Notes from the Classroom

TeacherAngry

I’m now at the six month mark, and a short placement at another neighbouring – but very different – school has very much shaken my confidence. I have realised that so much of what makes a good teacher comes from getting to know your pupils. In order to discipline or encourage participation, you need to know students’ names. In order to ensure children progress and achieve their potential, you need to know what they are capable of, know when to push them and know when to give them extra support. In order to provide a safe environment where they feel they can experiment, you need to understand childrens’ backgrounds and personalities. Having been in my school for so long, I know my students inside out, and we have a strong relationship because of it. Planning lessons is easy, because I know at what pace my students work, what they enjoy doing, and what will challenge them. In lessons, we have enormous amounts of fun because we can all laugh at each other and our quirky personality traits. Arriving into my new classes, I have been confronted with a sea of unknown faces whose backgrounds and personalities are completely alien to me. I feel totally out of my depth, and that I’ve regressed to the uncertain and inexperienced teacher I was in September all over again.

This hasn’t necessarily been a negative experience, however. It has shown me that I can’t afford to be complacent. Yes, I feel confident in teaching a particular set of students of a particular ability level, but I will not always be in that environment and I need to develop strategies to enable me to provide good teaching to a huge range of children, many of whom will struggle with my subject. I have felt myself feeling incredibly impatient and even angry at times over the past week when students have been relentlessly difficult, and I have had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from screaming or saying something I would regret. It’s unbelievably frustrating to spend hours on planning something, only to have it all go to complete waste. I am not used to children shouting over me, talking back to me or just point blank refusing to do any work. However, I have learned that actually, it’s not all the children’s fault that they behave the way they do. I have planned what I want to teach, and I have tried to create something fun and interesting, but a child’s definition of fun and interesting is very different to mine. During last period on a Friday, all children want to do is go home. Expecting them to sit and concentrate for an hour when they’re not in the right frame of mind to do so is entirely unreasonable. They’re not adults. They can’t control their emotions or reactions. To them, I am just another person who gets in the way of them being able to do what they want. I came to this realisation after shouting myself hoarse by the end of Friday afternoon. Something wasn’t working, and I couldn’t blame it entirely on the 11 year olds sitting in front of me.

After the worst lesson I have ever taught, I kept two of the most disruptive students behind to speak to them. Calmly, I asked them if they understood why I was annoyed. They frankly admitted that they were fully aware of what they had done. I explained that I had spent a lot of time on planning the lesson and that I felt upset that they had not been interested in anything I had to say. I asked how they would feel if the tables had been turned and I’d spent all lesson ignoring them. I saw a light go on. We parted on good terms, with promises of a better lesson next time. However, after they left, I realised that I had spent all lesson ignoring them, just as they had me. I hadn’t bothered to make any attempt to get to know them. I hadn’t stopped to ask why they were behaving so badly. I hadn’t given them an opportunity to tell me what they needed or wanted from the lesson. I had just imposed my way of working on them, and expected them to get on with it. Was it ok for them to be rude and disrespectful? No. But was it ok for me to lose my temper and spend all lesson shouting at them without making any attempt to find out some middle ground? No. I thought I was getting so good at building relationships with students and developing lessons that excited and enthused them, but this lesson showed me that I still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding the children I teach. It’s certainly been an eye opener.

So, every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose. I’ve never been the most patient person in the world, and this experience is proving extremely beneficial in teaching me to step back and see things from other people’s perspective before giving in to my gut reaction. No one wants to be taught by someone who shouts at them. Most disruptive children are disruptive because they have horrible home lives and the last thing they need is another angry adult giving them a hard time. So much of teaching is about relationships rather than academics; you can be the cleverest person in the world, but if you can’t find the time to actually relate to the people sitting in front of you, they’ll learn nothing. Next week, I’m going to walk back into the classroom with a smile on my face and I am not going to raise my voice. If I’m doing my job properly, I won’t need to. We’ll see how I get on!

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44 comments

  1. Do not let your latest experience dishearten you. The teaching world needs more people of your consideration and calibre. I think the life of a teacher is made very hard these days by the restrictions placed on you and the attitude of many pupils who know no respect and have had their heads filled with their rights but none of their obligations. As you say, many pupils seem to come from uncaring families or families just too stressed by modern day living to devote enough time to their children and the resulting behaviour ends up in the classroom where teachers are expected to cope and in some cases provide the care and discipline neglected by the parents. My sympathy is with you and you can only do your best with the situation and that, it seems, you are doing admirably. Good luck and don’t let them get to you.

