The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Students, Please Forgive Us (pt.2)

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I would be neglectful if I did not explain that this dream of a positive, focused disposition can be a reality.  Many of us see it frequently.  Of the five classes we teach each day, it is common to  have one “bad” class and one “good” class, and those classes remain as such pretty consistently throughout the year.  The other three classes can vary, but effective teachers know how to get four of their five classes consistently hedging toward the “good,” if not fully existing in that zone, and get unexpected results from the “bad” class, if inconsistently.  This all goes on with students largely unaware of the strings teachers pull backstage, the peer coaching many teachers engage in, and the frenetic paddling going on just below the surface while a teacher is teaching—it takes a lot of relentless hard work and relationship building with no guarantee that any of it is going to work out to establish that kind of effective climate in the classroom.  The teacher is responsible for constructing that environment, but it can come from the students, too.  I have a notable instance of that from my eighth year teaching.

It was my 7th period low-level Junior English class, and the fact that most of the students had already lived through ten years of being told they were “low level” meant most of them had developed a repertoire of behaviors they felt were expected of them.  There was daily refusal to work, frequent backtalk, and countless reasons to remove students from the class and write conduct reports to the dean.  There was also Keona, who cut a significant physical presence in the room and was a vocal leader.  She was a mixed bag who could go one way or the other day to day, and sometimes within the same 47-minute period.  I knew her well enough after the first two months to know she had a broad sense of humor.  She also liked to test boundaries and would go as far as I would let her, and sometimes further.  She spoke to me privately one day before class about halfway through the year.  

“Mr. Burd,” she said,  “I’m tired of kids in here acting the fool.”

“I’m tired of it, too,” I told her.  “It has an impact on how I teach and how this class runs.”

“I’m gonna make it different,” she continued.  “I’m gonna start calling kids out.”

I agreed that some student leadership would help.  I also said she might be surprised at how many of her classmates were going to jump on board.  I didn’t think she was aware of how many other kids in the class were eager for a change.  They were juniors after all, and several of them understood how their classes could run and how their decisions can affect change.

So I welcomed Keona’s voluntary leadership, but cautioned her:  “If you’re going to call out your classmates, they’re going to nail you every time you slip, or decide you don’t care.  And there’s not much I can do to stop them.”

Keona accepted that, and the change was underway.  It took a few weeks, but the class gradually changed to the point where there was a ubiquitous positive vibe.  There was a helluva lot more time on task, removals and conduct reports fell to almost zero, and we’d go days with no behavior issues at all.  I was having fun teaching the class, and the students seemed to enjoy being in the room and being engaged in learning without the most of distractions they had become used to.  We never got every kid on board, but the outliers mostly surrendered their acting out behaviors, if not their attitudes, because the class leader had decided there would be no more social reward in “acting the fool.”

Halfway through the presentation a few months ago, I began to wonder how much thought had been given to how the audience would respond to what the students were saying.  The presenters didn’t appear to prioritize empathy, if they thought about it at all, but they aren’t on the hook for that.  Teenagers are plenty capable of empathy, though if we want them to demonstrate it, they have to practice the cognitive skill set empathy demands.  As their teachers, we can prompt them when empathy needs to be apparent so they are practiced in demonstrating it.  We can get them to think about the impact of the message on the audience and adjust it when so much of the message is tinged with negativity.  We have to know the message ahead of time in order to do that.  I was told by someone close to the situation that nobody besides the students vetted the content  before the group spoke before more than 150 teachers who average around ten years of experience in the classroom, and two-thirds of whom held at least one master’s degree.  That answered my question about how the original focus had been lost and why we were seeing something far different than the students had originally intended.

Students next vocalized a few generalizations, one of which was that our school has a bad reputation.  Was I to infer that the climate in our building was a result of our reputation?  And of course we have a bad reputation!  That’s low-hanging fruit in regard to how we are viewed, especially by some of our neighboring districts.  The idea of us having a bad reputation was nothing new to anybody in the audience, and despite the bad reputation, there are still two hundred or more adults who show up each day to help make the building the best it can be, and a lot of those people have done it for twenty or thirty years.  None of the ones I know ever shows up and says “I’m here, even though we have a bad reputation.”  Nor has a “bad reputation” been cause for scores of staff members to quit.  What’s more, teenagers sensationalize their experiences.  The testimonials that kicked off the presentation were proof enough of that.  We fight this battle of perception yearly in regard to a substance abuse awareness campaign that has found year after year that 75% of our students don’t drink alcohol, and a substantially larger number don’t smoke.  Students deny that the numbers are that high even though we have sound statistics gathered in an effective and meaningful manner that back those numbers.  The reason students deny the number is because they are used to hearing about the sensational things their peers do while the mundane are broadcast at a lower volume or even a different frequency.  So the word is out that we have a bad reputation. Students could look to a neighboring district (where I happen to live) and find enough dirt in a short internet search that might get them to rethink reputations since the district where I live has a “good” reputation.

Another generalization was that students don’t feel encouraged.  The presenters didn’t reference any surveys or any other attempts to collect student opinions from across the school demographics in regard to this proclamation.  They perceived a lack of encouragement, though, and left unchallenged, it was their reality.  I challenged that reality, and my own, by combing through our school report card on the Illinois State Board of Education website.  I saw that our graduation rate has increased by 10% in the last 5 years, our freshman on-track to graduate rate has increased by 5% in the past year (the state average has decreased by 4%), and we have a lower achievement gap in almost all measured areas than the state average.  There must be some degree of encouragement happening if we are getting those results.

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Written by seeker70

August 9, 2016 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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