Teaching in the D

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 08 2011

A (Not So) Quick Reflection (Longer Update this Weekend)

I really don’t have time to be writing this right now, but I need to take a moment and “reflect” (TFA speak for “think, typically out loud). I promise a longer post with pictures, thoughts, and more later.

For those of you who haven’t heard the story yet, my classroom is a disaster. Instead of the typical summer school class, which tends to be small and full of kids motivated to pass so they can move on to the next grade, the 8th grade science team at my school has the entire grade level. The story goes something like this: Their teacher was horrible and taught them no content. And then quit. They watched movies all day. Moreover, they will all be retaking the class in the fall regardless of how they do in summer school (and, honestly, there is no way I can teach them a year of Regent’s level material in four weeks anyway). So my kids are having summer vacation. In a subject they have no experience in. And hate. With all their friends. And me. Behavior is terrible.

I would like to issue a caveat here. It could be much worse. For the most part, all my kids do is talk out of turn and occasionally get out of their seats. They talk constantly. They talk to each other, about each other, and very little makes a difference. They rarely touch each other, and when they do it’s typically playful. They have never threatened me. They have never attacked each other. They generally follow directions in terms of consequences (i.e., when I say “come sit up front with me”, they move and do it, even if they still won’t fill out their notes sheets).

TFA has lots of procedures and strategies for dealing with this, and I am seeing improvement in my room every day (keeping in mind that I got through NOTHING on my first day except telling them to be quiet), although it is by no means to the level I had hoped to start at. Of my four co-teachers, I also have the least relationship with my kids. I am still learning their names, which the other teachers learned on the first day. However, on that first day, I went first, and it was a disaster. After my time was up, I made the decision that I needed to leave the room and stay out of it while my co-teachers taught, so that cognitively the kids understood on some level “new teacher, new slate, my behavior might need to change”. I honestly believe if I stood at the back of the room the whole day, it could have made that day worse for the rest of my collaborative (co-teachers).

So, in TFA, there are basically two parts to getting your classroom under control:

1. Investment, or showing the kids that you care and convincing them that they care too. It can be done with any group of kids. I’m even starting to see it, inch by inch, in my kids. They have so much potential. They go to a pretty good school (except the Science Debacle) and are mostly ready for high school. They’re on grade level. I already know which of them I am personally attached to the most. But I have very little opportunity to really bond with my kids because they don’t come in for breakfast and don’t stay for lunch. They walk into the building and leave as soon as possible, and I can’t work with them one-on-one without the larger group descending into chaos. I see teachers, even teachers who work on the same subject with the same kids and even in the same school, who have made such bonds. Interestingly, they appear to have not done it through the TFA-suggested ways, although some of those have helped. Mostly, they sat down with their kids on the first day of class and made bold moves, letting the kids talk about their experiences and setting up a framework that the kids feel relatively safe. I doubt my ability to make such a framework in my time here in NY- the kids already have ideas about me and this class. However, I am grateful to have seen how it’s done and hope that I can emulate it in my classroom in the fall.

2. Management – TFA is very big on making kids follow the rules (duh, perhaps). Every TFA classroom has a list of posted rules, a list of posted consequences, and a behavior chart with each student’s name on it where we mark every time they receive a warning or consequence (we decide individually what those consequences are). There is also a standard system for positive feedback, and a customizable system for rewards. It works wonders (for those of you who know/care, behavioral narration is amazing. I will define this in a later post for those who don’t). However, it requires a constant effort in my classroom. I could, and have, spent an entire period just encouraging those who are following directions (i.e., keep silent) to continue and using the consequence system for those that are not. It did help. However, I feel there is a misunderstanding among new teachers using the system, especially at Institute. Here are some pitfalls they often do not encounter, which I have:

a. You need to know your kids’ names. This may seem obvious, but I definitely got some flack for not praising/punishing students by name on my first two days. The problem? I didn’t know their names. We asked them to make nametags, they didn’t or quickly discarded them. My co-teacher took attendance quickly at the door. They wear uniforms. This made initially identifying students for praise, punishment, and increasingly severe consequences problematic.

b. You need to outline your system before using it. I know there are people who disagree with me on this. They say “if you can’t get kids quiet long enough to explain the rules and consequences, just start telling kids what rule they’re breaking and give them the appropriate consequence”. This seems to me unfair and impractical. How do you call a kid’s parents if you don’t know their name or have their contact information? How do you tell them to answer their behavior management questions if you’ve never told them what they are yet? Kids also have a well-developed sense of fairness, especially in my classroom where they will rise up to protect someone in the cohort if they have been wronged.* I’m pretty sure “breaking rules you hadn’t had laid out for you and being punished by a system you don’t know” falls into the general category of “wronged”.

