I’ve written a lot about how to manage behavior, materials, and students in the Art classroom. But, what happens when your interventions and management fail? Read any text book about classroom management, and you are led to believe that if you only follow these simple (ha!) processes and/or “raise your expectations” the students will behave and your classroom will be a well-managed environment. And, in some environments, “raising your expectations” does work.
I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but I’ve worked in a lot of environments wherein my first, second, and third attempts at different methods of classroom management have failed. The textbooks (and some expert teachers) may not want to admit it, but classroom management isn’t as simple as process(es) 1-2-3. The reason relates to the complex cultural nature of modern classrooms. Too often, teachers and students are in a cultural conflict when it comes to values, rules, consequences, and what is considered appropriate and “good” behavior (interested in cultural conflict and critical multiculturalism in the classroom? Read Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today's Classrooms by Milner, 2010).
It can be so disheartening when your classroom management fails; it is hard to not take it personally. We all got into teaching because we want to provide students with positive learning environments. Knowing that we may have contributed to the failure of our academic environment is the most soul-sucking feeling. And, this feeling of failure often means teachers are reluctant to ask for help . . . After all, who wants to tell their principal, “Hey, I’m really not doing so well at this teaching thing.”
So, what do you do when you feel “trapped” by that hour a day you spend with the most out-of-control class on the planet? Here are a few suggestions:
1. First, shake off (as best you can) those feelings of failure. EVERY teacher has been where you are. And, if they claim they haven’t; they are liars (big ones). As Scarlet O’Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day.” You can’t change what has happened in your classroom, but you can work to be a positive force of change in your classroom. The desire to change and taking action to change are the two most important and meaningful steps you can make when you’re in a failing situation.
2. Read the Essential 55 by Ron Clark and implement the rules and consequences appropriate to your classroom. Possible risks: the students balk the rules and you are spending a lot of time calling parents and meting out consequences. But, it works, and you have a running classroom again. I’ve never had the Essential 55 fail me, and I’ve been in some tough environments. It does take a lot of time, so it isn’t my favorite choice (but, dude it works).
3. Require the students to stop the task they are assigned, and run your class like a very strict, traditional, core-academic, class. Possible Risks: the students complain and refuse to do the assigned work and you have lots of defiance issues. You spend a lot of time calling parents and meting out consequences. It doesn’t work, and you are back to square one.
4. Remind the students of your rules and expectations. Recognize the students whom consistently follow these procedures by allowing them to use nicer tools and/or materials. DONOT GIVE OUT CANDY ETC. Giving out candy often causes students to believe that good behavior should be earned by the teacher, and they will not behave unless you offer them a treat; you do not want to begin that (especially in a failing situation). Possible risks: Students do not care about getting to use special materials and/or make fun of those who do. Students whom do not get to use special materials balk and attempt to engage you by arguing about their worthiness which wastes your time and increases your need to mete out consequences and call parents.
5. Identify the main disciplinary persons contributing to your situation. Warn them if they don’t change, they will be assigned a different task (something really unpleasant). If they don’t change (they most likely will not as nothing has been working thus far), move them to a new seat, give them an alternative assignment, and continue to do fun and pleasant activities with the students whom are behaving. You will eventually have full tables of “alternative assignment” students. Let your administration know about this plan; let them know that for students whom refuse to do the work, you will be following the next step in your consequence plan. Most principals will be on-board with you (after all, you are working to solve the situation). Call the “alternative assignment” students’ guardians, and tell them about the situation. Let parents know that until you see a full day of appropriate behavior, the students will continue to do the alternative assignment. Possible risks: The “alternative assignment” students refuse to do the work, and you have defiance issues. Follow the next step in your consequence plan for these students. You spend a lot of time calling parents and meting out consequences.
6. Get support from your administration. You can invite an administrator to observe the class and ask for feedback after. You can ask an administrator to drop in and back you up as you tell the class how they need to shape up (be specific), and cite specific consequences for non-compliance (be specific). Possible risks: You may not have a compassionate or present principal. You may get feedback you don’t want to hear (but probably still need to hear). You spend time calling parents and meting out consequences.
You may have noticed that in every situation I’ve cited that you will spend time calling parents and meting out consequences. When you are in a failing situation, you need to set and/or re-set boundaries. Students often don’t like new boundaries; after all, they were getting to behave however they wanted under the previous set of circumstances. Setting and re-setting boundaries takes time, effort, and constant vigilance. Make peace with the added time you will need to spend in talking to parents and students about behavior; in the long run it will pay off.
