Eleanor Roosevelt was one savvy lady. Her quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” is an especially good one, yet for a few weeks, I certainly gave my consent.
One of my classes, though incredibly bright, is also very challenging. They openly tell any adult who will listen, “Yeah, you can’t give us a seating chart because we’ll just talk to whoever is next to us. No one can make us be quiet.” It had gotten to the point where class was a battle to keep them focused on our content rather than their social lives. It wasn’t as if I could just deal with a handful of kids either; 95% of the class was a part of the problem in some way, either by being off task or supporting their friends who were off task.
The problem wasn’t really during instruction, it was during work time. When reprimanded, they’d snarl and lie and tell you they were talking about the task, though what Pokemon has to do with the Constitution is beyond me. When I talked with them about the changes I needed to see, they’d poke their lips out and say, “You just like the other class better than us.”
It infuriated me, and the more frustrated I became, the more they pushed back. We reached the Thursday before our week-long Thanksgiving break when I reached my limit. I was trying to explain the learning contracts they would be creating, and all through the classroom, they’d blurt out random, ridiculous, things.
I told them it was clear I had no power in the classroom and that they did not need me for anything. I said that they seemed to think they knew how to proceed with the learning contracts since blurting out silly things was more important, so since I had some grading to catch up on, they could do whatever they wanted and I’d do something productive.
It was silent. I let them squirm for a while, and then I proceeded with no further interruptions.
I changed the configuration of the desks after school that day and decided that the task I was giving them on Friday would need to be turned in by the end of the class period unless it was clear that they’d used their time well and got permission from me to finish it over break. I knew it would be a challenge to finish during the 45-minutes they’d have to work as did they when they saw it. It resulted in the desired effect–kids on task and taking their work seriously–and all kids who needed it earned the privilege to finish at home.
I also called several key parents, the ones I knew would respond swiftly and strongly. On one call my student “John” answered the phone. His parents weren’t home, but when he found out it was me, he sort of choked. I advised him to tell his parents why I was calling before I reached them, and asked him why he thought I was calling. He responded, nailing the reasons, and I told him I expected better. On Friday, his behavior was noticeably different.
Over the holiday, I thought about what needed to happen, and I realized that the more they pushed, the more responsibility I took for their learning and behavior, making accommodations and trying to figure things out instead of putting it back on them. These were capable, bright, funny kids, and I’d allowed them to push me to the point where I was looking at them as if they were incapable of better. I decided to raise the bar and treat them like the students I knew they really were: smart, kind, respectful, and capable.
It has only been two days, but the class is noticeably different. We go at a faster pace, and the expectations for their work and their behavior are higher. The student I’d talked to on the phone came in on Monday with a revised project, telling me that he wasn’t asking me to reconsider his grade, he just wanted to turn in something that reflected what he was truly capable of. Overall, students seem happier, more focused, and engaged in what we are doing.
I think the temptation we have when students aren’t meeting our expectations is to accommodate them because we want them to do well. However, before we do that, we have to ask, “Can they actually do what I am asking to do? Are they choosing not to do it for some reason, or is this actually something that’s not doable for them?”
Yes, accommodate when necessary, but don’t cripple kids when they are capable. Raise the bar, tell them you know they can do it, and mean it.