  2. Have you ever said, “Have a seat” in a perfectly normal tone and received a reply like, “WHY ARE YOU BEING SO RUDE? You’re RIDICULOUS!”? Or asked for a kid’s iPod or phone and s/he acted like you asked if you could throw it in a river? Such are the emotionally draining moments of teaching.

    Teaching will bring lots of patience to the most impatient people. I used to hate getting stuck in traffic, waiting in line, etc., but something about endless fire drills and teenagers provoking me over and over has taught me that I’m to spend a lot of time smiling and waiting because it all shall pass.

    Teaching, and specifically classroom management, is like driving. You get better with more experience. But you are going to have the occasional flat tire or collision no matter how well you do it because you are only in control of yourself and not of all of the other people you come across.

    I wish you all the best as you get to know your new students.

    Specific tip: Lights off is not just for elementary school! It is used in high school special education to get people to chill. Feel free to turn some or all of the lights off for five minutes and ask all students to read or do their work without bright lights on.

    1. Thank you so much – I hope that in time I will learn patience and that this will spill over into my every day life a little more! I love the tip about the lights – I am definitely going to try that. I really appreciate the time you took to reassure me that I am not alone – thank you.

  3. Every teacher has those moments. I have even told classes that I kind of lost it. I let them know that I am doing my best to improve my behavior and I expect the same of them. If you have learned not to take their behavior personally, you are way ahead of the game. They don’t plan on making your life difficult. Their main concern is usually peer related. They want to make their friends laugh or cover up the fact that they don’t understand something. Are you working with younger children now? I thought you had teens before. Younger children have a whole different set of problems. Things are happening to them physically that they don’t understand. One minute they will act in the most outrageous ways and the next moment be embarrassed by some small thing. They seem to change personalities constantly.

    One technique that has worked for me is to find a few who are actually trying to pay attention. Get close to them and talk in whispers or a very quiet voice. Maybe treat them like they are co-conspirators with you. The rest tend to get curious and want to figure out if you are talking about them. It can be something innocent like ” I really appreciate you listening to me, do you have any idea why some of your classmates aren’t even trying?” Or you could just give them part of the lesson. I have said “You will probably like this book, I hope you do.”

    Like all things in a classroom, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I had a friend who would drop a book and then act like it was an accident. That’s a bit drastic, but it will work if you don’t use it often.

    Friday afternoon is often a bad time especially if their home life is a mess. You are looking forward to the weekend. They may be dreading it. It is hard to get through to a child who is hoping his or her parents won’t get drunk and get in a huge fight that night. I always tried to keep Fridays a little lighter than the rest of the week, but keep them busy enough to give them little time to get in trouble. It is a fine line.

    You’ll be fine. I know it. (I’m sounding like a bossy teacher again.)

    1. Janet, you are so wise. Thank you so much for this wonderful advice. I love the quiet talking tip – I am definitely going to try that. It’s good to know that I am not awful and that everyone experiences these moments. It is disheartening but I just have to keep picking myself up and pushing on forward!

      1. I know how difficult it can be with that age – I lasted just one year (admittedly I was only 24 and didn’t look much older than the final year studetns, so had zero auctoritas) until I traded in high school for university teaching. You have so much to offer and so much enthusiasm, it should in due course (like in your first school) catch on! Every school, group and class has a different dynamic.

        One thing that worked well for me once, inadvertently, was going to teach one day with total laryngitis. I had no choice but to say they had to teach the class themselves (get some volunteers to take turns leading discussion of the reading) since I could only whisper or nod my head. They really ran with it and felt that since there was no one there to shout over their noise and discipline them, they would have to step up and do it. And they did! And the dynamics changed after that as well… though of course they did occasionally fall back to their old habits.

        Another useful trick is to go in one day and start the class with a complete surprise, to break out of their usual habits and make them curious as to what will come next. Start with a role play (have them do a dramatic reading or act out a scenario similar to one in the assigned book), or just sit quietly at your desk for a while, or draw a picture on the board or whatever people use these days and let them wonder for a while what you are planning to do with it and ask them what connection it has with the assigned text.

