There were times in my first year of teaching when I felt like nothing I was doing worked. I felt like leaving the classroom and never coming back. I have since then learned several strategies to build a supportive class culture and manage students in ways that promote healthy relationships.
Building a Class Culture Takes Time
I was told very sternly that the way I managed my class on the first day of school would determine how the rest of my year would go. That was a terrifying thought, and it haunted me all throughout the weeks of teacher training prior to the start of the school year. It made sense, too. I knew that children would form impressions about me within the first few minutes of meeting me, as would I of them. I knew I had to show them I was in charge.
On the first day of school, I used all of the management strategies I had learned, expecting perfect results. Instead, I felt that the children knew I was faking confidence. I was afraid to re-try routines because that emphasized to me that they were not working. When I witnessed children being mean to each other, it felt like I had set myself up to fail for the rest of the year, and the first day of school had not even come to an end yet.
Over time, I learned to be more patient with myself as well as the students. I realized that everyone needs time and space to learn and practice new skills. With consistency and persistence over time, a teacher can gradually release control as the students internalize routines. With patience, whole-group lessons can turn into small-group work and personalized instruction. It was difficult for me to accept at first, but learning procedures is supposed to look messy in the first days, or even weeks, of school.
While I did not do this in my first year of teaching, I now find that daily reflection is crucial for me to not only revise things that do not work, but also acknowledge and continue to implement things that do. I also know now that class dynamics are fluid and certain to change over time. I often use team-building games to allow students the opportunity to form connections, work together, and establish boundaries. Ultimately, a teacher can influence, support, and manage, but cannot control decisions that students make. I don’t see my job as teaching routines anymore, but as teaching the children.
The Best Lessons are Somewhat Improvised
I was so excited to teach my first reading lesson in front of a third grade class. I had a detailed lesson plan in hand, down to the minutes each part of the lesson would take. I rehearsed it beforehand and learned the script. I was ready for what felt like my debut performance.
What I didn’t anticipate when I was practicing for the show was the audience. Somehow, I felt a sense of shock when the children sat down for the lesson. In my preparation, the focus was all on myself - the star of the show.
Well, the children decided differently. Some of them were visibly bored after the first few minutes of what I thought was a fascinating read-aloud, Spiders by Gail Gibbons. As I pushed on through the lesson, I knew that I had lost most of the students’ interest. By the end, it was as if I was all alone in the show, just the way I had rehearsed it.
What I didn’t realize then is that being prepared does not mean being inflexible. On the contrary, having a learning objective, content of the lesson, as well as the materials ready in advance is what allows for flexibility in how the lesson can be delivered.
One year later, I taught another lesson about spiders. This time, I started with a story of how I once saw my grandmother catch a spider by its leg with her bare hands, and I feared them ever since. (I happened to think of it right before the lesson because I was organically thinking about the topic at hand). I asked the children if they had ever felt that way, and many of them related. We continued by reading a book about spiders, and at the end students made pamphlets to show what they had learned. There was room for students’ ideas and questions, and they were actively involved in the learning process.
I still view every lesson I teach as a performance, but my goals are different than when I started. Preparation is my support, while in the performance, the audience is what it’s all about.
I was certainly not the kind of teacher who popped into the principal’s office for a chat. During my first year (and not just then), I often felt like I had more to do than I had the time and energy for. The administration did not seem overly concerned with what I was doing, and I preferred it that way. The common way to take out frustrations was by venting with other first-year teachers who had plenty of their own overwhelming concerns to share. Although we were supposed to be able to accept and implement feedback we received, we were all the happier if the dreaded feedback never came.
I wish instead that I had sought out help and advice when I needed it. Not just from administration, but from other, more experienced teachers whom I trusted. Just because support was not readily available did not mean that there were not ways to get it.
Letting a supervisor know that you are eager to observe other teachers is one way to get support. I learned unexpected teaching tricks by going into classrooms to see what others teachers were doing, even when that was not a designated part of my schedule or job. I now find that speaking with more experienced teachers about ways to deal with specific, difficult situations is very helpful in finding solutions.
If going into another classroom is a logistical nightmare, there are many online tools that can help facilitate professional development for first-year teachers. Teaching blogs, such as Edutech for Teachers, can offer ongoing support outside of the immediate school network.
In addition, I now use a self-evaluation strategy to help me prepare for a feedback session with a supervisor or administrator. SWOT, which stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, is a way to reflect on what I bring to the role, as well as what the environment that I am placed in can offer. Identifying personal strengths and weaknesses and separating them from the environmental supports and demands of the job can be a way to prepare for conversations about professional growth and alleviate fears about receiving feedback. Check out more information about the SWOT technique and complete your own Personal SWOT Analysis!