*Interestingly, my kids will not rise up as a group if the administration of the consequence is logical, direct, and followed the rules I have laid out. No one objected to me kicking out my first student today after he stood up and swore after a morning of talking out of turn (except for the few children who disagreed about what vowel had been uttered in f_ck, but they were quickly quelled). However, when I tried to move another of my students down the behavior chart after mistakenly identifying where she was on the behavior scale (the previous co-teacher had moved her down, I thought I had done it, and the scale is supposed to reset with each teacher), my students immediately began raising hell. I won’t admit this to them until the end of the term, but I deeply admire them for their class-wide sense of community.

c. It is sometimes physically impossible for me to administer my consequences fairly. If seven students all begin talking at once, someone must be called out first. And that student will immediately respond with one of two things: “I WASN’T TALKING” (this is a very popular answer, even if their conversation partner admits to the charge) or “Look at them! THEY’RE talking too!” The second point is fair, and I have tried out several answers without yet coming to one that I feel comfortable with (I know there are some people who would say that you shouldn’t respond at all, but I feel that the honest charge deserves an answer. And I don’t want to ignore the comment and continue with the consequences, perhaps punishing the kids they pointed at next, because that makes it seem like the kids choose who gets punished).

Now, on to the point I actually wanted to talk about. I’ve been getting lots of advice and support from staffers, teachers, and fellow corps members on my classroom. I have failed to internalize all of it, or even most of it, but I deeply appreciate their gesture of support as I know it comes from a place of helping me and the kids (even when it’s more criticism than constructive), and some of it has been deeply helpful. Even just being able to decompress with a staffer after my class (or texting people from my personal life) has become useful for me. And I’m noticing an interesting pattern (I’ve noticed lots of patterns about corps members, especially Detroit ones, which I will post later on): Corps members of color (especially African American ones) seem to be excelling at management as a group.

Wow, that seems loaded. Some caveats: There are fantastic white corps members who have amazing management (including Emily, one of my co-teachers, who has basically been working magic from day 1). There are African American, Latino, Asian, and other corps members who are struggling with management. However, as a block, African American corps members seem much more comfortable with discipline and management. The way they talk about it is different than white corps members. Even before they got into a classroom, they talked about it differently. I have become deeply acquainted with the phrase “acting a fool”, which means something akin to “acting without respect for yourself or others, typically to the detriment of both”, from these corps members while other corps members said “misbehave”. Management seems to be more natural for corps members of color, and more integrated into their philosophy. A white corps member often says “I need to show my kids that I care about them, but be careful to still discipline them fairly and effectively, so I can’t let my worries about whether the action will harm my relationship with a student get in the way of management”. A black corps member says “I told my kids on the first day that I hand out consequences and discipline because I care about them and want them to succeed and believe that they need to be on-task and involved at all times to do that.” The latter is something that, if presented philosophically, most of us would agree is true (what’s the point of managing if you don’t care if the kids learn?) and is a Big Idea in TFA management, but it’s not intuitive for most of us. We perceive management as something that gets in the way of relationships. This doesn’t appear to be a concern for corps members of color nearly as much. I can’t decide why this is. Is it something about their personal background, their culture, or the way the students are responding to them? For those of us that didn’t have that conversation on the first day (and out attempts to have it on the second day failed), is there a way to effectively convey that sentiment? (Thoughts on this are welcome!)

13 Responses

  1. Mindy


    My instructor is a person of color and I’d agree that she has a much easier time handling the kids than I do– she is also five years older than I am and has more classroom experience, though, so take that as you will. However, her attitude helped me learn a way to discipline the kids without going into full-on crazy white lady mode (which involves yelling and generally makes the situation worse and removes any shadow of respect.) Although I already knew the phrase “acting a fool” from pop culture, and have in fact never heard Krystal use it, I HAVE said it to the kids when I feel in general they are overacting and misbehaving though not violating a specific rule I can put my finger on.

    And get used to “I wasn’t talking.” They’re going to stick with that, even when you see them open their mouths and have turned their backs to you to do so.

    • Hannah

      Erm. WITH YOU? This morning?

      I think my favorite is “I wasn’t talking! (Insert student name here) you heard me! Tell her I wasn’t talking!” It was all I could do to not burst out laughing at the absurdity.

      • Mindy

        Technically that was afternoon. And I consider it an anomaly until it happens more than once.

