felt more challenging than my first year: I still struggled and students still misbehaved, but it felt even worse because I thought I should have had it all figured out by Year 2.  I didn’t know how to be effective in the most challenging moments.  I tried, but I started to wonder if I was even cut out for teaching.

Sometime in March or April, I picked up a book in my school’s teacher resource center called Assertive Discipline by Lee Canter.  I devoured the book simply because I had never received any training on classroom management. I remember reading Canter’s advice to talk to students in private right outside the classroom door when they violate rules, rather than calling them out in front of the entire class.  While this idea may seem completely obvious, it wasn’t obvious to me.  I remember asking a student to step out of the classroom with me after he had broken a rule several times; he looked completely mystified, but followed me.  I asked him whether he knew what he had done wrong (he did), and then asked him what he could do to change the behavior.  He articulated something he would try, and came back into the classroom ready to work.  He felt respected, and I felt successful.

I vowed that if I was ever an administrator, I’d train teachers on classroom management.  Years later when I worked as a mentor, I felt pride in being able to give teachers concrete strategies to minimize behavior problems and get kids on-task.

Fast forward, today I attended an outstanding professional development on Responsibility-Centered Discipline led by Larry Thompson.  Responsibility-Centered Discipline supports teachers and schools in helping students to take responsibility for their behaviors through articulating strong values and having compassionate coaching conversations when students misbehave.  Thompson started out as a teacher but then later took over a school where 50 out of 120 students had discipline referrals every day.  He transformed that school.  Later, he coached staff in a juvenile correctional facility.  I was mesmerized by Thompson’s stories of the most impossible students suddenly take ownership of their behavior.

I attended the workshop with my assistant principals.  Together, we realized that while we have developed many structures in our school to handle discipline, we have not spent much time training teachers to handle our most challenging students in their most challenging moments.

Thompson’s empathy for teachers impressed me: “How can we expect teachers to handle conflict and crisis if we never train them to do it?”  I thought of myself back in my second year of teaching, flailing by myself; if I hadn’t found that one, simple classroom management book, I might have left the profession.  I am now re-inspired to coach my teachers in Thompson’s methods and develop a team of expert classroom managers.

Thompson reminded me that for most people, including myself, classroom management doesn’t come naturally, is not a mystery, and can be taught—and that without it, learning doesn’t happen.