Walking Down Memory Lane

Yesterday, I met a former student … and the memories came flooding back.

 

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by The Wandering Angel

Three years ago, I was a student teacher on my final teaching placement. I was teaching a troubled, angry, and violent 8 year-old student … whom my cooperating teacher simply couldn’t stand.

“Roy” was (and remains) one of my most memorable “little characters’ … I’ve written about him before (September 2010). Back then, he was “liable to throw things at the teacher, run away from the class, and draw the teacher into power struggles”.

 

Yet, over those eight weeks, I forged a positive connection.


I made a difference … even if only for a short time
.

“He made an effort to moderate his behaviour, and he never “exploded” into his aggressive chair-throwing & escape act while I was teaching him.

Working with him again last year, I believe I was one of very few, perhaps the only teacher Roy ever came to respect and trust.”  (September 2010)

Anecdotally, I know that Roy returned to his old ways when I left his classroom. Sad, but not particularly surprising given his life and school experiences.



Roy was a life-changing experience

My experiences with Roy had a defining impact on my teaching and classroom management approach. He taught me so much … and I still carry “his lessons” with me today. In fact, there is “a little bit of Roy” in most of my blogged classroom management reflections, which continue to bring so many visitors to A Relief Teacher’s Journey.


Yet, when Roy moved schools, I feared we’d never meet again.



Today, I went for a walk down memory lane …

“While out on duty today, I was approached by a student, and to my amazement, Roy walked into my life again. We went for a walk together … I shook his hand, and thanked him.”

“I finally had the chance to tell him that I’d never forgotten him … the chance to tell him that he taught me so much about teaching and about life.”

I know, from my conversations with his classroom teacher that “Roy” hasn’t changed much over the years; and perhaps has become slightly worse.


Yet, years ago, I once told Roy that I believed in him. I felt, deep down, behind the facade, he was a ‘good kid’. Angry, yes. But not bad.
I still do. I have hope. I care.


I still believe that my most memorable “little character” can make it. And one day, I hope he will read this and understand.

Every Student Has a Story


As a new teacher, it is so easy to get all-consumed with the teaching.

Yet, it is important to remember that we are teaching students … we are teaching children.


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Pink Sherbet Photography


Some of my students, my “little characters”, are not easy to teach.

Some make me laugh, some make me cry. Yet, I enjoy working with, and teaching every one of them.

 

I believe in building bridges with my most alienated, challenging students. I invest significant time and effort in building trust and mutual respect. I try to find that connection, that one little thing we have in common … and I’ve learnt “that from little things, big things grow”.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m preoccupied with my own teaching and learning, but today I received a powerful reminder about the foundation of my teaching practice.

A student told me her story.

It wasn’t an easy story to tell, and not an easy story to listen to. Yet, it was a first step, a little breakthrough …  from which, I believe we can move forward.

Every student, every child has a story …

But as teachers, do we take the time to listen?

Today, I Lost A Bet

Today, I had a reason to smile.

I’ve spent the last four weeks teaching a Year 6 class at my old school. I’m a relief teacher, but I’m part of the furniture. In these few weeks, I’ve helped run a global project, and learnt a lot about myself and my students. I’ve loved the opportunity to treat a class as my own, even for such a short time.

Now, I have several students, mostly Indigenous, for whom school attendance is a significant issue. One charming young lady usually turns up about 1-2 hours late every day, … let’s call her Ann.


Yesterday, I made a bet.

Ann was literally jumping ‘up and down’ wanting to be the official ‘school bell ringer’ for the day, a responsibility recently delegated to our class. I had to point out that turning up each day between 9.30AM-10.30AM wasn’t a good start.

So I made a bet that if Ann “could actually, just possibly, turn up to school before 8.40AM” [i.e. on time], she would be our bell ringer. If she didn’t turn up, I’d give the job to someone else.


I lost.

I walked into school at 8.15AM, a little bit wet and keen to see the outcome of my little wager … and who was the first person I saw as I entered our undercover area?

A triumphant, wet and beaming student, beside herself with anticipation.

I fell over. Not literally, but close enough. This was quite an achievement.

While I made a big deal of “moaning” about losing my bet, I will never forget this moment. I’ll never forget that triumphant smile .. my little victory.

I’ve had some sad, stressful times as a teacher. But these are the little  moments which make my job special.

