Tag Archives: classroom discipline

Middle school, the reality: this is a test

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:

  1. Are you confident in your right to be in authority over us?
  2. What’s your style of authority? Are you chill, strict, somewhere in between, or inconsistent?
  3. How do you handle stress?
  4. Do you have a sense of humor?
  5. Do you respect me and my classmates?
  6. Do you let me help you?
  7. Do you have emotional self control?
  8. Do you know what I need?
  9. Do you like me?
  10. Are you worthy of my respect and support?
  11. Can I learn something worthwhile from you?
  12. 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.



Posted by on September 29, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences


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When all else fails, tell the migrating geese riddle

Elation and fatigue. A good combination, I guess. Figuring out where I ought to be, preparing for my re-entry into teaching. Subbing again this month after a year off has awakened that desire again. But I dreaded being in a fifth grade class, the only gig available that day, being more comfortable with older students. I like the developing complexity of teens, their ability to think in the abstract, appreciate multiple points of view, and control their impulses. They know how to work the tech equipment, and don’t need to be escorted between classes.

I arrive, am looking over my sub notes, see the first page lists names of students most likely to give me trouble. Then I see notes from yesterday’s sub–so they’ve been out of their routine already–that’s hard on them. A teacher comes in from across to give me a heads up, says this crew is a handful–they gave yesterday’s sub a hard time; she explains the usual disciplinary procedure, and pledges her support. She says she plans to come in and give a little talk on respecting the sub at the start of the class. Another comes in, and says basically the same thing, and wishes me luck. A third! Must have been some talk in the staff room yesterday. She says I can send the rowdies to her, no problem. It’s certainly a supportive place to work.

Despite the warnings, I feel ready. Eighteen years of parenting, eleven of homeschooling, and a few years teaching public school have done something for my confidence. I mindset to turn things around and not get pulled into a tug of war.

Ms. H– comes in at the start of home room, and says her piece. It comes across fine, not, as I’d feared, as if I was a wuss who needed the senior teacher’s help. Had that experience before. I add that I’ve been given The List, but I don’t plan to look at it unless someone’s going to cause trouble, and if they’re already on it, I’ll come down hard. Ms. H– likes that, later says she likes my style, has to get my number. Maybe I pulled the wool over some eyes there, since I’m not really that way.

And I find I just really like these kids–every one. Not that I’m afforded many meaningful exchanges in the busy classrooms, but they are fine, just fine. They’re really all ready to respect me, and I find all I seem to have to do is be kind and respectful, be real, laugh with them, do what I do best, ask them to help with the rest. “Where is the cafeteria, anyway?” “How do you usually do this?” “Sorry about switching partners on you, can you make it work anyway?” Um, who was that teacher who just came in?” “Yeah, it is boring, but it’s all I have right now. Any ideas how to make it better?” When I can appeal to their better nature, things flow pretty well, most of the time.

It was a fantastic day. I got to do some real teaching, not just administer a test, show a video, or supervise busywork. Didn’t have to send anyone anywhere besides the occasional seat switch for focus. A got kudos from several teachers, had no deadlocks with students, just lots of interesting “contextualized interventions” to keep noise down, keep students participating and being nice to each other, and, what swelled my head most, twice I overheard students calling me “nice.”

Student discipline: “You just have to keep your thumb down,” said one teacher. “Keep ’em in line,” “Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” and so on. We throw the words around, but the best teachers, the ones I respect because I see how they really are with students, don’t really live by that. I think one of the biggest mistakes new teachers make is to take that advice as first principles. But it’s not that simple. It’s not about “classroom control” in that sense. It’s a very difficult thing to express, but achieving a state of educational progress, not a state, a flow, is an art, not a set of techniques. It’s about being very observant, getting a handle on the plan and routine, keeping things going, and showing you really are glad to be there and intend to do your best. And never, ever, trampling any student’s dignity, while, as much as possible, keeping one’s own ego out of it.

Contracted teachers can be so stressed, tired, discouraged, and sometimes it means stupid discipline. As a sub, I think it’s easier to be objective about it. I’m not hampered by loyalty to the system or school or staff, not so concerned about job security or impressing the principal, not tired or burned out, and in most cases the previous reputations of students are unknown to me. Another advantage is that, if I float from place to place, I remain somewhat of a novelty, a mystery.

Dumb discipline–once it was three boys goofing around in an assembly, and a teacher picked one and came down hard, on the wrong one. It was before the event had started, and after they had no doubt been sitting still in their chairs for a hour, and needed to move a bit, check in with the tribe, connect and laugh. Is that so bad? I can’t remember what caught the teacher’s attention–I think it was an object snatched and tossed. She steps in, picks the one the thinks is guilty, tells him to stand, face to the wall, until she says he’s done. It’s called “Step 1,” part of the “Steps” disciplinary strategy. When a kid breaks a rule, the teacher is to say “You’ve chosen Step 1,” and he or she has to stand apart in a designated area until talked to by the teacher, to think, take responsibility and discuss a better way, then they are released. Or go to Step 2 if they continue to break the rules, until there’s an office visit, etc. Handy, straightforward, logical, open to intelligent interpretation by individual staff. And the kids knew what to expect, wherever they were in the school building.

But this teacher was pissed off, perhaps off her game because of the change of routine, and busy with other things. The boy stood there, and stood there. Had she even remembered he was waiting? He looked embarrassed, out of his element. I wanted to step in, since I’d seen the incident, but didn’t want to mess with a teacher on her high horse. What was going through his mind? I didn’t do anything (he hadn’t). This is dumb (it was). Teachers aren’t fair (she wasn’t). My friends are laughing (they were).

As a teacher,you try to interpret events, see who started it, make an example, get back to your job of teaching the others as quickly as possible, but if you realize you’ve got it wrong, for God’s sake, admit it! Many a time in my first year teaching I left a student outside waiting for a talking-to, forgetting they were there. I’ve yelled at students out of cumulative irritation, overreacted, been unfair, reinforced bad behavior with attention, missed important incidents. And I remember that feeling of just being such a rookie–if things started to slide out of control, started to become merely a show, a show of my incompetence and the coolness of some clown, I felt so tense, so frustrated. It takes time to learn the subtle art of classroom control. The very term is misleading, really. It’s more a process of observational, relational, verbal, physical, and emotional multitasking. And having reasonable expectations is very important. I will probably always set impossibly high expectations of what I want to accomplish with and for students, but I’m learning to notice progress, in any case. And I try to take it all with good humor.

When all else fails, I tell this riddle:

You know those V-formations of geese flying their migration routes? How there’s always one arm of the V that’s longer than the other? Who knows why that is?

(I’ve told this any number of times, and hardly ever hear the right answer, which is: Because there are more geese in that one.)


Posted by on June 8, 2013 in Education, Places & Experiences


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