        I think you did a great job by taking aside the two troublemakers and asking them to see things if tables were turned – you DID listen to and consider them as individuals, not just slap a detention on them! I hope they did behae better in subsequent classes…

      2. Thanks so much for the support and advice, Monica – much appreciated. I do that random picture thing often – they love it! I haven’t tried letting them teach the lesson though – that sounds brilliant! I shall give that a go!

  4. Rachel – I can’t offer any words of wisdom on teaching but I do want to say how much I have been loving your blog since I discovered it a couple of weeks ago. I just finished Illyrian Spring and absolutely loved it. I would never have found this book on my own and if I had, I would have assumed it was not for me. Your wonderful account of it was enough to pique my curiosity and what a lovely experience it was reading it. I am now reading The Uncommon Reader and have several other of your recommendations lined up. If over the years you inspire and encourage other quiet book worms to venture out of their reading comfort zones (as I am certain you will with your students) you will be providing a wonderful service. The classrooms of Britain need special people like you.

    1. Hi Jenny, it’s lovely to hear from you. Your words of praise have been better than any teaching advice, thank you – it’s lovely to know I am good at inspiring someone!! So delighted that you found Illyrian Spring to be as wonderful as I did, and I’m so happy to hear more of my favourites are lined up! Wonderful. :) Thank you so much for your very kind and touching words – they mean a lot to this exhausted trainee!

  5. Sounds like one of those days Rachel, and I can understand why it made you feel a bit shaken, but you’re still doing wonderfully well. I did years of substitute teaching and walking into an unknown classroom of 11 year olds is always hard, but you’re a natural and it does get easier. xx

  6. I can relate to so much of what you’ve said here. I’ve been very lucky in some ways, because I hear from friends in the PGCE program with me about how they’re struggling with the same issues in our second placement, and how difficult the transition has been. It doesn’t help sort out what to do next, but sometimes it’s just good to know you’re not the only one. I do hope it gets better in the second week, and that this lot of children realize how fortunate they are to get that kind of dedication and interest from a teacher. Best of luck.

    1. Absolutely – knowing you’re not alone does at least stop you thinking you are completely useless! I hope your placements have been going well Kate, and I hope your students know how lucky they are to have you, too!

  7. You are going through what most teachers do at the beginnings of terms, Rachel. A new set of kids, a new subject matter, another time of year; all stir the snow globe up a bit and it takes time to settle down. You have some good advice above, and I’m sure some more will follow, for you to consider. I sense in my bones and in my heart that you will be a most magnificent teacher and will always strive to find a way to get through. Good luck in this next phase, and keep your chin up. You are the best, dear Rachel.

  8. Don’t lose heart sometimes it is them! Children of today want to be oh so grown up when it suits them and then they behave in the most inappropriate way and remind you they are children. They know all their rights and few of their responsibilities. Don’t let them make you feel bad, most of them know exactly what they are doing when they spoil a lesson! Remember who is in charge, and stay positive – be careful not to over analyse though, you will drive yourself mad.

    1. Thanks Jo – you’re right. Sometimes I get carried away with ‘reflection’ and actually no – it is not always something I did, and some children do just want to wind their teachers up, and nothing I do can change that!

  9. A great post on the joys and pains of teaching. Luckily, until now I’ve only encountered easy students and, teaching them on Friday evening, I know they want to go home or enjoy themselves with their friends, so every once in a while, I have (or feel I need) to shout “shut up and start working”. But on the whole, they are a great bunch of kids. I’ll be tweeting this post, I think everyone should read it: students, parents and future teachers.

    “know when to push them and know when to give them extra support.” is the best and most accurate description of great teaching I’ve ever read.

    Congrats.

    1. Thanks very much Elena. Teaching on a Friday is always a nightmare, isn’t it? No one wants to be there!! I’m glad my post resonated with you, and what an honour to be tweeted!! ;)

  10. Once you start shouting you have lost it! I found acting skills rather important as a teacher, keeping a quiet, rational tone seemed to win respect, even when I felt like throttling them!

    1. Yes, I am never a shouter normally but this class just pushed me over the edge! I tried a calmer tone today and it worked much better. Acting calm seems to work, even if inside I want to scream!