I now know that a growth mindset is key in staying optimistic and solutions-oriented throughout the school year. When you make your needs known and take the first step in initiating conversations about supports that you need, you will be well on your way to feeling connected and supported by the school community and outside networks.
Go Under the Wave
I was leading my first class meeting. It was a time when students got together to acknowledge each other, discuss problems, and come up with solutions. The class was participating and following along, until one child burst out with a rude comment about another student. I responded by reprimanding the student in front of the class, which set him off even more. The class meeting was disrupted, and I could not find a way to bring back the calm energy. By pushing back and arguing with one student, I had made the conflict worse, and the meeting with the entire class was quickly derailed.
Since then, I adopted a new mindset that has tremendously helped me in preventing escalation of conflicts among and with students. In a teacher training, Rick Smith explained that it is important for a teacher not to react with frustration when a student is aggressive. The analogy is that of trying to go through a wave. By pushing through the wave, you will get toppled over. If you dive under the wave, on the other hand, the energy of the wave will carry it on its path, while you will come out on the other side.
I had an experience in a subsequent year of teaching that brought this to life for me. In my first session with a second-grade class, a student who looked younger than the others raised his hand to ask a question. His accent was heavy, and he was difficult to understand. The rest of the class, including the other teacher sitting at her desk, laughed at him. I felt angry and hurt, but took a deep breath before speaking. Instead of retaliating, I let the weight of the moment crash, as if it was a wave breaking on the shore. After an uncomfortable silence, I acknowledged the student’s courage when speaking up and began a conversation about compassion with the class. Going “under the wave” allowed me to overcome a challenging situation and not get dragged down by it, as I had in my first year of teaching.
Another aspect of this approach to classroom management is that not all issues can or should be addressed directly in the moment. Delaying a consequence is a strategy that can save a lot of hurt feelings, especially in situations where the teacher and the student are both frustrated. For many other strategies for managing a classroom in your first years of teaching, check out Rick Smith’s bestselling book, Conscious Classroom Management!
Children Won’t Learn From You if They Don’t Like You
“You know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like,” said Rita Pierson, a teacher with 40 years of experience, in a TED talk “Every Child Needs a Champion”. As I look back on my first year “in the trenches,” I vividly remember a student who rebelled against learning.
This boy was one of the most advanced readers in my class, proudly flying through the pages of the Harry Potter series as if he had a broomstick of his own. He made funny sounds as he read to himself, and I could almost see the story light up in his eyes. The way he confidently walked into the classroom and organized his materials every day, I could tell he was a leader. I observed those qualities in him and smiled to myself.
He was at times however, defiant, and it frustrated me more than when any of the other students in the class misbehaved. I felt like he was acting up to spite me, and the more I confronted him, the more he refused to follow my directions. I could tell that he no longer liked me by his blank stares and protests in silence. He began to do the opposite of what I asked, and it became a game I could not win.
I wish I knew then that relationship-building comes first. I did not make the effort to make this boy feel liked, respected, and understood, and he in turn treated me the same way. What I should have done then is acknowledged the strengths I knew this student had. Instead, our relationship consisted of a battle. A battle that I initiated by harping on the student’s misbehaviors time and time again. A battle that in my best case scenario, would end with me winning an argument with an 8-year-old.
I know now to build relationships with all of my students. A ratio that I try to live by, especially for the students who are tougher to connect with, is to make three positive acknowledgments for every one corrective comment. Without positive reinforcement, students who are non-compliant, or defiant are likely to become increasingly so.
In a poignant presentation at the 2015 Boston Book Festival, educator and author Vanessa Rodriguez showed that according to brain science, learning in a classroom is a human interaction. Understanding what a child already knows and what his or her emotional state is, for example, takes precedence over teaching as transfer of knowledge. The more accurate a teacher’s theory of mind about every learner is, the more effective teaching will be.
My first job as a teacher then, before any other learning can happen, is to convince my students that I enjoy spending time with each and every one of them. (The actor in me picks up the slack in cases when that is not entirely true). In all cases, everyone will be happier within a classroom culture made up of healthy relationships.
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Rodriguez, V. (2015, October 24). The Teaching Brain. Lecture presented at Boston Book Festival in Trinity Forum, Boston, MA.
Smith, R. Conscious Teaching. Retrieved on October 22, 2015 from http://www.consciousteaching.com/rick-smith/.
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