I want to share with you a failing situation of my own. I think we too often observe one another on the internet and think, “Wow. I wish I could be like him/her. I bet s/he never fails/messes-up/has-this-problem like me.” Look, I’m 9 years into this Art teaching game, and I’m learning new things every single day. I was once told that it takes five years of active teaching for a person to really know what they are doing inside the classroom. If you had told me that in my third year of teaching I would have said this was untrue (I was hubristic). But, now, half-way through my 9th year, I wonder if maybe (just maybe) I’ll know what I’m doing at year 15. This job is tough. Never doubt it.
My Story of Failure
I teach two classes of 7th grade students; I see them during 4th and 5th period. My 4th period class has 46 students, and the class runs smoothly. Sure, it is challenging; there are 46 students and they are (insane) 7th graders, but the class still runs.
My 5th period class has 43 students, and it is horrific. The kids yell, they run around, they horseplay, they refuse to work, they talk when I talk, they don’t listen to directions, they defy every consequence . . . About the only thing they don’t do is listen. I was absent last month for three days to attend a professional conference. My substitute (a retired, veteran, Title I teacher of 30+ years) walked out of the school during the 5th period class and refused to return. My principal had to teach 5th period when I was absent, and even she had problems with them. The week before Thanksgiving one student even stabbed another student (with no provocation) with a pencil until the student bled. When I tell my husband stories about this class he says, “Are you teaching people or feral cats!?”
In short, it is insane. After this experience, I feel Navy Seal training probably (and should if it doesn’t) involves being trapped in a hostile environment for long durations of time. It is really stressful. On Tuesday, the class was up to its usual antics, and something in me just snapped. I don’t know that they were doing anything above what they normally do (don’t do), but I had had enough. I pushed the “panic button” in my classroom and asked for an administrator to come to my room. I very rarely use my panic button. So, when I push it, I get results.
A few minutes later, Ms. Tyler* arrived at my door. I stood in the doorway and whispered, “I just need you to back me up.” She grinned and nodded. I proceeded to address the class and state what was wrong with the status quo, and how I expected it to change. I outlined the repercussions for non-compliance. Ms. Tyler then spoke up and backed up everything I said. She turned to leave the room and gave me a reassuring wink. Once she was about two-three steps away from the door, my students started complaining and yelling things like, “We ain’t gotta listen to her. She can’t do nothing to us!? “ Etc. etc.
Ms. Tyler overheard the students, and rushed back into my classroom. She gave me a steely look and said, “Gather the students who always behave and y’all go to a computer lab. I’m going to run your class.” I selected nine students and we went and finished out the period playing Art games on the computer. When I returned to my classroom, the rest of the students were still present . . . Along with all three of my school administrators (including my principal). It took all three administrators to subdue the students. The students were silent. My principal looked at me and said, “Ms. Z. we are going to teach your 5th period for the rest of this week. They will report to another classroom and we will have them write assignments about how we expect students at our school to behave.” And then, she dismissed the (very forlorn looking) students.
My principal made a phone recording and had it call out to the homes of all of the non-compliant students. I’ve also had to call several homes as not all parents have responded favorably to their student being removed (albeit temporarily) from class. I don’t mind as spending time talking to parents as it is a major part of getting your class back on track. My principal has taught the non-compliant students during fifth period yesterday and today. The students are really, really, really bummed about not being able to come to Art. Every time they see me in the hallway, they are full of regret. Word on the street is that they spent an hour yesterday writing “I will respect my Art teacher” 200 times on a sheet of notebook paper.
To top it all off, my principal called me at home on Tuesday night and asked me, “You are still coming to school tomorrow, right?!” She then went on to reassure me that I was a good teacher, told me that she was happy to support me, and stated how much she values me as a teacher. Wow. I’ve never had a phone call like that. I felt so supported and empowered. It also motivated me, and made want to work harder to fix the situation (she’s a good leader like that).
I’ve been teaching the compliant 5th period students (all nine of them) during 5th period. They are loving life right now. One of them asked, “When does everyone else return to class?” I replied, “Monday.” The student sighed and said, “Man. Only one more day in paradise!”
Honestly, though, I expect things will be different come Monday. . . And, I’m excited to get back on track and maybe have a big ole slice of 5th period paradise. Or, you know, just normal 7th grade madness. I’m not picky.