This article on "Tips for Keeping the Peace" is a great reminder for teachers, as well as great to use with students.
I finally couldn't take it anymore.
"This book is boring!"
"This work is hard!"
"We have homework again tonight?"
All the complaining became way too much for me to take. While I try to make my class as interesting and relevant to my students as possible, I can't please everyone at the same time. But, it started to seem like I couldn't please any of the students. They get to choose the books they read and then they would complain that the book they chose was boring. If I asked them to write a page, they would complain that it was too much to write. If I asked them to put their thoughts in one sentence, they would complain that they couldn't possibly do that in such a short amount of space.
There was no pleasing them.
I decided that I had to address the issue with a lesson: At the beginning of class, we discussed what complaining was and what complaining wasn't. I started to see a pattern develop ... it seemed like they felt you wouldn't complain when you were happy with something. I asked, "Can you be unhappy but still not complain?" There was a pause and they finally said, "Yes."
After defining "complaining," we discussed all the things we complain about. The list was long. With every class, some smart aleck said, "We complain about Mr. Fredrick!" and laughter ensued. I wrote it down and said, "You know what I always complain about?" I put my body in front of the chart paper and wrote, "STUDENTS" really big. When I stepped out of the paper, they all laughed again.
I then passed out quotes about having a positive attitude. They worked in groups to put the quotes into their own words and we shared their work. Most of the quotes surrounded the idea that we can't necessarily change and control the circumstances around us, but we can change and control our attitudes about them. This all made sense to them and I think it got many of them thinking.
I think it was a good start of a conversation, but I don't know how to "continue" this work. I have no doubt that tomorrow or the next day they will start complaining again. Then what do I do?
There were a lot of comments on the post from last week about helping students become more independent and less reactive when it came to their grades. Some people commented publicly on the blog and others e-mailed me privately. Everyone had interesting opinions.
There was one camp who suggested that I not accept late work and that accepting it only encourages more late work. Logically this argument makes sense, but we don't always live in a logical world. Most of my students (who, frankly, don't know how to be students and don't really care to) would just plain give up. I know because I tried that method. I tried ever single facet of that method - I accept NO late work, I accept work during the week it was assigned ONLY, etc., etc. I got the same results. Some students just stopped doing work altogether and became behavior problems. Many students have very defeatest attitudes. Sometimes it seems like they look for reasons to throw in the towel. I can't have that.
I began this year accepting late work because I wanted to show students that if they do their work they will get a good grade. So often, I think they believe that someone is or is not intelligent, and therefore is going to get the grade they get no matter what they do. I need to change that in them - I need to show them that if you do work and try, you can succeed. So, I accept late work, because I want them to connect working hard with success.
But, how do I accept late work, but at the same time encourage them to do it? How do I get them to take matters into their own hands and not wait until they get a 55 to start doing their work? I believe they want to succeed, so it must be true that they don't know how to succeed. Perhaps?
The other camp of commenters suggested coming up with a system so that students kept track of their grade and/or the work completed. This interested me because it helps students take their grades under their control. I implemented such a system this week. When I give back work, I go over what work students should be receiving back and they write it down in a log. When they get the work back they check it off as complete. They then look at what they have done and what they have not. In order to celebrate success (versus punishing failure), when then acknowledge those students who completed all their work. I also pointed out that the sheet would give them some indication about what their grade was in the class: if they had more than a few assignments not done, they were probably failing.
Immediately students were abuzz about which assignments they had to do or what they had done but did not given in. I also implemented the policy that they were no longer to come to me to (1) find out what work they were missing - since it was right there in their folders telling them, and (2) to explain what an assignment is. I told them that they needed to start helping each other and that I was certain that in each class there was at least 1 person who knew what was what. I told them to count on each other.
So far, so good. The first day we did this I got a bunch of assignments from them. They were asking each other for help and actually helping each other. (They knew who in the class to ask.) I'm hopeful that this will help some (hopefully many) take their grade under their own control and that I will have less students hounding me for what work they are missing or what they can do or ... whatever.
I will keep reporting back about how this procedure is going. Thanks to all for your input.
This past week, I gave my students updates on their grades in advance of the end of the marking period. Because they had fallen behind in their work, many of them received reports that had failing grades.
Of course, there was much drama surrounding their grades and I was the most hated teacher in school that day. They hounded me all day - during class, during lunch, after school - about how they could bring up their grades. I told them what work they were missing and what they could make up. They were eager to make sure they were at least passing. Later that day and the next day, I got tons of completed assignments - more than I usually get in one or two weeks!
Yes, it is nice to have students who are interested in passing. I'm sure there are many teachers out there who have students who appear uninterested. But, why must I go through all this drama to get my students to do their work? There were tears, hissy fits, and torn up reports. I had students tell me I was unfair, mean, and so on and so forth. (When they get their report cards and see that this is the only class they are passing, though, I will be the best teacher in the school!)
Why are my students only motivated to do their work when they think they will fail? Why aren't they motivated by wanted to succeed EVERY DAY? Why do they wait, put me through so much drama, and then finally do the work they were supposed to have been doing the past couple of weeks?
Perhaps better questions are: How do I get my students to be self-sufficient enough that they keep track of their own grades? How do I get them to come see me on their own to find out their grades and what they are missing? How do I get them to be motivated - not by the fear of failing - but by the desire to succeed?
Can this be taught? Can it be taught to students who already have 8 or 9 or more years of schooling?
Of course, everything was back to normal less than a day later. The tears stopped and they loved me again. Not to mention that this weekend I have about 5 hours of grading to do because they finally decided to do their work. But, I'm still concerned. As I look back at my years so far at this school it is the same thing. Students wait until they get a bad report to do anything about their grade. It's nice to have students who overtly care about their grade. But, that's not enough for me.