These “little victories” are what teaching is all about.

Cracking the Hard Class

As a relief teacher, I’ve come across many tough and extremely challenging classes, taught by graduate and experienced teachers alike.

Walking into, and taking control of the ‘hard class’ is one of the greatest challenges of my job, and I have learnt that there is no “one size fits all” approach. These classes are hard work, but most can be won over in time.

As I write this penultimate post on my classroom management approach, I thought I would share my experiences in a Year 4 class, in July 2010. Over the course of three days, I managed to take control of one of the most challenging class I have encountered as a relief teacher, marking a personal triumph of my first year.

Extract from my Reflective Journal (July 31, 2010)

This week, I spent my second and third day teaching the class. The first time was hell – students were generally unruly, refused to follow instructions, and I had the Principal dropping in at frequent intervals to ‘keep an eye’ on the situation. As usual in this school, I had not been warned that I would be teaching a really tough class. I left that day with a sore throat, almost losing my voice after raising my voice to excess.

On the second day I taught the class, I was surprised to find a number of students were actually excited to have me return. I wasn’t too impressed with having no work left for the two days, but I was much happier with the other (experienced) Deputy Principal, who properly prepped me for the class.

I found the students challenging, but not as bad as that first day. Working with the experienced teacher’s aide, I set out to teach some tried and tested relief activities and games, including Graffiti Walls (spelling) and a comic strip text innovation activity. I took an assertive management approach, insisting on every student’s individual attention, giving explicit instructions, and using the “hands up for quiet” signal.

On several occasions, I took the students outside the classroom for games. When they couldn’t line up without fighting and yelling at each other, I sent them back into class, and bluntly explained that their behaviour was completely unacceptable. They got the message … eventually.

The difference on the third day was amazing. I marvelled how I didn’t have to raise my voice, and at how much faster students responded to the “hands-up” signal. I did have to teach the class how to line up after Recess and Lunch, pulling a group of diehards out of line for a “chat”. Watching the class ‘perform’ for their Health teacher, I came to appreciate just how much better behaved they were for me.

I tried to make the activities interesting, and emphasised students’ sharing of their work with their peers. I also used the Find Someone Whostrategy for the very first time, marking the achievement of a recent learning goal. The students loved it, and even the shyer / more socially isolated students were able to get involved. Recognising that some students couldn’t read, I read through the items first, and encouraged them to ask for help if they weren’t sure. Sure enough, one did.

Marking students’ graffiti walls and comic strips at the end of the day, I was extremely impressed with some students’ efforts. I shared some of the funniest comics with the class, and kept a few for my records.

Drawing Parallels with a Year 7 “Class from Hell”

Leafing through my journal (Volume 1), I was struck with by the parallels with a class that ‘tore me to shreds’ in 2009, one of my worst ever teaching experiences. Comparing the management approach I took into these classes, I can see how much I have grown in this area.

The Keys to my Management Success

1) A confident assertive attitude and stance (body language is important)

2) Insisting on total compliance and attention prior to issuing instructions or explaining a learning activity. I also moved amongst students to ensure this happened.

3) Praising and rewarding the ‘allies’ – refusing to use collective punishment

4) Explicitly teaching (and if necessary) making students practice my expectations for their behaviour.

5) Using interesting learning activities

If you have a “class from hell”, it pays to be proactive, consistent, and persistent.

These classes are really hard work, but most can be conquered.

Responding to Student Anger

Anger is a confronting emotion for classroom teachers and students alike. Early intervention, a sensitive response, and teaching of anger-management strategies are critical to successful interventions.

When a student gets angry, they can become aggressive or violent, and sometimes flee the situation. Each individual’s anger-response is different, and it is imperative that teachers know the warning signs and characteristic behaviours. (Please, please – tell the relief teacher too!). It is also important to remember that a student may feel shamed after losing control of their emotions in front of their peers.

Intervene Early – If You Can

I encourage students to tell me if they aren’t coping with their emotions; explaining that I will give them a chance to get out of class and calm down. This usually involves sending them on an errand, going to the toilet, or getting a drink.

If I recognise the warning signs of an impending outburst, I often quietly tap the student on the shoulder, and offer them an exit strategy. This is an important strategy for teaching students how to cope with and regulate their emotions.

