When I arrived at Martin Luther King Junior High School in the fall of 2010, there seemed to be a hamster wheel churning in my stomach. I could not wait to get inside the classroom. I had been reading about pedagogy, and even directed a small group of students during the summer at a literacy camp. I had read all that I needed in order to succeed. I remember thinking, “I’ve got this.”
Sitting next to my dear friend Kristin in the principal’s office was a new feeling for me. I hadn’t ever seen the inside of this office in high school. The principal gave us a choice: tenth grade world literature or eleventh grade American Literature. I did not care; I just wanted to meet my students. I deferred to Kristin.
“It doesn’t matter to me, you choose.”
“I’ll take eleventh grade!” She quickly volunteered. She would later bemoan the amount of essays that flooded her desk.
I walked into Miss Britt’s classroom with my heart a-flutter. She was taller and loquacious. She had more facts stored in her brain attic about her content than any teacher I had ever met. She was everything that I wasn’t as an educator. I couldn’t wait to learn more from her. I was certain her students felt the same way.
After her hour-long planning period in the morning, and a hearty get-to-know-you chat, we walked to the front door to welcome her second period students. I will never forget her greeting each and every student as they walked by. Later, I realized this was her first line of defense: welcoming students meant that she cared that they showed up at all. Each student looked me over twice…as if my youth and enthusiasm were against me.
The students were relatively quiet as Miss Britt announced that I would be a permanent visitor in her classroom. They smiled and looked back at me. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly during the early moments of class time.
Then, she began the lesson. The students became decidedly less interested in what seemed to be a very interesting lecture on Greek gods and goddesses and how Rick Riordan transformed ancient myth into modern marvels. The students stopped listening intently, and broke out their phones, had side conversations, began to daydream, and even laughed aloud, disrupting the lecture.
I began to circulate the room in order to help keep the peace. The students responded well, but I could tell they were paying more attention to me, the bright-eyed optimist than the content.
Then it hit me. Students do not care as much about literature as Miss Britt and I do.
It wasn’t Miss Britt’s fault. I found her information compelling. Had she been in a university setting, her pedagogy would have worked. Tenth grade suburbanites care more about their social life than the lives of ancient Greece, however.
When it came time to have my first observation, I decided to implement Miss Britt’s lesson plan using the ancient myth of Cupid an Psyche. I thought it went well enough; the students watched me as if they were watching a monkey brush his teeth. They smiled in amusement, but I could tell they were wondering when I would go back to my natural habitat. Monkeys do not belong at the sink with a toothbrush full of toothpaste. I did not belong implementing Miss Britt’s lesson plan. The result was a completely inauthentic interaction between myself and the students. My evaluation? Decidedly subpar. I had to change my methods.
By the time I was observed again, I decided I needed a few things in order to beef up my classroom management strategy repertoire. I knew I needed to implement my own lesson plan. I knew I needed extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Thus, I created the “brownie points” system.
I wanted a way for students to stay engaged in the classroom, and a random drawing became the easiest way for me to accomplish this. Each student’s name would be put into the drawing and I would (fairly) draw from the cookie jar each week. The student either got an agreed upon reward; though most students decided they wanted brownies. I was happy to oblige.
I found a few things in my early lessons of classroom management.
1. Be consistent. No matter which system it is, it will not work if you do not implement it. I had a secretary system that worked in my first full year of teaching, but it was because I used it consistently. I was a bit more relaxed and less consistent during my pregnancy, and the system did not work as well. Brownie points worked wonders because I used it every day.
2. Have a solid lesson plan. If you teach tenth grade and below, make sure you have them out of their desks at least once a week. I know that it is not feasible for teachers to have a knock-you-out-of-your-seat lesson plan every single day. Despite what our students believe, we have homes and lives and children to return to. We cannot spend much time planning and prepping when there are faculty meetings and feedback and parent e-mails to attend to. Still, having your authentic style as a part of your lesson plan will help you keep your student interest and engagement high.
3. Use your own unique style. I learned very early on that raising my voice should only be used sparingly. I still remember the moment when I pulled a student outside and after telling him how I saw loads of potential and was disappointed in his behavior, he said, “it is hard to see that when you yell at us. consistently.” Ouch. I knew that was not my style. I am not now, nor have I ever been someone to command attention with my loud voice. I am empathetic; I am relational; I am caring. I had to use my strengths to reign in my classroom.
4. Noise is ok. If you’re running your classroom with student-centered activities, your classroom may be noisier than your colleague’s classroom. This article could not summarize my pedagogy more perfectly. You must re-direct those who are off task, and give students deliverable action items in order to get the best results. It is ok to hear talking, especially when students are working.
5. If something doesn’t work, try a different strategy. Students are not all alike. Some need to be coddled; some prefer to be left alone. You need to know your students and if your style doesn’t work with them, try to refine a strategy in your repertoire in order to bring them into your classroom effectively. Don’t completely change your style, but tailor for each personality.
6. Let your students know that you care about them outside of the classroom. I had a project last year that required students to speak in front of the class. A student asked if she could fulfill this assignment during tutorial because her speech got extremely personal. I let her. It was, perhaps, the most heart-breaking yet wonderful moments of my teaching career as she bared her soul and told her story. Without allowing her to do this, I may have inspired resentment rather than a relationship.
Teaching millennial teenagers is tough. I found giving yourself grace necessary in this industry…not everything works every time, but something will work. You’ve just got to try it.