The goal in our school is to get every student into a post-secondary institution - whether that be a trade school, a community college, a junior college, or a university. Getting them in these days is not that difficult. But, what happens when they are there? How will they do? Being motivated only by fear of getting a bad report and waiting for that bad report to take action is definitely not going to cut it in college. Professors don't give our progress reports or call home.
I tell them this, but it falls on deaf ears. Of course, I know that lecturing students - whether it is about symbolism or about life choices - does not work. I know how to teach them symbolism in a way that they understand. But, how do I teach them to be self-sufficient and motivated in a way they understand?
Every beginning teacher struggles with issues of "classroom management". I put the term in quotes, because I don't really like it. My philosophy, built up through various workshops, books, and experiences, is that what we are actually doing is building classroom relationships. When we build productive relationships (notice that I did not say positive relationships, because I fear that will be interpretted to mean that we must make sure our students like us), learning occurs in the classroom. And, that's what it is all about, isn't it ... the learning?
Here are some tips that I've found to be very helpful to me. I apologize in advance for taking other's ideas from the past years - it is not my intention to say that any of these ideas are my own.
1. A good lesson is the best way to build productive classroom relationships. A good lesson is well thought out, has a clear learning objective, and is organized. We have to make sure our instructions are clear, that students know what is expected of them, and the work is on their academic level (read more about Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development). When this is happening, students have no reason to act up or goof off. A good, clear lesson also shows students that we care about them and their learning, which leads to ...
2. Students need to know that we care about them and, because we care about them, have high expectations for their learning. We also need to be prepared to hold them to those expectations when needed. Students need to know when they are not living up to those expectations and that we believe in their abilities to always do better. They may not like it, but at the same time it will communicate that we care about them. There are other ways to show you care. Often, a student walks into my room obviously not feeling well - either physcially or emotionally. I'm always certain to privately ask them if they are okay. Most times, especially if it is emotional, they will say they are fine. But, I almost always see a student's face get a little "lighter" after I've asked. If students don't think that we care about them, they will revolt and not give us their attention or work.
3. We need to know our own personal "line" and communicate that line to the students. This comes through time and experience. We can't be on our students back about every little thing - especially when they are teenagers. The adage "Pick your battles" comes to mind. When deciding what "battles" to fight, we need to think about those things that we will notice and be willing to follow up on. For example, I know it is a common rule that students are not allowed to chew gum in class and I understand why. But, personally, I never, ever notice that a child is chewing gum unless they pop it in my face. So, it would be ill-advised for me to emphasize that rule in my classroom because it will not be enforced. Conversely, my school is a uniform school and I notice right away if a student is out of uniform in any way. Not only will I notice, but I'm more than willing to follow up on a student who is out of uniform until the problem is corrected. Emphasizing this rule is well-advised, because I can be sure that I will enforce it. Don't have rules you cannot or will not enforce to the end. This requires that we know ourselves the most.
4. When we communicate the line to our students, we have to make sure that we use the appropriate steps. These are the steps I use:
a. Ask politely and respectfully for the student to do the correct behavior. "Please sit down and get back to your work." This is crucial because most teenagers want to be treated like adults. I've found that most students will be respectful back, often saying "sorry" and doing exactly what I asked. I will say "Thank you" in return for the student complying.
b. If the student does not, I firmly remind them that I asked politely and I will not be asking again. My voice is more serious at this point and I'm sure NOT to say please. I don't often even get to this stage, but most other times this works successfully.
c. If the student does not still comply, I walk over to them, being sure that I'm getting the student's full attention and I give them a firm ultimatum. "Either you do what I asked politely or ___________" It is important that whatever fills in the blank is something I'm going to actually do if the student does not do what I asked AND that it is something meaningful to the student. Typically, any student who gets to this point, complies as soon as I start to walk over to them, because they know that I will do what I say if they don't. It is important that you clearly state the ultimatum and AS SOON AS the student does not comply, you do it. Don't give the student any more chances - they've already had enough chances if you've gotten to this point.
I had a student last year who tried to walk into my classroom with headphones on. I asked her politely to take it off. She did and said, "That's why I like you. You treat us with respect and don't yell at us." I said, "I yell at you all the time." She replied, "You yell at us when you need to - when we don't do what you ask. Other teachers - they yell at us because they can."
5. The policies of your school make all the difference. I'm lucky to be in a school that (for the most part) has its act together and backs the teachers up. None of this would work in a school that does not do that. If you are in that school, my advice is to find yourself a school that does. We, as teachers, can only be as good as the school we are in.
There are numerous other tips and I will save them for later posts. One last thing, though ... you can't change students' behavior. You can, though, change your own. Once I took my focus off trying to change the students and looked at how I could change my own behavior, I was able to build more productive classroom relationships.
Dealing with students with special needs can be challenging for those of us who do not have the special education training and experience. The insights of experienced teachers is so helpful. This post at Mentor Matters gives some great ideas to deal with challenging students in effective ways. She speaks of elementary students, but I see these techniques at work in secondary classes as well.
A School Yard Blog has a great post about the concept willed non-learning. It comes from a book called I Won’t Learn From You! and it was written by Herbert Kohl. The book sounds great - yet another one to read! Here's the quote A School Yard Blog pulls:
Learning how to not-learn is an intellectual and social challenge; sometimes you have to work very hard at it. It consists of an active, often ingenious, willful rejection of even the most compassionate and well-designed teaching. It subverts attempts at remediation as much as it rejects learning in the first place. It was through insight into my own not-learning that I began to understand the inner world of students who chose to not-learn what I wanted to teach. Over the years I’ve come to side with them in their refusal to be molded by a hostile society and have come to look upon not-learning as positive and healthy in many situations.