Responding to Anger Crisis Situations

As I discussed in a recent post, the teacher’s first priority in an anger crisis situation is to ensure their personal safety and the safety of the other students. This may necessitate the removal of the student, or the audience.

After the student has calmed down, and accepted the relevant consequences for their actions, it is important to privately discuss their behaviour with them. (You can take the student aside in class, or if possible, take them for a 5 minute walk at Recess break. Sometimes it is more relaxing and beneficial to discuss these matters in informal settings). 

anger-management 

I often explain to the student that I can’t possibly understand what they are going through, but that it is normal to feel upset /angry. If they have exhibited a violent/aggressive response, I discuss coping strategies, and help the student identify more positive, less harmful responses. As a classroom teacher, this would inform a more formal behaviour management plan.

Anger Management (TeacherTube)

http://www.teachertube.com/embed/player.swf

 

Useful Resources

Anger Management and Conflict Resolution for Middle School Students, a free PPT download from TeachersPayTeachers.com

“Part 3: Coping with crises, conflicts and difficult situations” in Magic Classroom Management. Rob Plevin (2008/9). (Email me for a copy – I have free distribution rights)

A Focus on the Teacher’s Attitude, Actions & Management Approach

The classroom teacher’s attitude, demonstrated through their words, actions, body language and management approach, is the most significant factor in successfully working with challenging students.

My father taught me that “when dealing with people’s problems, you need to lift the bandaid to understand why they behave as they do”. I believe teachers can play an important role in ‘lifting the bandaid and treating the festering sore beneath’.

This ‘bandaid’ metaphor describes my attitude and approach to dealing with students with ‘problem’ behaviours and special needs. (What is a ‘problem’ or challenging behaviour)

My Attitude & Actions
  • I understand that challenging students’ behaviour(s) are purposeful, and try to acknowledge their emotions & circumstances as valid and real.
  • As teachers, we have no control over the emotional baggage our students bring to school, and indeed, some have extremely complex problems.
  • What we can do; however, is acknowledge their emotions, and work to identify the purpose(s) of their behaviour.
    • This involves trying to neutralise the environmental triggers, intervening before the behaviour occurs.
    • It also involves teaching the child how to understand and better manage their emotions & behaviour.
  • We can also work to engage these students in their learning by:
    • incorporating their interests & talents into classroom learning activities
    • modifying teaching and learning processes to enable students’ participation in their learning (e.g. reducing reading content, asking peers to scribe information)

How does my Attitude inform my Management Approach?

As a professional relief teacher working in unfamiliar classes, I try to observe & win-over my challenging students. I may only work in the class for the day, but if/when I return, I can plan my management approach accordingly.

To this end, I initially focus on proactive, preventative behaviour management measures. I observe and privately talk to the student in question, watching how they interact with other students and the relief teacher. If the negative or testing behaviours continue, I apply a system of graduated consequences based on 1-2-3 Magic™, bumping students towards Timeout, Buddy Class & ultimately Office Withdrawal.

I try to work along this continuum over time (a few hours). While this means I may temporarily put up with certain behaviours, it enables me to start identifying the purposes & triggers of the ‘problem’ behaviours. I suppose the only caveat is that you need to know and understand the school’s behaviour management policies, as I’ve been caught out on occasion by some radically different whole-school approaches.

As I’ve described in earlier posts, I supplement my in-class management approach by working to develop positive relationships with my most challenging students. Relief teaching is a difficult job at the best of times, but targeted relationship building efforts can help to significantly reduce your management challenges over time. 

Summing Up

I view my challenging students as a “a work in progress”. I’ve had my successes and failures, but I’ve been surprised to find that some of my most challenging students’ have incredible talents, interests, and intellect. Their considered contributions to class discussions and creative talents have, at times, amazed me.

Working with challenging students requires considerable time, effort and patience, but as I have found, the rewards are worth it.

The Importance of Active Listening

To build positive relationships with your challenging students, teachers need to demonstrate an active interest in their lives, really listening to their thoughts, opinions, interests and silences.

You may only spend a few minutes talking to a student, but actively listening to them for those few minutes helps to build trust and mutual respect. The cup of coffee can wait. This is important.

Rob Plevin, in Magic Classroom Management, describes active listening as

“an effective way of showing that you value a person’s opinion.