  11. Oh no! Sorry to hear you’ve had a rough week. I’m sure it was bound to be tough though as you have to get used to everything, and I’m sure next week will go much better. As always, the children are very lucky to have someone who cares so much about reaching every child and making lessons engaging – I’m sure you’ll win them all round in no time. x

  12. Aw Rachel, sounds like a rough time. I am sure you’ll get back your confidence! I know that you make a wonderful teacher and only wish I could have had you teaching me when I was in school. I’m sure that given a little time with any group of students you’ll be able to win them over — your passion for your subject shines through every post you write about teaching, and I’m sure the students can see it too.

    1. Thanks Jenny :) You’re so sweet. I think I’m starting to win them round a little. You just have to keep plugging away and hope that eventually something works!

  13. You’ve learnt a great lesson, shout and the children will only shout louder, and you’ll end up with a sore throat!

    Next time try lowering your voice in class and see what happens…

    You can’t win over a very challenging class on the first lesson especially last period on a friday! Promise them a game in the last few minutes if they behave & work for the first 30 mins.

    You could try re-seating the class alphabetically with a clear seating plan, it will break up a few
    noisy partnerships, also pick your battles, don’t take all of them on at once.

    1. Thanks so much for all of this advice, Herts – all so useful and I will be trying the game strategy to keep them focused next week!! I think picking battles is also very important – I have learned that in this school it’s better to let a lot of minor stuff go otherwise I won’t be doing any teaching at all!

  14. How honest you’ve been and how courageous, not only to admit to these shortcomings but to keep on going with enthusiasm.

    I think it takes a strong person to return to the scene of the fray with head held high. I wonder what those children will keep in their memories of you for later life. I’m sure these memories will be only good ones. Unfairness stays with children more than anything else – and maybe they’ll see that it works both ways. After that, comes well-deserved praise.

    Lucky little blighters!

    1. Thanks very much, Chrissy. You always say such lovely things and make me feel better! I hope they’ll have good memories of me – and not just ones of me shouting at them!

  15. Hello! It is refreshing to hear the voice of someone – although new to our trade – yes? – but one who seems to have the right ideas. I tell people that they they love the students they are working with, not the lovely angels the imagined in their heads – then they will be successful and love their job. I have a book recommendation for you – “Teach Like a Champion” read specifically about “Cold Call” and there are a few other engagement strategies. I promise I’m not getting paid to say that – but I learned a lot about the problems you were expressing above from this book. It all takes time! All the “bad” days you have in the classroom are days you learn from.

  16. This post epitomized why you are such a wonderful teacher. You *did* listen to your students, and you are changing the way you teach each particular group based on their feedback. (I only hope, for your sake, that future feedback isn’t quite so vexingly delivered!)

    I sympathize with your teaching frustrations. Even though I teach adults, I’m still having problems with students talking in class, texting, surfing on the web, or being otherwise disrespectful. I quite naively assumed adults would display greater maturity than children, but I’m quickly learning this lesson the hard way. Knowing how to discipline adults for behaviour one would expect from children is quite a struggle!

    Best of luck with next week’s lessons!

    1. Thanks so much Diana. You are very kind! I can imagine that teaching adults is very difficult – you can’t really discipline them, can you? That’s a really tricky situation. I wish you all the luck in the world with that! Isn’t it good to be here to support each other?!

  17. Have just finished reading “On Your Marks” by Gladys Mitchell republished by Greyladies. It’s about girls training to become PE teachers, know that’s not your subject but you might find it interesting, as the story does go onto 2 of the girls first teaching posts.

  18. It is very evident, as others have said, that you are a wonderful teacher. Such experiences always seem to follow a period when you think you have finally cracked it – then the rug slips and you feel like you are starting again. You are not. You have listened, reflected and learned and you mustn’t feel disheartened. You are right that you should never be complacent, and the fact that you are aware of this, means that you are doing a fine job. I do hope this week has been a better one!

  19. Have you ever seen the film “Entre les Murs” (English title “The Class” (2008 by Laurent Cantet)? It is fantastic – about a literature teacher in a “difficult” high school in the Parisian working class/migrant suburbs. It is based on the book by the actual teacher, recounting his experiences. He plays himself in the film and the kids in the movies are real students at such a school, not child actors. It is phenomenal the way he tries to interest them in French literature. Most are of North African or sub-Saharan African origin, have no tradition of reading for pleasure, and feel disaffected on principle like any teen, plus the isolation and assumption that French society thinks they will never amount to anything. And he really makes a difference in their lives. You MUST see it to take heart.

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