The middle school bell rings, and students start coming the classroom. Most sit down, but three or four continue roaming around, and mess around a little. You ask everyone to settle down; you are about to start, and two of the remaining sit, but one keeps throwing and re-throwing crumpled paper toward, and missing, the garbage can. You approach, and, a bit more insistently, tell the student to sit down, please! You don’t know names yet, and the seating chart isn’t much use. A good number of seated students are watching with interest, and some of those who had sort of settled down are now starting to get restless, and even get up to move around, sharpening pencils, trying to borrow erasers, and so on. Others have seen there’s a distraction and have taken out their smart phones or started new conversations among themselves.
It’s test day, and this time the test is for you. You are not automatically in charge, and without some fast and creative thinking, it could get out of hand so that it’s tough to get on the track of helping students learn.
I’ve felt that distress and frustration, that sense of personal offense. Why won’t they behave? What is one to do? At that point, you’ve probably stopped using the most creative and intelligent part of your brain, so the options you can think of are limited: yell, threaten, whine, shame, make an example of someone, call for assistance.
But we teachers talk about test taking strategies, and during a test, you’re on your own. All the questions are flooding at you at once, and you have to keep you footing and your head above the water. It’s a rush.
Here are some of the questions on this test, in the voice of the students:
- Are you confident in your right to be in authority over us?
- What’s your style of authority? Are you chill, strict, somewhere in between, or inconsistent?
- How do you handle stress?
- Do you have a sense of humor?
- Do you respect me and my classmates?
- Do you let me help you?
- Do you have emotional self control?
- Do you know what I need?
- Do you like me?
- Are you worthy of my respect and support?
- Can I learn something worthwhile from you?
- What are the boundaries here, and are they reasonable?
These questions are not just in the minds (at least subconsciously) of the main testers, but also in the minds of the rest. Though the latter may not have the desire, creativity, or confidence to “act out,” they can still take advantage of the opportunity to learn about you. The overall question here is, “Who are you, and can I work with you? Can you work with us–all of us?”
Even when I was failing these tests many days as a first year teacher and beyond, I felt there was a legitimacy in this kind of testing. Yes, I would take things personally, get riled, get frustrated, and exhaust myself because of my lack of experience, but I could never really blame the “testy” students for being hard on me. Even the sympathy of more experienced teachers and their willingness to make me feel less responsible didn’t really work, though it was well intended. I still see this process as a necessary part of establishing students’ relationship with the teacher, especially a new one. Although I’m not averse to students giving me automatic respect and complying with my plan, I know that’s not realistic, or even best in the long run for either party. Or maybe because I’m not the kind of person who automatically accepts authority (in my heart), I get it.
Fortunately–you could look at it as fortunate–if you fail the test, you get a re-test. And another, and another, and another. If you fail part of the test and pass another part, you get a retest. And you get frequent reviews to keep up your skills. It will happen so many times, eventually you’ll learn not to take it personally, and how to both respond to and sometimes even preempt the test questions, in your own way.
A boy I met a few months ago keeps coming to mind. He’s boisterous, physically active, highly participatory, and, so I heard prior to the start of class, troublesome–it was in my sub notes, and I was also told by a teacher next door. In that he doesn’t sit down, he speaks out of turn, he does things to entertain and distract his classmates, and sometimes, apparently, he loses his temper and has to be removed from the classroom.
He’s also full of fun, and since after all these years I’ve become better at taking a joke, even one on me, it worked out okay between him and me. He got used to me after the first few days I subbed there, and as long as I could do that strange dance, things went well. The other students helped make it work, and the boy himself consented to the dance steps. Yes, he’s out of his seat, talking out, interrupting, but we keep doing our thing and don’t stop for the show. When I can, I have him do the demos, hand out the papers, even demo some of the math, once I find that he’s capable of it.
Why is there a show anyway? Why does he want to strut around, call attention to himself, do anything but sit down and try to do math? He’s a class clown, a born entertainer, possessed of charisma and confidence. And he’s one of the kinds of people we need in this world. Can you picture him grown up? He’s the life of the party! He meets the shy newcomers at the door and makes them laugh in the first thirty seconds. He moves around the room and figures out what’s going on in the big picture. He’s the MC. Yeah, in the course of his years at school, he’ll have to learn to let others have some peace and quiet, to listen and not just talk, and to keep calm when people disagree with him or he doesn’t get his way. But meanwhile, we’re the mature ones, and we as teachers need to nurture nature, not create assembly line workers, molding and cutting cookies, grading samples and sending the culls down a different hatch for quality control.
The way teachers and authority figures deal with these full-of-it kids can really sour them in the long run. I’ve met some alternative high schoolers who probably had a similar way of being in their fifth grade classrooms, and they’re all grown up. Still loud, still walking and talking, still engaging with anyone and anything around them. But also tense, angry, and carrying around a cumulative file full of disciplinary infractions, records of interventions, and numbers that just don’t qualify as ready for college and career ready. You have to wonder if they’ll survive, what they become. Some are positively creepy.
So can we ask ourselves: how do we save the life of the party, instead of creating a monster? Yes, it’s environment, family, circumstances, but what do we do with these students while they are with us—testing, testing—for one hundred and eighty days per year for years?
Intervention should not just be an event. It should be subtle, every day, in the context of community. So you nip all the criticism in the bud that reinforces the “troublemaker” self image (see this post, and instead call it a different name: Lively. Unique. Enthusiastic. No nonsense. High social intelligence. Curious. Be preventative and pro-active (see this post). Solicit help from more mature fellow students–to set an example, ignore attention-getting behaviors, show patience. Catch them doing something right (broadly interpreted). And, as I used to tell my kids when they’d be unkind to one another, keep your heart soft, and be patient. These things take time.