Monday, February 28, 2011

Space and Walls

“It is far better to be feared than loved.”

- The Queen of Hearts to Stayne in “Alice in Wonderland”

As a teacher, I often think about discipline. Not too long ago, I posted about the kind of teacher I find myself to be and the teacher I aspire to be.

Middle schoolers are their own breed of student. They need to be taken seriously while they need the proper space to be gangly and independent and needy and sweet. And within those spaces to spread out, they need firm walls.

Oh yeah, no problem.

I achieve various degrees of success on employing this philosophy per class, per day. But I feel pretty comfortable overall.

There’s a teacher who teachers a harder subject than me. Harder in the sense that it’s more difficult for students to learn, and they’re more likely to act out. I also think it’s harder to make as interesting as Social Studies. (Which is AWESOME.)

Though this teacher works hard to be the most knowledgeable teacher she can in her subject, she struggles with discipline. The same students whom she’s coached, whom she’s tutored before AND after school, will act out during class with no remorse. I suspect they’d spend less time needing extra help if they paid attention during class.

This teacher recently acquired a student teacher. Both teachers have been frustrated with two groups, both of which I also teach. A couple of weeks ago, during lunch, the student teacher lamented about one group in particular.

I told her, “They don’t act like that for everyone.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Part of it is the subject.” I treaded lightly. “Part of it is different teachers have different classroom management styles. If I were you, I’d observe the group in other classes.”

“My student teaching only covers math classes.”

“You can go during your prep periods,” I said. “That’s what I did as a student teacher. Methods I saw other teachers use, I still use today.”

She didn’t seem convinced.

A couple of days later, she’d taken my advice and agreed that, yes; those students do behave differently with different teachers.

Last week, I woke up feeling lousy. By the time I drove to school, my stomach threatened to revolt, and I became hot and chilly at the same time. I didn’t want to call in sick because I had too much to do before February break. Three of my classes were working on projects, so I could hang in there (if I didn’t vomit). I had a little while to figure out what to do with my first class. Mediating a debate wouldn’t work in my state.

I directed the students to read two small chapters on microloans and answer four questions. My carrot was that if they finished in time, we’d watch “The Simpson’s” episode Lend-a-Lisa because it talked about Kiva microloans. “This isn’t my most stellar teaching moment,” I murmured to the teacher whose room I temporarily occupied.

I don’t have my own room, but instead wheel a cart with my supplies from room to room.

After class was over, I was glad to have a period off to rest. The room next door was noisy. Noisier than usual. It’s not my policy to interfere with other teachers, but I only heard the student teacher’s voice.

I peeked my head in and saw her trying to settle the students with threats. They didn’t care. I walked around, asking what they were supposed to be doing. I coaxed the ones with a worse reputation by saying something like; “She’s a student teacher, learning how to teach (I may or may not have added, “your rotten class.”). Why don’t you give her a break and get to work? If you don’t understand what to do, then raise you hand and she’ll help you.”

When the room was reasonably settled, I kept the adjoining door slightly open. Minutes later the classroom erupted. The student teacher threatened and doled detention left and right. One of the sassier students was in a state. I asked her what happened. It turned out another student had gotten injured, and a bunch of students had stood up because of concern, but had gotten reprimanded by the student teacher.

The student teacher just wanted a quiet room. She couldn’t tell the difference between bad behavior and an incident.

I sprang into action; checking on the injured student in the bathroom, interviewing other students, getting another teacher in the room, and alerting the appropriate people in the office.

The student teacher was beside herself when I spoke with her later. I reassured her, “It could’ve happened to anyone.”

It’s hard to stand up there, commanding respect, keeping attention, and teaching an interesting lesson that sticks. A teacher is constantly adapting. If the student teacher isn’t with the grade-level or the right teacher or in the right school or gets thrust in the wrong situation, it may make them walk away from teaching.

I hope this student teacher doesn’t give up, and figures out how to create her own space and walls.

Teachers, what one piece of advice would you give

new teachers about classroom management?

P.S. Tune in Thursday when post about the debate and how my heart has begun to break because my ETS job is nearly over.


  1. I hope she doesn't give up, either! Good teachers are hard to come by. She is fortunate to have you.

  2. We have to treat the students like individual PEOPLE and not just bodies in desks or as a group. Different people react differently to different stimuli--including teachers. Threats are seldom effective.

  3. Something that works for me is to praise the ones that are showing positive behavior. If someone is acting out, praise the rest of the class with remarks like thank you for listening or whatever the task is that you want them to do.

  4. It sounds like such a difficult balance to strike! Learning how to deal with each group and how to react has to test your patience. I hope the student teacher hangs in there!

  5. Oh Theresa Milstein with your gorgeous pink hair! My goodness!! Whenever I see a rowdy bunch of schoolkids in the train station as I wait for my train on my daily commute I always think how I don't envy whoever has to teach them!!!! But really I'm grateful that there are good people out there wanting to teach these young minds! I hope this student teacher continues to learn and grow in confidence. She can only do so through great mentoring and experience and tenacity. Good luck to her!!

    Awwww wow!!! Your contract is finishing already??!?! So soon!

