This is the first of a series from John Jensen on how to effectively manage dysfunctional classrooms.
Two weeks into the school year, a teacher of ninth grade students at a manual arts high school went on leave of absence. His reasons (cf. sources below) bear careful thought because they’re a glance into conditions that could worsen as shrinking budgets increase class sizes. Students did as they pleased, ignored his directions, and produced chaos. The principal gave him ineffective advice, security didn’t help, and his school has three times its design numbers. Here’s a national problem: unacceptable behavior, resistant attitudes, unwieldy numbers, and ineffective support.
What could a teacher reasonably do in such a situation?
Typically we try one thing. When it doesn’t work, we drop it and try another. But a complex problem may not lend itself to a single solution. Instead we should expect multiple avenues of influence aligning. We retain the first influence and add others until we have the result we want. I begin here with practical ways to bring the situation under control, and then proceed to the more long-term and developmental. The ideas I offer briefly are a selection of methods explained in greater detail in my Practice Makes Perfect Series (cf. below).
Let’s say I teach in that district and am informed at noon on Friday that I’ll be transferred to the manual arts high school ninth grade drawing class on Monday. Where do I start?
A weekend to prepare. I hasten to the school’s admin office, pick up a class list, and go through it with the assistant principal for a cursory take on each student and look at their picture. I obtain parent or guardian phone numbers, and plan to spend much of my weekend calling them. I want to talk with parents before meeting the students so that my relationship with them comes first. Later as I meet students, I want them thinking, “He knows my parents!” This alone nudges some to cooperate. Early contact with the parents is important also because I can focus solely on positive expectations. I have nothing to complain about, no bad report to pass on.
My message goes like this: “Hi Mr. Coleman. I’m the new drawing teacher for your son Corbin. I wanted to get acquainted with students’ families a little since we didn’t have a chance to meet when school started. Could you tell me something about his interests and activities?”
I take detailed notes on each student, looking for motivating interests, best friend relationships, parent-child influence, and activities that might serve as disciplinary consequences. I might also ask if the parent has any concerns for their child they’d like me to keep in mind, though in the situation above their message could easily be, “Well, I hear that they ran off the previous teacher, so you may have your hands full.” How do I respond to that?
I might say, “I’m sure Corbin will do just fine in my class, but as a precaution, if something does come up that I feel could use a minor consequence at home, do you think you could dock him some time with TV, video games, or friends? We probably won’t need to do that, but having it in reserve could be a help.”
“Of course,” most would say, giving conceptual assent to a plan we can return to in detail when we want to get Corbin’s attention: “Mr. Coleman, remember that conversation we had a couple weeks ago? Right. Okay. Something’s come up where we could apply that idea.”
Arranging access to parents is important. “One other thing,” I add. “Often right when something is happening in the classroom, it can be very helpful if I can ring up a parent and have them talk to their child right then. Would it be possible for me to call you or Mrs. Coleman if that were needed?”
They’ve already given their contact phone to the school for emergencies, and now you expand “emergency” a bit. Some you contact will be non-parental guardians who have little control over a student—a grandparent or older sibling perhaps—but you encourage them to remain connected to the student as best they can. Your stance is just contact, interest, and knowledge about the child supplying you with multiple handles for a personal relationship. Later it may be significant that your student’s older sister explained what happened between his parents and the impact it had on him. You accumulate reasons to insulate your own future attitude toward the student from one of opposition to one of support and mutual problem-solving.
Another task for the weekend is to obtain a 2’ x 3’ tablet from the school, ideally with one-inch lines down each page, and make up several charts. Early Monday either you or school staff cover them with acetate for easy erasing. One chart has all student names down the left side and nine wide columns occupying the space to the right. A couple have column lines that, with the existing one-inch rows fill the entire chart with 1-inch squares. You’ll make line charts out of these. Another has all their names down the left and one-inch row and column lines filling the space to the right.
Opening the door. Stand at the door before class, have students line up outside the room, and admit them one by one on the first day. They tell you their name, you shake hands, turn to your notes for that student, and check all the positive information you already know while you connect it with the child’s face: “Ah, yes. Mr. Billings…parents Jane and Joe. Did I write down their phone number correctly? Thank you. And Mr. Percy…has a younger brother and sister. Thank you.” You want to learn their names as quickly as possible, let them know that you see them as individuals, and start off warmly.
Relating to them as individuals is important because misbehavior accelerates as students think “Everyone is doing it,” and diminishes as they think, “Uh, oh. The teacher sees me doing it.” It’s a minor but helpful re-casting. At first they don’t advert to the significance of their individual behavior even though they dimly foresee being called to account for it. In their perceptual field, even personal consequences are cushioned socially by their solidarity with a group doing it. If they’re punished, they’ll still be with their friends. You want personal accountability stronger in their mind than group support for negative behavior.
The primary means of accomplishing this is your own connection with each student tight enough that you can restore it even in unsettling conditions just by approaching, saying their name, catching their eye, and asking for the behavior you want. They think afresh about their link with you as you possess personal data about them right at the start, pose no reason for threat or opposition, and have direct access to their parents. Others around them may get in trouble, but you provide them an avenue to exempt themselves if they choose to use it.
Opening the day. Early on, the most important thing you can do for them is to arrange their cooperation without them even realizing it. You’re like a salesman whose objective is “the next yes.” An example of this was the car salesman who encountered a customer one morning, showed him a car, and began talking about it. He talked for eight hours without stopping, at the end of which the customer bought the car. The salesman presents an idea easy to agree to. A string of such ideas winds through more and more issues, resolving them each in turn, until with the final yes the customer agrees to buy. In class, you want a string of yeses that gradually return them to learning.
At first, however, they’re still embedded in their social world. Too jarring a request, too big a leap, and you disconnect. They become guarded. They can more easily say no than yes, and sense that you’ll ask them to make shifts too abrupt, stretch their cooperation too far at one jump. A saying attributed to Stalin comes to mind: “If you’re going to steal a salami, do it slice by slice.” You identify where they are but with one easy step after another lead them toward greater cooperation.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
References. “At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 24, 2011, and also, “A Teacher’s Worst Nightmare, “ Walt Gardner, Edweek, Sept. 27, 2011.