A first-year teacher walks into her classroom, full of fire, pep, ideas, and research-based strategies that are proven to work in a classroom. When her 8th period rolls along there is this one girl who just refuses. “What does she refuse?” Everything. Helen doesn’t work. She doesn’t come prepared. She doesn’t sit in her assigned seat. She doesn’t stay quiet when quiet is necessary. She doesn’t speak up during discussions. She just doesn’t.
The teacher tries every research-based strategy she can think of: her transitions are smooth, her lessons are authentic, she tries to make a connection to the student by asking meaningful questions and sharing meaningful moments. Nothing works. She tries to engage her by using music, movies, pictures, every conceivable topic under the sun is tried and still she refuses. She tries whole group instruction, she tries small groups, she tries one-on-one interaction, she tries gallery walks and jigsaws, Kagan structures, and response cards -- all of which are proven to work! None of them work.
One day, completely fed up and frustrated, the first-year teacher decides that if everything that definitely works doesn’t work, why not try a strategy that is proven NOT to work? During her directions, 17 students are listening while Helen walks around the back of the room and slouches on the windowsill looking at birds. When she finishes with announcements, the first-year teacher simply says “Oh, and Helen, you’ve worked so hard you deserve a break. While everyone else is working, learning, and enjoying the lesson, you just walk around, look at objects, and generally, try your best to look unhappy and disapproving.”
Helen looked over for the first time all year, and in her eyes raged an internal debate. She doesn’t do what teachers say, ever, but what this teacher just told her to do was what she wanted to do anyway. The corner of her mouth turned up in a half smile, and she sat with one of the groups and did nothing; the fact that she was seated when she was supposed to be seated marked a huge turnaround upon which the teacher could build.
Sarcasm is proven not to work, but in this true-ish story, it did. Calling a student out in front of her peers as if it were high noon at the O.K. Corral is proven not to work, but in this true-ish story, it did. Telling a student to do nothing is proven not to work, but in this true-ish story, it did. There is no reason this strategy should have worked. I am the biggest advocate of teacher-created, field-proven methods, but even by my non-research standards, this first-year teacher (possibly me in the past) did everything exactly wrong. Why did it all go so right?
While the methods this teacher (me, a long time ago) used weren’t great, the creative process behind their creation was perfection. Too many teachers hit their ‘tried everything that works’ point around mid October and at that point they write a student’s success off as something the student needs to bring to the table. “I tried, the ball is in his court now,” is the kind of sentence you’ll hear these teachers use in the faculty room. That kind of mentality might work well for first dates, hiring part time, seasonal help, and picking fantasy football players, but it doesn’t work well for students. In order to avoid teacher and student burnout, and by extension, explosions and arguments, it’s important that you solve management problems creatively.
I can promise that most teachers entered the profession because they earnestly wanted to help students. It’s odd that their burning desire was extinguished when they actually, you know, met real life students who don’t react like they’re characters in a Hallmark movie. It’s not disgruntled, old teachers a year out of retirement that concern me, because even bad teaching, stretched over 35 years, will have a certain stability and efficiency to it from which we can learn something. It’s not inexperienced, new teachers that concern me...they’ll develop and change as their career grows. It’s teachers who are 10-15 years into their career who have given up on students that are my biggest concern. Teachers who fall into this category are experienced enough to convince themselves of the validity of their own opinion, young enough to influence incoming new talent, and they have enough time left to do decades of damage, or worse, decades of nothing noticeable.
Instead of giving up, here’s what our first year teacher did (even if she didn’t know it...c’mon, she’s a first year teacher).
The student from this anecdote created a perfect storm for an explosive argument, but the teacher avoided it. By letting the behavior go for so long, the teacher created a perfect stage for an explosive argument, but was able to take care of the problem without the proverbial curtain rising. Explosions will happen when you work with difficult students. No one can avoid every possible eventuality. Once, a girl walked into my classroom, screamed a vile obscenity, and threw her books forcibly across the room. Not me, nor any other student in the room had said anything to her. She was enraged about some other unknown event that happened earlier in her day, or life. This section is as much about managing the eventual explosions that happen as it is about avoiding explosions in the first place.
So much of the writing published about education is published by people who don't teach. I figured it was time for a teacher to write about teaching. I've been proud to teach 8th-grade ELA in Dunkirk City Schools since 2007, and to serve at Fredonia State University as an adjunct professor, teaching educational technology since 2017.