Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Just Talk it Out

When I write, I often share my perfect days, my unequivocal successes, and my bright spots. I search for positives in the darkest of situations. This attitude has helped me through many tough situations, both in the classroom and in life. I view every mistake as a learning opportunity, every snide remark as a chance to repair a relationship, every outburst points to a failure in lesson/classroom design, rather than a personal defect.  

All that being said, I still have my struggles. I love my classes and the way I teach, but not everything is perfect. I, too, have the classroom management issues, the difficult students, the challenging individuals. I let a lot go because my students need the freedom to make discoveries, explore, play, and stumble to meta-cognition. Their end products often justify the freedom and lack of structure I tend to favor. They do amazing things and claim to genuinely enjoy the periods I teach. Still, there are students that push my buttons and consistently cross to the side of disrespect. 

A number of my students in eighth grade habitually make inappropriate comments, distract others, and generally make themselves the center of attention. They like to cross the line and do just enough to get their "boys" to focus on them. I teach middle school after all. In short, I have some students who are not creating a respectful classroom environment each and every day. I don't blame them entirely, it points to some failures by me, the teacher. Regardless, things had to change. 

I could solve this in the short term by handing out "respect marks" or detentions, but I would rather shape long term behavior. I would rather get to the bottom of their behavior rather than simply make the class a blind exercise in primitive behaviorism. I would rather focus on relationships and conflict resolution more than power dynamics. 

Knowing the make-up of my eighth grade classes, I spent much of the first few weeks collaboratively constructing rules. I hoped this would help the rules seem more genuine and worthwhile because they had a stake in them. Unfortunately, they used our collaborative exercise as a time to make jokes and did not take it seriously. 

When reminders of the rules did not work, I used a strategy coined by Larry Ferlazzo called Three Things I Want.  Basically, I had an adult conversation with the kids where we each listed the three things we wanted from the class. They wanted more freedom of speech and democracy (I wasn't quite sure how they could have more) and I wanted more respect for me and their classmates. We agreed on some concrete steps to make this a reality. It has actually worked quite nicely for most of the ring leaders. 

One student in particular seemed unaffected by our agreement. He continued to test my limits. Out of options and without a new plan, I went back to basics. I just sat down and talked with him. In the most honest way I could, I told him my feelings. I told him this can't continue and I would like his help in fixing our relationship. I told him that I was not going to threaten him with punishments. I told him I had nothing to offer him except improving our relationship. I pulled out our three things and told him they were important to me, just as the relationship between him and I was. I told him I honestly believed he was important to this class and I looked forward to things improving. I told him I knew he could better his behavior and I was excited for us to work on our communication. This seemed to have an effect on him. My honesty made an impact. While things are nowhere near perfect, I see gradual improvement. It isn't a total and unmitigated success, but we are moving in the right direction. 

I offer this new strategy---an honest talk.

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