As I begin a position at a new school after 18 years, it’s hard enough to get things organized, let alone having to get things organized and begin a new (and unfamiliar) job. I used to know what to expect in the first few days of inservice training. I knew when I would have time to set up my classroom and plan the lessons for the first few days of school. This year is the first year in at least 16 years that I’m not sure what is going to happen on the first day of school. I feel like a brand new teacher (except I have miles of experience to help me).
Over the last 3 days (and we still have 1 more), I haven’t had a chance to work with my co-teacher to really establish what we are going to do next week when students come back. We’ve put a lot of time into setting up our classroom space (off contract time, before we were required to be back at school) so that our students can feel welcome in our special education classroom. We’ve also spent countless hours collaborating online via Google Docs to make sure that our first unit is up-to-speed. But with all of the meetings and trainings at the beginning of the school year, we don’t have time to finalize our plans. That must be done on our own time. And many people don’t realize that teachers work well beyond their contracted time and hours in order to help students or to finalize plans so that things run smoothly. We want what is best for kids, but with all the villianization of teachers in the headlines, I don’t think people realize this.
We have your child’s interest at heart. We have your child’s strengths at heart. We know your child’s weaknesses and work hard to accommodate them. We are here for your child. We want your child to succeed. We are teachers.
Evaluations are deeply affected by factors beyond the teacher’s control. As a teacher of students who consistently earn low test scores, VAM and test-based teacher evaluations have always concerned me. Thankfully, Vermont doesn’t evaluate teachers via test scores, and hopefully they never will. Need more information on this topic? Read this from the Washington Post.
Stephen Sawchuck notes in his blog at Education Week that a pattern is emerging from teacher evaluation programs: The highest ratings go disproportionately to teachers of advantaged students and the lowest ratings to teachers of students who are disadvantaged. He wonders whether this suggests that the ratings systems are biased against those who teach the neediest students or does it suggest that the schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students get the worst teachers.
As a teacher of students with significant emotional and behavioral challenges, I’ve found that it is imperative to form good working relationships with the parents of my students. As part of our alternative school program, parents meet every two weeks with the special education “team.” We call these meetings “home conferences;” it doesn’t mean that we meet with the parents at home–it just means that we have a home-school meeting with all the players on the student’s team.
The best thing you can do to work with parents of tough kids is to remember that they might not have the same values as you do. Some of the parents I have worked with over the years are people who aren’t necessarily people I think are the best role models, but I look beyond that and understand that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Listen to them; let them download their worries to you, and be someone they can lean on. Don’t try to make them fit into a middle class mold. Shake their hand when you meet them, smile at them warmly, and ask them about themselves. Their child might be difficult in the classroom, and you need the parents on your side.
Set up regular meetings that are based on all of the good things the student has accomplished. These meetings might only be 10-15 minutes long, but you will quickly become well-liked when you are sharing positives about their child in person. Parents of your difficult students have often had difficulties back when they were in school, so school is a negative and scary place to be. When you communicate positive accomplishments, the parents aren’t as afraid of school personnel. You will need to have at least 40 positive communications “in the bank” with a tough kid before you have a negative communication with that child; otherwise it will be an uphill climb to build a relationship with that student and to have them trust you. The same can be said for working with a parent of a tough kid; build up the positives so that when things get difficult and you have to give some negative feedback, the parent trusts you.
Relationship is key. In order to work best with a tough kid, you have to build a solid relationship with them because you will be relying on that when their behavior gets difficult. A tough kid is not going to follow your directions and listen to you because you are the “authority.” You have to show that kid that you can be trusted. You have to be a safe person for the tough kids. In the classroom, tell the child, “thank you for (insert compliment),” or “I like how you (insert compliment).” Be specific with your feedback, so that it shapes the positive behavior you want. Try to ignore minor attention seeking behaviors.
Likewise, if you are a principal who only sees your students occasionally or when they have been “bad,” then you aren’t going to garner respect from the tough students. Stand in the hall in the morning and greet each student as he or she enters the building; go to student homerooms to say hello, or talk to them while they eat breakfast (or eat with them). If you work in an alternative school, this is even more important. Go into classrooms and compliment students who are on task and show interest in their work and accomplishments. I don’t know how many times since we’ve gotten our new principal that the students will ask where she is, or they will comment on the fact that she only comes into a classroom when someone is in trouble. Students notice, and teachers can’t hide it. Further, if you are a principal of tough kids, go to the positive parent-teacher meetings and be a presence in the room when there is good news; if you only go to the meetings where there is “bad news,” again, you aren’t going to build any trust with the parents or the students. A case in point: our principal doesn’t go to many parent-teacher meetings; I’ve had parents in the spring of the school year who never remember meeting the principal; I’ve also had parents say to me that they don’t want her at a meeting because they don’t trust her. Because she’s an authority figure in the school, they especially don’t trust her; they see her just like they’ve seen all authority figures in the past: not on their side.
No matter what type of school you work in, and no matter what type of principal you have, you need to build the strongest relationships with your toughest students and their parents. Those are the people who need to know that you are a safe person who is on their side so that when times get tough, they can trust that you have the best interest of their child at heart.
As teachers we know it is part of our job to help shape students into the best people they can possibly be. But sometimes they tune us out–maybe more than just “sometimes.” I find that the students I work with are usually very vocal about their feelings and thoughts, and because they feel “safe” expressing themselves, they sometimes push their words too far.
I have a student this year who is struggling with his beliefs about other cultures. Alright, he tends to be outright prejudice, even racist. I’ve worked with our school’s diversity and equity office to get resources to help shape lessons and the other teachers at the school are all helping with this shaping as well. I almost think it’s reached the point where he just tunes out the adults because we’ve been working on this for so long now. Our goal is to educate him to help sway his beliefs (which, obviously, are based on ignorance and misunderstanding). I feel like we’re not getting anywhere.
Yesterday, to my surprise (and joy), this matter came to a crisis point. The student said something prejudiced in class, and just as I was about to give feedback to the student, another student piped in, angrily, and said, “I’m so sick of your racist views; no one wants to hear that anymore. Just shut up. No one smart thinks those things about anyone.” Everyone in the classroom was hushed for a moment as the power of peer feedback sank in to our brains. I was so proud of this kid; it was exactly what I was thinking–but couldn’t say.
The student who has been struggling with his views this school year stormed out of the room, clearly angry–but probably embarrassed, maybe even stunned. When I went to talk to him a few minutes later, I asked him what he thought happened there. He said, “I hate that kid.” I asked him to talk more about that and it came out that no one had ever said anything like that to him before and walked away unscathed. He said he didn’t really think he was bothering anyone when he talked about his neighborhood. I told him, “It does bother people.” He finally agreed to go back to class and said that he wouldn’t talk like that in school anymore. For me, it’s one more step forward with this student. It was one of those moments that makes me proud to be a teacher.