We demonstrate we are listening by making eye contact, stopping other activities so that we concentrate fully on what is being said and respond to what is being said with nods, gestures and verbal cues.” (p.48) 

active_listening_posters_mini

As teachers, we are important figures in our students’ lives, and the attitude we express towards them through our incidental conversations can have significant, often invisible impacts on their attitude, learning and personal development. By actively listening to our students, we treat and value them as people, not as insignificant “little brats”.

Never forget that challenging students are still children, and deserve to be respected and valued as such. It is easy to fall into the trap of reacting to the behaviours after they occur. Actually working to identify and counteract is difficult, but rewarding in the long run. Actively listening to your students is a simple first step.  

The Final Word on Relationships

For more information and advice on developing teacher-student relationships, I highly recommend the Stepping Stones to Positive Relationships series on the Behaviour Needs blog.

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I’ll also leave this topic on a note of caution, bearing in mind my initial naivety and inexperience as a beginning teacher. As teachers, it is important that we ensure our relationship-building efforts and teacher-student interactions are entirely proper and professional, and not liable to misconstrued or misinterpreted.

It is important to understand the relevant school policies and procedures, bearing in mind your legal responsibilities and duty of care. If you consider yourself uninformed, I’d suggest you talk to Admin, or contact your Union. I’ll certainly be doing so shortly.

Get involved with Breakfast / Lunchtime Clubs & Activities

Starting out as a relief teacher in early 2009, I was surprised to receive a student’s invitation to visit the morning Breakfast Club. What I found even more surprising was that this particular student was a member of the infamous “Room 15”, a troubled Year 6/7 class about which I had heard no end of horror stories. While initially hesitant, my acceptance of this invitation proved to be one of the most important decisions I made as a graduate relief teacher. 

the-breakfast-clubI found the Breakfast Club a friendly, informal setting for building respectful relationships with students, and it was the scene of many interesting conversations about football, skateboarding, gardening, and the latest mobile phones.

I found myself meeting the majority of my challenging students (Yrs 1- 7) over their morning toast and Milo™, and my regular attendance over time helped me earn their respect and trust.

While I no longer attend that particular school, I regularly volunteer in other schools’ Breakfast Clubs whenever I have the opportunity. I highly recommend this experience for relief staff & classroom teachers. You may only be able to spare 10 minutes once a week/fortnight, but it is worth it.

Lunchtime Clubs & Activities

Now, not every school has a Breakfast Club, but one school, where I have had extensive relief work, has developed an innovative whole-school activity timetable which runs during lunchtimes. Depending on the day, (rostered) staff members and students play rugby on the oval, play games on the library computers, or work in the Kitchen Garden. These activities are open to all students, and seem to be very popular.

These activities can provide valuable opportunities for teachers to get to know their students; catering to their diverse interests, and providing some with a safe environment during play breaks. This is particularly important for those challenging students who struggle to cope with the complex social demands of playground interaction.

Regular involvement in Clubs / Lunchtime Activity situations, even once a fortnight, can help teachers establish their reputation and make connections with challenging students. These activities don’t have to be a chore, and they can prove extremely rewarding. 

Relief Teaching: Chalk & Small Talk!

Becoming an Effective Relief Teacher

In my first year of teaching, I have learnt that effective relief teachers:

  1. Work to develop positive relationships with students and staff
  2. Demonstrate sound classroom management skills, and
  3. Have a repertoire of instructional strategies and relief fill-in activities

In my experience, the development of strong relationships has underpinned my survival and increasing effectiveness as a relief teacher. They have helped me establish a positive reputation in a variety of schools (where I have regularly worked), and contributed to a significant reduction in my classroom management challenges in relief situations. 

Chalk & Talk!

Whenever I work in a school, I make an effort to talk and interact with staff and students. Staying in the class all day does nothing to raise students’ (and staff) awareness of your existence. As you meet and interact with students in informal playground settings, you become less of a stranger, and, well, in my case, known as the “funny guy in the cowboy hat”. This helps to break the ice when you eventually meet these students in formal classroom situations.

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You generally need to teach a class 2-3 times before students start to accept you as the genuine article, and it can literally take several weeks to months working in a school to build respectful, trusting relationships with students.

These relationship-building efforts must be complemented by a firm and consistent classroom management approach, and careful observation & handling of your behaviourally challenging students. 

