Thursday, April 1, 2010

Can You Be Too Nice?

A few days ago I had a great conversation with a couple of other math teachers while doing bus duty. One of the teachers is in his third year and he was describing what reminded me of the scene from Summer School where the students take turns humming just to piss off the teacher-really giving him a rough time. Some teachers offer advice like, "make sure you bring the hammer every day" or some other respect-my-authority-if-I-say-jump-you-ask-how-high type of classroom management philosophy. I remember being 23 and teaching younger brothers and sisters of kids I went to school with and how fine that line is between being relevant and trying to buddy up with students. As a result, I think I tried to impose authority unnecessarily and it didn't take too long to figure out that it doesn't work.

After a few minutes I asked, "did you get in much trouble when you were younger." I figured the problem is that he doesn't have a mischievous bone in his body and he has no way of getting into the heads of his students. He doesn't understand the thinking of a kid who doesn't automatically respect all the adults he encounters because he wasn't one of them.

What advice do you give a young teacher when his students are going out of their way to give a hard time?


CalcDave said...

Aw man, that's so me (this teacher friend of yours). I look forward to seeing what other say, too. My parents would help me find the right thing to do by going the way of "We're disappointed you've chosen to do this" rather than getting mad. I've tried that and it has worked ok, but some students just don't respond to that.

I think this year has been a bit transformative for me in this respect. There are a few school policies that I don't think have good reasons behind them (pieces of the dress code, no iPods during classtime, etc.) and I was loose with them for a while. I've started cracking down on it recently (as I've been getting in trouble for letting them get away with it) and some students are really responding to that.

We all want the ideal student who is self-motivated and not only knows right from wrong, but immediately does what's right. But, just as different people have different ways of being guided through content learning (graphical, numerical, analytic, etc.), different people have different ways of being guided through behaviour.

Kate said...

I just avoid giving other teachers advice because they usually don't believe me, and I'm not sure it would work for other people. My persona is co-conspiratorial big sister with a major asshole streak. I know right? But I swear it works. They generally behave and work hard and don't try to mess with me. You know how little kids think it's hilarious when you push them and they fall down? Teenagers think it's hilarious when you say with a big smile on your face, "Take out those earbuds before I smack them out of your head." or "Why don't you quit being a little creep and act like a gentleman?" or "This afternoon I'm going to write your college recommendation and it's going to say "Excels at wasting my time."" or "You can do better. This is pitiful." or "Ryan? Sweetie? Shut it, please."

And, see? Those examples make me sound like an ogre, but you have to gauge their personalities for what's going to work with who. There are also kids I wouldn't dream of speaking to harshly because it would ruin their day no matter how big the smile that came with it. And we also give each other funny nicknames and come up with goofy mnemonics to remember stuff and I'm generally trusted and confided in and kids tell me they don't hate my class as much as they usually hate math, and come to me for help and encouragement and celebratory high fives long after they've moved on.

So, I kind of forget my point. Right. Advice. Maybe "Stick with it and figure out what works for you. Noob."

Nick said...

My advice would be try to spend as much time as possible observing other teachers. Seek out lots of advice, and stick with it. Seek out excellent teachers and go watch them on your prep. Don't over-attribute other teacher's success to their reputation. Maybe film a class of yours and look for some things to improve. I suppose that's some of what I'd say.

josh g. said...

Best advice I received as a newbie: when you need to (seriously) talk to a student about misbehavior, ask them to step outside of the classroom and talk to them there. Then you've got space to be whoever you need to be at the moment without the complexity of other students. ie. You won't be belittling the student in front of peers, and the kid won't be putting on a show to save face or look cool/tough/funny/whatever to the rest of the class.

It's also handy for just buying time to let a situation defuse.

All of the above is also wrapped up in a general philosophy of "Never put down students." ie. "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

(I totally exempt Kate's examples; I read those as sarcasm that's mutually understood as such, and not something that's authentically mean.)

miss.calcul8 said...

I'm going to have to agree with Kate on this one. I'm a young looking first year teacher and I teach at the high school I went to, where my younger sisters still attend, and where most of the teachers were my teachers too. The best thing I can do is make fun of them. Something about those inside jokes just creates some weird bond that they actually look forward to.

Other things that worked for me was to show up at their basketball games, concerts, etc. I'm kind of like a high school groupie, I go everywhere they go. But I'm single and childless so I can do that. lol

Another thing was taking an interest in the music they like (they LIVE for music) and every Monday I ask every student what they did over the weekend. I also stand at the door to greet them as they come in.

Other than that, I really have no classroom management skills. I use the occasional guilt trip, the "mom" look, and the standing silently until they get quiet, and other classic teacher behaviors. You've just got to create your own excellent teacher stereotype and then continue to improve and reproduce it.

Kate said...

Elissa you make it sound like if you didn't work at a school, you wouldn't be allowed within 50feet of one. :) But I'm with you - showing that you're human is always a good strategy. I go to all sporting and music events that I'm invited to by a student; I think they get a kick out of it.

Josh I don't know if I call it sarcastic - it's more like just cutting through the bullshit. I think with many kids, they appreciate that I expect them to act more like adults and I act as if they're capable of intellectual challenge. I think for much of their lives they've been fed the line that everything they do is brilliant and they are let off the hook for trying hard things to spare their delicate feelings.

Jason Dyer said...

It's very hard to give general advice because there's so much context based on school site / teacher voice type / teacher body type / etc.

To some extent this is just knowing what to ignore. That is, neophyte teachers sometimes jump all over minor behavior, not leaving them enough breathing room for the major stuff. (Desk tapping, for instance, is often just a nervous twitch, and can be dealt with using a single hand motion suggesting they use something soft like their leg instead.)

But I perhaps shouldn't be the one talking; one my periods is driving me nuts this year. (True story: In the very room I teach in now, about 20 years ago student behavior drove a teacher literally insane. They had a nervous breakdown right in front of class and had to be carted off in a wheelchair.)

David Cox said...

Good stuff, thanks. But does cutting through the bs require you to have an ornery streak? I've got one; pretty sure Kate does. Most teachers I've observed have the ability to playfully "push the little kid down" while still making it clear to whom the dominant personality belongs. I could say a lot of things to high school kids that I'm not sure I'd try in middle school. But my high school students always knew that if they tried to become the heckler, a good comic always laughs last.

Jason Dyer said...

I would never be able to do ornery with my students. Wrong sort of population for that to work.

I try to just be a straight shooter and react immediate when something serious comes up and am willing to let certain things slide and it goes ok. (Except that one period this semester.)

grace said...

Recently found you through dy/dan and have been reading back posts to see what I've been missing, and this one spoke to me because when I started teaching, the model teachers I saw were all outgoing and charismatic and ornery in a good way. And anyone who knows me will tell you I'm one of the quietest people they know, both in what I choose to say and how I say it.

Needless to say, mimicking the strong personality and authority around me didn't work-- I raised my voice at my kids once my first year, and they STILL tease me about it. In addition to the other teacher tricks and relationship-building mentioned, I would be super sweet rather than getting into a confrontation with a student who was misbehaving, pull them aside and say "It makes me really sad to see you acting like that because I know how smart you're capable of being, and I really want to know what I can do help you."

Apparently it was convincing after a while, because when I chastised them months later about being mean to another teacher, they responded "aww, but he's so mean. We're really nice to you because we don't want to hurt your feelings and because we know you actually care about us."