The interesting thing about teaching is that it doesn't matter how much you know in theory, nothing prepares you for the challenges you're going to face at the beginning of a new year - even when you've faced them before. I have one very challenging class this year. It is a class of eighth graders right at the end of the day. Their energy levels are high, their attention spans are short, and their desire to learn mathematics is low. It has been many years since I have had a class like this. For several weeks I was practically in tears at the end of the day. I was exhausted, emotional, and disheartened.
A few weeks ago, I had an 'Ah-Ha' moment in which I realized that if I started taking better care of myself, I'd be better able to handle this class. So I joined a gym, I've been practicing violin more, eating better, drinking more water, releasing myself from non-essential commitments, getting more sleep, and leaving work as soon as humanly possible. A week or two ago, someone asked me if my 7th period was doing better. "Not really," I answered, "but I'm doing better. So it's better." But now I can honestly say that the class is doing better. I pulled out my music box and they are responding really well to that (see this post for more about how I use my music box to get their attention). I have contacted parents to ask for help and, thanks to my wonderful community, this has helped as well. When I plan my lessons for that class, I feel like I'm doing triage. Everything takes longer with them so I have to decide how to shorten things so that they get the essentials. Slowly but surely things are getting better. As things get better, they are learning to like me and I am learning to like them a little more each day. It really is hard work learning to like your difficult students and difficult classes. I hesitate to even call them a difficult class because I feel like the way that I talk about them colors the way that I feel about them - and my students really pick up on and respond to how I feel about them. I'll just say that they are getting better every day.
And then I had a substitute on Thursday.
Is it just me or does anyone else feel like having a substitute is like having people over for dinner? I plan and prepare and hope that everything will go smoothly. But when things go badly, it's like my dinner guests arrived when I'd just gotten out of the shower and my house was a mess and my kitchen a disaster because the new recipe I'd tried had exploded all over the cupboards and counters. (I've literally been there and done that.) I always worry about my difficult classes with a sub.
It didn't take more than about 15 minutes on Friday morning for me to realize that things had gone very badly with the substitute during my difficult class. From what I understood, some of this was the fault of the students. Some of this was the fault of the substitute. I knew that many of my students would enter my classroom feeling enraged. I didn't want the class period to become a venting session. I wasn't sure what to do, so I sought help from two of my coworkers. One of them suggested that I give my students five minutes at the beginning of class to write down everything that they felt I needed to know about what happened in class. Describe their personal behavior, the class's behavior, the substitute's behavior. No talking - just writing. And then I would tell them, "I realize things didn't go well, but I want to have a clear understanding of everything that happened from everyone's point of view. I'm going to take these home over the weekend and I will read all of them. Then we will talk about this on Monday and I will make sure that things are made right."
That is exactly what I did, and let me tell you, it was magical. I don't think my class has ever been as quiet as when they were writing down what happened - not even during a quiz. Everyone had something to say. They came in angry and wanted to vent, but after writing and after my explanation, everyone agreed that it was fair. And then something amazing happened - everyone participated in the lesson. They listened to me. They listened to each other. They were excited about the problems we were doing. Not once did I have to use my music box to redirect their attention back to the lesson.
As I have struggled with this class, I have been forcibly reminded of the fact that we cannot force students to learn or to behave appropriately. It is a choice. To some of my students, it feels like this is their only choice in life right now. I am humbled and overwhelmed by the responsibility to gain their trust so that they will choose to learn from me. If I listen, they will teach me how I need to teach them. On Friday, I learned that this class will respond when they feel I am listening to them. This reminded me of this Ignite Talk by the ever-wonderful Max Ray-Riek, who explains this so much better than I ever could.
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