The development of positive, respectful relationships takes a considerable amount of time and effort, and is virtually impossible to do as an agency relief teacher. I have been on both sides of the fence, and have come to love the opportunities and variety afforded by my independent relief teaching practice.

A Relief Teacher’s Story: Working with “Troy”

When dealing with challenging students as a relief teacher, I make a point of identifying and remembering their hobbies, interests, and talents, and try to incorporate them into incidental conversations or classroom learning activities. Believe it or not, given time, this little strategy can work wonders.

I first met “Troy” in mid-2009, and one of my earliest memories of him is of his playing power-games with the Principal. He was very good at ignoring instructions, avoiding work, and arguing/fighting with a student with Asperger’s Syndrome. 

This student caused me (and the Principal) more than a few management headaches, but funnily enough, I liked him. I was always fair and consistent when managing his behaviour, and dealt with his attention/power-seeking behaviours in a calm, measured manner.

Through informal conversations, in and outside the classroom, I discovered Troy’s passion for building expensive model cars. While I’m not particularly fussed with cars, I made an effort to talk about & follow the progress of his latest creation whenever I taught him. 

Over time, Troy’s attitude towards me changed. He was increasingly happy to talk to me, and became more respectful in his speech and manner. He still demonstrated his attention-seeking behaviours, and I remained firm in my management approach. I’ll never forget the moment when he finally recognised my authority, but sadly, I was never to directly teach him again. Running into him several months later, I still remember his shocked and pleased expression when I asked about his model-making activities. Yes, I remembered! Sadly, like so many of my success-stories, he has since left the school.

Small Talk: “From little things, big things grow”

As a relief teacher, I am often seen wandering aimlessly around school playgrounds and ovals; playing games (football, hand-tennis, soccer), fostering good-natured AFL (Australian Rules Football) rivalries, and simply chatting with students.

Many teachers are surprised to find that I do this in my own time (i.e. not on duty), yet it has proved to be the single most positive strategy for reducing my classroom management challenges, and building respectful relationships with some extremely challenging students.

As Rod Plevin points out in Magic Classroom Management (2008, p. 43);

“We seldom just ‘chat’ to our worst students despite the fact that having a real, sometimes ‘pointless’ dialogue with another person is one of the very best ways of building relationship and trust.

Dialogue is a unique relationship-builder because it evolves over time into a “connection” – and when steps are made to form this connection, pupils relate to us much more positively.”

A few minutes is all it takes:

“Getting a pupil, particularly a difficult pupil, to spend a few minutes chatting when they’d rather be away with their mates is difficult, so you have to appeal to their interests. One way might be asking their advice on some new resources that you know they’d be interested in.

That might be all that’s needed to get a conversation going, and even if you only talk for a few minutes it’s something to build on. Each little interaction you have outside the classroom environment will do wonders for your relationship with that child.” (p. 44).

Working with “Roy” (Professional Internship, 2008)

As I discussed in my June 21 post, Transforming a Year 3 Class into a Learning Community, I sought to develop a strong rapport with all my students; taking an active interest in their lives and experiences, and really listening to their ideas, thoughts, and silences.

I made time to talk to my students at breaks (e.g. during the 10 minute eating time) and informally interacted with students, parents and carers before and after school. I paid special attention to my “challenging” students; observing their playground interactions with other students, and making an effort to discover (and exploit) their special interests and talents. These actions helped me understand and connect to “Roy”, my most challenging student, and supported the creation of a safe learning environment.

Through informal conversations, I discovered Roy’s (my most challenging student) passion for aeroplanes and the Fremantle Dockers (AFL team). I loaned him my military aircraft books and commiserated over our football defeat each Monday morning.

These actions helped to build our teacher-student relationship and had dramatic impacts on Roy’s classroom behaviour. He made an effort to moderate his behaviour, and he never “exploded” into his aggressive chair-throwing & escape act while I was teaching him. Working with him again last year, I believe I was one of very few, perhaps the only teacher “Roy” ever came to respect and trust.

My experiences bear out Rod Plevin’s comments on this topic:

”You see, when you really get to know a pupil you become aware of their triggers – the things that upset them and cause all sorts of problems in class. And when you’re dealing with damaged children who carry all kinds of emotional baggage and flare up for no apparent reason, this is valuable knowledge.

After all … stopping behaviour problems from occurring is much easier when you know in advance what causes them!”  (p. 44)