        I find it helps to tell them that you consider the silent “listening” partner as responsible as the chatty one. If no one’s willing to listen to these comments, they’ll stop making them.

  2. Bekah

    When my students say they aren’t they only one talking, I always tell them that I always catch the 2nd person talking. I turn when the first person talks and I see the second person. If you don’t want to get in trouble ignore them when they try to talk to you. Then I will catch them!

    • Hannah

      Ha! I like that a lot.

  3. Rob

    I thought your comments on management were very interesting. Hopefully I can offer a little bit of insight.

    I’m a white male and I just finished my first year of teaching h.s. SPED, and I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with your observations. Back last fall, I used to think that being nice was the best way to go. I figured I would just be really nice, and then the kids would respect me because I treated them kindly. Totally untrue! That was a recipe for disaster! While some of my students liked me, very few respected me as their teacher.

    I love and care deeply for my students and I am excited for next school year. However, my management was terrible until I realized that the only way for kids to respect me was for me to be extremely clear and unyielding in my behavioral expectations.

  4. G rammy

    Do you have a seating chart with students names. It always helped me to learn names by referring to the chart. I explained that it wasn’t punishment, that I just needed a little help in learning who was who.

    • Hannah

      I do have a seating chart with their names. It’s helped somewhat, but not very much since some of the kids refuse to sit in their assigned seats. (Or move when my back is turned.) It’s helped with somewhat, though.

  5. CC

    Cookie Monster,

    I hear a lot about what TFA is telling you to do and how to act, but what about your own personality? I find your presence both compelling and commanding, especially in large groups. I think you should let your attention-grabbing self shine even as you try to wrestle with these management systems that TFA is teaching you.

    As for the difference in aptitude in management, I think it’s philosophical and may originate in family cultures. There’s a common saying in Chinese households that parents punish (corporeally) because they care and they criticize because they love. I think the division is between those who grew up under liberal parents and those who grew up under more authoritative if not authoritarian regimes. Is the classroom a democracy? Or a benevolent monarchy? I lean towards the latter.

    Moreover, I believe all people, not just children, can intuit/sense sincerity. If the conventions you’re following hinder your ability to be a real person to your kids, I say the heck with them.

    Proud of you,

    • Hannah

      Thanks, Grumpy Bear!

      One of the difficulties with the summer is that, in addition to being required to use certain management systems (it’s part of our evaluation on whether we “pass” institute), I’m currently co-teaching with three people. We’ve decided that it’s in the best interest of the kids to have consistent rules the entire time they’re in our room, and I definitely had to compromise on some rules and rewards I felt strongly about.

      I can’t remember if I told you this, but my father used to say that parenting was an “occasionally benevolent dictatorship”. Depending on the age of kids I get in the fall, I may put that up on a wall somewhere (and it has so many great vocabulary words!).

      I think you may be completely right… And I have a post coming up about that.


  6. Connie

    If you have a few moments at the start of each class, you may want to try a trick one of my grad school teachers had for learning names and fostering some semblance of relationship/two-way communication. She would start each class asking a question that we would each answer in turn. Something along the lines of “What was the last thing that surprised you?” or “What was your most memorable birthday gift?” The answers were meant to be short (and always preceded by repeating our name), but they were usually revealing. I am **terrible** with remembering names, but by the third class, I had learned everyone’s name and pinned enough background to them to make the names stick. It’s a time investment, but it might be worth it.

    So happy to be able to catch up on your goings on…long distance. Sounds like you’re learning lots and enjoying some fun time while you’re at it!!

  7. Sharon

    In response to the question about black teachers: are the kids also mostly African-American? It may be easier to a control a group that is the same race as you are, because you don’t have to worry that the kids may treat you differently because of your race, and because you are likely to come from similar cultural backgrounds. As the NSA, I teach an all-black classroom, and while my race (white, for people who are reading this comment but don’t know me in real life) has never come up as a problem, I do often wonder if the kids would respond to me differently if I was the same race as they were. Then again, the kids seemed to like me a whole lot more than the teacher, who was black, but that may have been because of a good cop/bad cop situation: she spent most of her time yelling at the whole class to be quiet, while I usually worked with kids individually or in small groups and didn’t usually need to yell to keep them in line.
    Also: “I wasn’t talking!” is SUCH a common excuse. The bad thing is that usually they’re all talking at the same time, but by the time I focus on one person to call out, that particular kid ISN’T talking so I can’t tell him/her off.

    • Hannah

      In my room, the kids are about 3/5ths African American, 2/5 Latino. However, this varies across Institute classrooms – some are 50/50, some are majority or almost entirely black…

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