It’s winter break, and I’m sitting at my old home in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, reflecting on my first 4 months of teaching.
Recently, my homework completion rate—which miraculously rose to 80-90% at the beginning of October—has gone back down to about 25-30%, and I’ve found myself making excuses for why I can’t work harder to fix that or other issues in my classroom, most of which come back to me being absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed.
However, despite many setbacks, things are still going relatively well. I have behavior almost entirely under control, my kids are generally invested in me and my class, and I can honestly say that there’s learning taking place in my classroom.
Anyway, after four months of observing things in my school and across Newark, I think it’s appropriate for me to start commenting on some of the issues I’m seeing. I fully realize that I am by no means an expert in teaching yet, but I hope my perspective can add to the conversation around how we can do better for our kids.
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There’s nothing more dangerous than a first year TFAer who is having an easy time. And don’t tell them that they’re having an easy time or they will protest that it is not easy, but actually the toughest thing they’ve ever done in their lives. But the fact is that although most new TFAers are struggling to control their classes and around 10% won’t even complete their first year, a few fortunate souls, for various reasons, have first years that are relatively good.
I’ve thought about this a bit over the past few months, and I totally disagree. But my issue isn’t that I feel Gary was undermining how this is “actually the toughest thing I’ve ever done;” my issue is that Gary implicitly stated that behavioral management is what determines how difficult teaching is.
Gary is right that I’ve faced fewer issues with behavior than many of my peers. As I explained in my earlier post, my principal and the administration in my school implemented strong systems to deal with behavior, and they put together a solid team to manage school culture. I’m not sure I would say that behavior management in a high-poverty, urban public school is ever “easy” for a first year teacher, but I’ll defer to Gary on that one.
Here’s the thing, though: Once behavioral issues are out of the way, a teacher can focus much more on instruction, which I can say—excuse my flippancy—is kind of difficult. But obviously, behavior and instruction are interconnected in many ways, and that’s what I want to comment on in this post.
In our first month teaching, several of my peers in Teach For America and I observed that a number of veteran teachers weren’t following protocol around how to deal with certain behaviors. For example, instead of taking phones from students who pulled them out in class and turning them in to the administration, many teachers were negotiating with students, giving phones back at the end of class or simply asking students to put them away. We couldn’t understand why, but I feel like I understand it now.
At Barringer in years past, when it was far more dysfunctional than it’s been this year, there were fewer centralized systems to support teachers with behavioral issues, which meant that one or two students could derail an entire class for the majority of a period. Some of those behavioral issues would arise because students just felt like talking and disregarding what their teachers had planned, but many other behavioral issues arose because students were unengaged and/or confused.
The logical response to students who don’t want to pay attention is to negotiate. The response to students who are unengaged is to plan activities that are more fun, and the response to students who are confused is to make lessons less rigorous. So, that’s what happened.
I’m not sure what the answer to students who simply don’t want to pay attention is, when a school has no centralized systems for dealing with them. The way I’ve come to handle them is by giving them multiple opportunities to change their behavior, and if they’re unwilling, sending them out of the room—first, so I can have a conversation with them and give them an opportunity to apologize and change their behavior, then to hand them over to the culture team.
I struggled with this for the first few months because I couldn’t reconcile kicking a student out; I didn’t want to prevent them from learning. But I’ve reached a point now where I won’t allow a student—who, after repeated redirections, will not demonstrate respect to me or their peers—to stop everyone else from learning. I certainly don’t have this all figured out yet, and I’m open to feedback from folks on it, but that’s how I’ve chosen to handle that specific kind of misbehavior. But what I’m more interested in discussing is how other misbehaviors affect instruction.
First, a little background on my classes (and I’ll stay away from the jargon as best I can): I teach five sections of English 3, so I have mostly juniors with a few seniors doing credit recovery. Of those sections, two contain all general education students, and three are inclusion classes, which have a mix of general education students and special education students. For the inclusion classes, I have a special education teacher who provides in-class support to the special education students.
In all of my classes, but more so in my general education classes in which I have no co-teacher for added support, I’ve struggled to keep kids engaged. Part of this comes back to me personally being kind of boring and having a really dry sense of humor, but I would say most of it comes back to poor planning on my part, which stemmed in the past from two issues: 1) I didn’t have many techniques around how to create a variety of engaging English lessons, and 2) I was too nervous to release control of the lesson to my students. As a result, my days were (and still sometimes are) plagued with the dreaded, “This class is sooo boring” or the classic heavy sigh/head-to-desk combo.