    Big hugs! take care

  6. Teaching is tough!

    I think one thing that makes a good teacher is not expecting the class to be perfect angels. Kids purposely push buttons, especially on a new, young teacher. It's hard, but hopefully she can realize this and not let them get her upset - it's part of their fun to see her react. It's also easier when you start fresh with your own class.

    When I was starting out I yelled a lot. I learned that speaking softly and observing sets the tone and helps spot problems before they erupt.

    Good luck to her - and to you moving on from your assignment, from one sub to another =)

  7. @ Katherine, thanks. I hope she comes into her own.

    @ Shannon, good advice. Students are all different and need to be treated differently. Thank you!

    @ Choices, I believe pointing out positive behavior goes a long way too.

    @ Meredith, it isn't easy, which is why being a daily sub is so invaluable. It makes a few regular classes seem less daunting.

    @ Old Kitty, sometimes when I see a group of lousy kids, I'm glad I'm not teaching them too.

    She seemed much better today. I hope she gains even more confidence.

    I've been there since October 15th, which is a long time compared with the normal 12 weeks. But it does feel too soon.

    @ Tara, I don't expect perfect angels either, though I notice other teachers get closer than I do. I agree, starting with a fresh class is much easier.

    I've tried not to yell because it really doesn't work.

    Thanks for the tips!

  8. I'm convinced that middle schoolers are the hardest kids to teach because they're at such a sensitive time in their development. I don't know how you do it. You have my utmost respect.


  9. Wow, I remember how certain students used to behave towards our student teachers back in high school.. not a pretty sight.

    I think you're absolutely right though.. she's still learning, and eventually will sort it all out and become an awesome teacher, just like you :)

  10. Hi Theresa,

    You go on being you and she'll straighten out and try to become "you."

  11. You're travelling? I'm so sorry. (I've seen the teachers who have to do this. I've subbed for teachers who have to do this. And it just sucks!)

    As for a tip...Yeah, got none. I'm still trying to figure out classroom control myself.

  12. @ Jai, I don't know how I do it either. Today was stellar. Other days I think I've lost my mind or they've made me lose my mind or something.

    @ WritingNut, thank you. That's sweet. I was lucky my student teaching was all positive except for one day. And that one day made me a better teacher because I gave it to them the next day, and they were great after that.

    @ Nas, that's such a nice thing to say. Thanks!

    @ Liz, traveling is a pain. But the upside is I don't have a homeroom so I don't have to hand things out and collect them signed, do attendance, find out who's eating school lunch, do activities with them for 20 minutes, and make sure they're quiet during the pledge. At least, that's what I say to myself when I'm dragging my cart around.

  13. Wow, teaching middle school has got to be incredibly challenging. I know I couldn't do it so I really admire that you're doing it (and doing it well)! This girl is still continuing to figure herself out and middle school is when many people reach their lowest points. She's so lucky she's got you.

  14. In my first teaching contract last year, I went in, guns blazing. I had been given advice that you don't smile for at least 6 weeks!!! Then you can let go a bit. It totally DID NOT work with the group of kids I had. Some of the super defiant ones just got more super defiant. And such a horrible way to spend 6 weeks!!! Anyway... my contract this year started out differently.

    We discussed expectations as a class. I reward consisently for the positive behaviour. I have very rarely got too cranky with this lot but when I have ... THEY LISTEN. Last year was good for me to know what NOT to do .. or at least what not to do FOR ME. I much prefer to focus on all the good stuff they do ... they love it as well.

    I am a stickler for walking in 2 quiet lines however throughout the school. We've had a few practice runs. They soon learnt to be quiet.

  15. That is a tough learning curve for the student teacher. How great she had you there to help her out.
    I still can't believe you have to walk around with a trolley. I hope something comes up for you before you finish your contract.

  16. I imagine that middle school is a whole different beast than college, so I have no idea about classroom management advice. But I do know that I wanted to quit teaching at first too. (It's hard, damnit!) I hope she sticks with it too.

  17. @ Saumya, thanks. I never thought I'd teach this age-group either. But working in a 5th-grade class so many years made it easier to get them.

    @ Elembee, I've heard the same no-smile advice, and it didn't work for me either.

    Great advice. You've learned a lot in a short time.

    Middle schoolers are the WORST at lines. It's like they rebel from all they learned in elementary school.

    @ Brigid, I've decorated the front of my trolley. I have a picture of Bella and Hermoine, with the question "Role Mode?" and about how each woman dealt when the loves of their lives left them. Then I have a bunch of pictures of the protestors in Egypt.

    @ Missed Periods, I thought you taught in high school. That makes all the grammar mistakes on your blog even worse!

  18. Sorry I'm late PC issues. Poor ST, sounds like the wolves are nipping at her heels. I sure hope she hangs in there, we need good teachers. :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  19. Hi Theresa .. sounds she missed out a bit during the student teacher phase .. but you're giving her that help now - if she's humble enough to realise she doesn't know it all and can learn more ..

