On being brave
August 2, 2013 2 Comments
I read Matt Gomez’s newest blog post this morning about his one rule in his kindergarten class: Be Brave. He explains that after years of using a reward system of behavior management, he realized he wasn’t supporting the kids who needed it the most, so he dropped it and focused instead on building relationships.
I reflected on this piece for some time, but saw a duality of meaning for myself and my classes. You see, as Gomez went on about how being brave worked perfectly for his kindergarteners regarding making friends, trying new things, and missing mom, my inner struggling teacher was crying out, “but I have high schoolers! I have FRESHMEN.” In fact, I’d had kind of a rough year, I felt, regarding behavior management in some of my classes. As I thought about it, I realized why the word “brave” was striking a chord with me. I needed to be brave myself. Summer is nearly over and I find some parts of me dreading starting school again, which saddens me.
In his post, as he spoke of relationship building, Gomez linked to Miss Night’s blog post where she talks in more depth and detail about building relationships as a better form of management than any reward system. But again, she’s talking about kindergarten. While much of what both of them were saying transfers to my high school students, I can still see situations – saw them a few months ago – where I need more tools.
In my reflective mode, I looked at my six years of teaching to try to figure out what has worked and what has not. I come from an alternative certification background and have always felt I missed something in not going the education major route. I missed all those tips and tricks of managing my class and have had to muddle along to figure it out. So while I was looking around for systems – so many restroom passes per semester, bonus points for not leaving class, how many tardies until I turn in an office referral? – I just tried really hard to know them, make them comfortable and acknowledged in my classroom so they’d want to be there. I just tried to plan things that would interest them, until I could get a good management plan together. Our school even tried the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support) system. The pitch was great, we won a grant and I was on the committee and our staff was probably at a 75 percent buy-in, not too bad. But when I began hearing students say, “yeah, I opened the door for Mrs. —-, and she didn’t even give me an R-buck,” I knew this wasn’t the best solution. My news staff did an editorial cartoon wherein one student tells another to drop his books in front of the next teacher so he could pick them up for him. They’d switch roles for the next teacher and each get R-bucks. That system may work as far as eliciting some good behavior and slowing down the bad, but it’s also training kids to look for rewards. Our R-bucks system faded.
The best reward, in my opinion, is a heart-felt “thank you.” Even better if you know the student’s name. So I began to be more conscious of my verbal rewards and figured I’d also up the amount of eye contact and stroll the room more often, making stops here and there for conversations, smiles and pats on shoulders. Shoot, pats on shoulders even seemed to work when someone was talking while I was talking and I didn’t even have to interrupt my talking! But I’ve still been looking for that perfect behavior management plan…
In addition to Gomez’s and Miss Night’s blog posts, I’ve also finally begun Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate (am I the last to get on board?). Only a little ways in, I’ve begun to realize that I’m part pirate! I should have known this. As much as we’re told to listen to our students, we should also remember what they tell us. Seriously, three years ago one of my freshmen wrote on my board that Mrs. Snider was half robot and half pirate. No clue where he came up with this, but because there was another element he wanted to add that wasn’t mathematically possible (and he is very creative), he added that I had been raised by ninjas. That came back to me last night as I was reading TLAP, and I smiled. That kid is one of my co-managing newspaper editors this year.
Burgess made me recall another “out of the mouths of teenaged babes” experience. He spoke of students leaving his classroom commenting about him as a teacher. Last year at the bell, as some of my older students were coming in and my freshman English students were filing out, one of the older kids said she heard one of the younger say, “I love Mrs. Snider. She’s like Jesus in a body.” That floored and darn near overwhelmed me. When it comes down to it all, I think I am realizing, I’m doing most things right. Then why did I feel like I’d had a bad year?
Back to building relationships. I reconsidered those that I felt I’d had a difficult time with and I know that I did not manage those relationships. Why not? I had to consider each one. Some did things from the beginning that rubbed me the wrong way. One or two were simply being sneaky, trying to get away with unacceptable behaviors like getting out of class for dubious reasons, cheating, annoying a neighbor, throwing things across the room and then laughing and playing innocent when I called them on it. I have a hard time getting over that kind of dishonest, put-one-over-on-the-teacher behavior. Some were continually off-task. I should have been able to help more with that in a more positive way. Some were just so quiet, they nearly disappeared, which is probably what they were trying to do. I really should not have let that happen. I was also continually frustrated with what I saw as apathy when more than half of the class did not turn in an assignment we had been working on in class for days. These were bigger projects with mini-deadlines. I included choice, creativity and technology. Not sure how to repair that one. If I lower my expectations, I am not helping them be successful as I feel we should be increasing the rigor, not decreasing it.
I think, though, with bravery as my personal code, respect as my classroom code and an earnest effort at building a relationship with each student, we can have a successful year. I also have to keep in mind that I might not be able to develop that relationship with every student, but I’ll try harder to keep the invitation open.