Now, you might be like, “But Ryan, you could have just walked to a room in which students were more engaged or scoured Google for engaging English lessons or activities!” Well, I did. But the problem was that most of the engaging activities and ideas I saw and read were not aligned to a meaningful objective. One of the most engaging examples I saw was a pre-reading activity that made students stand in one area of the room, depending on whether they agreed or disagreed with a statement about their values; what made it a pre-reading activity was that the values statements had to do with issues characters face in the story. Ultimately, I was seeing more fun, but less alignment and fewer academic challenges.
At the end of the first quarter, I decided to do two days of data and reflections with my kids. I compiled all of their academic and behavioral data and went over it with them, as a class and individually. I also had them take anonymous surveys on me and my class (as well as my co-teachers, when applicable). At the end, we all crafted improvement plans.
Not so surprisingly, the surveys showed that one of my weaknesses was “keeping class interesting,” so after I presented the survey data on the second day, I asked students to list specific strategies I could use to make class more interesting. Based largely on their suggestions, I planned much more partner and group work and occasionally brought in donuts or cookies for a couple of my more “boring” classes.
I’ll put myself on the line and present the survey data about me, exactly as I showed them, below. You can click on the graph to see a larger image:
My students responded well. I think they felt like their voices were being heard, which helped with investment. It also proved helpful with behavioral redirections because it allowed me to remind them that I worked hard to plan a lesson based on their suggestions and that, in turn, they needed to abide by their commitments to do better, as well.
Now, although I still have a long way to go, I’ve been able to keep my kids more engaged and give them some fun activities without sacrificing alignment to my objectives.
Confusion and Frustration
In the first month, particularly in my inclusion classes, I had several students who put their heads down and were resistant to completing much if any work in my classes; in other words, they were checking out. I spoke to my co-teachers, as well as to a few of those students outside of class, and it became clear that they were confused and frustrated. “Your class is really hard,” I remember one saying. “We’ve never done anything like this in English class before.” (At the time, we were picking apart nonfiction texts for their arguments and different rhetorical appeals they were using, which aligns with the shift toward informational text for the Common Core.)
I questioned myself for a long time. As cliché as it sounds, I asked myself if I’d set my bar too high for my students, many of whom are years below grade level in reading. I wondered if all of the rhetoric in education reform around standards and high expectations was keeping me from realizing what my instruction should actually look like.
But I couldn’t reconcile giving my students less or easier work. I knew they were struggling because of my shortcomings, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. Over a couple months, I worked harder to think through how I would scaffold my lessons better and explain difficult concepts even more clearly. During lunch, I would reflect on my first three classes, and think through how I could add more structure for my last two classes, which were both inclusion classes.
I was amazed at the progress my classes made. Heads that had always been down were now up for entire classes, and some of my students who were struggling the most demonstrated incredible growth when I assessed their reading and writing.
In my Advisory one day, a student who is in a different section of English 3 was asking me about my class. “Is your class hard?” he inquired, to which I responded that he shouldn’t ask me; he should ask one of my students. He turned to one of my special education students with whom I had struggled a lot in the first month.
“Is Mr. Heisinger’s class hard?” he asked.
“Yeah,” my student replied.
“Does he make you do work every day?”
“Does he make you write every day?”
Then they were both silent for a moment.
“… But he lets us plan before we write, which is really cool,” my student added. (Cue dorkiest smile ever from me, covering my mouth just a few feet away.)
Without doubt, it isn’t just pedagogical tweaks that have helped me to keep improving my classroom. I’ve worked hard to build relationships with my students, inside and outside of the classroom, and although I don’t do it nearly enough, calling parents has been a gamechanger. And of course, part of it has nothing to do with me. Sometimes, students can gain motivation or change their behavior because of other teachers’ work or things going on outside of school. But I’d like to think that I made good choices in my first few months and that my students are learning more because of them.
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The fact that I have behavior largely under control has made me more fully realize the inadequacies of my instruction. It’s made me more fully realize how my training fell short and just how much I’m going to need to do to be the teacher my kids deserve. I could have made more fun, less rigorous activities, which may have made my life a lot easier these past few months. But I didn’t. And since I’ve really gotten behavior down, I would say my job has actually gotten harder—albeit in a much different way than Gary implied.
Ultimately, what I’m doing now may not be the best. Hell, I’m a first-year teacher; it’s probably not. And I’m sure in the coming months and years, I’ll find better strategies. But what I know now is that I don’t have to sacrifice rigor to keep my kids from checking out or totally losing interest.
I realize I have only 5 weeks of training and a few months of teaching under my belt, but I know we need to do better—and we can. I know I have so much to learn, especially from veteran educators, but I also know that veterans need to keep checking their assumptions about their kids and working hard to make their instruction better, too. Our kids deserve it.
PS: This should go without saying, but for any teachers reading this, if you all have any strategies you’d like to share, PLEASE leave them in the comments. I’d love any ideas!