    Hope you're both ok .. and have good weeks .. Hilary

  20. A few of the women in my family are or have been teachers. Most of them have state in elementary school and my mom still teaches 3rd grade. She has some TOUGH students to deal with. I remember one who would blatently use his pants as a place to go to the bathroom just to get her attention. Many of her kids come from very broken homes and they tend to act out most of the time.
    Each year she has to adjust to the new students in her class but for YEARS now she has been teacher of the year because she is both feared and loved. She demands respect and these students give it to her. Her kids get better grades, do better on the state exams all because she has learned the lesson in both being feared and loved by her kids.
    She also has a death stare. She used it on me as a kid. I don't know what it is about this certain look but I swear it works. One sideways glance of ole' evil eye and we all corrected our behavior.

  21. @ Jules, she's doing a bit better, but I wish she'd stop making obvious incentives/punishments. I think there's a better way.

    @ Hilary, people are being way too generous. I don't think I'm the answer to her woes. But if she asks for advice, I'll be happy to offer it. I don't think the regular teacher will be out of the room again!

    @ Erica, I'm so impressed with teachers like your mother. It's not easy to be comfortable enough with yourself to command both fear and love.

    A death stare - ha! I know it well.

  22. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs. My heart goes out to that student teacher. I too hope she finds her level. Very good of you to lend her a hand and sound advice.

  23. Teaching is such a difficult job. I wish that teachers as good as you would be rewarded with more pay because you really are influencing for the better, a future crop of kids.

  24. Oh what a hard job. Good on you for giving her advice. I hope she listens.

  25. Sorry to hear you aren't feeling well. I hope you feel better soon. I don't know why I've missed some of your posts! :(

    Theresa, you are very inspirational. I hope the student teacher sees that and I hope she sees that there's someone like you out there to help someone like her..and I hope that's enough reason for her not to give up.

  26. I don't envy you! I would never have the patience for being a teacher. Good on you for helping the student teacher out.

  27. @ Ann, I hope she finds comfort level too.

    @ Michael, yeah, pay us more! Especially me because ETS pay isn't even as good as regular teacher pay. And don't even ask about daily sub pay. Can't live on it.

    @ Niki, thanks. I hope she does too.

    @ Len, I'm not sick anymore. Thanks!

    I think she's doing better. If I can offer any help before I leave at the end of next week, I will.

    @ Sari, it does require lots of patience. Thanks!

  28. Oh my! I admire you guys a whole lot, I know I'd never have what it takes to be a teacher.

  29. Hm, how about occasional homework passes issued to reward good behavior, esp for a tough assignment? Announced in the beginning of class, or of a week, maybe it'll help? Would they settle down with the prospect of not doing an assignment?

  30. Hm... I haven't been teaching that long so I don't think I have any major pearls of wisdom yet! (except that you REALLY need to try and not get too familiar with them - because then when you try to be strict after that they don't take you seriously!)

    I'm trying to create FUN in the classroom by having the class arranged in "teams". They get "challenge" questions occasionally and win points for their team from that, and lose points for their team for not doing homework/making lots of noise. This way they try to get EACH OTHER to behave because no one wants their team to lose!

  31. @ Deniz, some days I don't either! But I agree, it's not for everyone.

    @ Joanne, I don't assign much homework, but that would be perfect for the student teacher because her class gets a lot more. I don't know if the main teacher would go for it though - state standards - tests to prepare for!

    @ Rachel, so true. I tow that fine line. I'm relaxed and will have regular conversations, but I keep my standards high. I'll call home, keep a kid for detention, and give my look.

    The team challenges sound brilliant!

  32. I'm not a teacher, but I suppose that student teacher will definitely have to observe others in action and see what will work for her. Being observant will help lots. Some kids do need more supervision than others.

  33. This minor in comparison, but I teach VBS at our church every summer. I always like the 5 year olds because they're fun and "easy" (they still respect you even if you're boring) LOL
    But one year they gave me the 4th graders.
    A yikes.
    By far, that was THE hardest age to get interested and control. After I lost it with them, I finally figured them out and later actually was able to enjoy them. But I did have to think back on how my fourth grade teacher was with us.
    I think you gave that teacher some excellent advice about observing other teachers and styles. It's like writing. If you read various styles and genres, you eventually develop a style that is your own. :)

  34. never taught MS, so I can't comment directly. But I did teach 10th grade English and 12th grade yearbook. (It was an elective.)

    I LOVED teaching English, and all 150 of my 10th graders were total DOLLS for me. I took them seriously, we worked on problems, and they performed.

    I HATED doing yearbook, I'd never done it before, and I had no support so I was clueless. The seniors ran all over me. I was a total discipline FAIL.

    But we survived. Any help there? I do hope your gal hangs in there. IMO, subbing is the hardest teaching position of them all. Sounds like you do a great job~ ;o) <3

  35. @ JL, it's so true. Sometimes I tell the more difficult students, "I'm a teacher, not a babysitter. I can't watch you every 5 seconds to make sure you're doing the right thing.

    @ Jennifer, great analogy! Writing is like teaching. For both, we must develop a style all our own.

    @ LTM, not knowing our subject does make it more difficult to get a handle on discipline. Good point! 150 kids is A LOT.