You’ve got your good days and your bad days.
As a teacher, though, you’ve got your worst days and your best days.
I’m four weeks into teaching, and there’s a lot to reflect on. I’ve saved most of the details for my personal journal, but there are a few things I’d like to share. I haven’t really had the worst of the worst nor the best of the best, but I’ve certainly gotten a taste.
My professional and academic backgrounds are not in education or teaching. I actually studied Biochemistry and was on the pre-med track for 2.5 years before switching to Health and Societies and concentrating in Healthcare Markets and Finance; I was in my third year of undergrad before switching academic trajectories. Prior to starting my Fulbright fellowship, I had little to no (“formal”) experience in education. So when I was awarded the grant, I knew (somewhat) what I was signing up for: a year of (constant) learning, challenges, struggles, growth, rewards. Despite my lack of teaching experiences, I did learn a lot outside the classroom. Having had numerous opportunities to participate and facilitate open discussions about intersectional identities and sociocultural issues, among other topics, I learned about the importance of establishing and maintaining a safe learning environment, respecting people’s thoughts and opinions, and allowing time and room for mistakes, reflection, and feedback. I wish I had this during high school, but I guess that’s just one of the many perks of going to college.
Anyway, when I first started teaching four weeks ago, I made plans to implement similar group dynamics and expectations into my own classroom. In each of my five classes, I led an interactive activity on establishing classroom dynamics and expectations. I gave my students the opportunity to come up with their own rules by brainstorming qualities that make a “great” classroom and a “not-so-great” classroom. Across the board, my students hit most of the basic do’s and do not’s.
- Respect the teacher and classmates
- Actively participate in class
- Keep the room clean
- Be attentive
- Attend class
- Focus on the teacher (and not the crush walking by)
- Be punctual
And the do not’s:
- Speak when the teacher is speaking
- Play on your cellphones
- Eat in class (unless you have enough to share)
- Sleep during class
- Chew gum
- Arrive to class late
The list goes on slightly more. I asked my students if they were a.) listing rules that they’d actually follow or b.) telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. They laughed in response.
I described some potential disciplinary actions I’d take if misbehavior were to occur: first, a private meeting with me; then, a private meeting with me and the principal; and finally, a request to temporarily or permanently remove the student from my class. I emphasized that I hope we don’t ever get to the first disciplinary action. Ever. I noted how brilliant and bright my students are, and that I anticipated treating them like the responsible young adults that they are.
Things didn’t unfold the way I thought they would. Sure, we came up with lists of classroom dynamics, but what about accountability? I guess that part wasn’t emphasized (enough). I started to notice some of my students, whose tan, adolescent faces had b-o-r-e-d-o-m etched across their foreheads, misbehaving. They were cheating off of each other, speaking when I’m trying to teach, interrupting their classmates, falling asleep, daydreaming, not participating, slacking off. (Huge emphasis on some.) Surprised, I wasn’t sure what to do. They were violating a handful of the rules they came up with, and I couldn’t muster up the courage to discipline them. I’m generally not one to shout or raise my voice, and it definitely took a lot out of me to hold my tongue. I was also operating under the impression that because I was teaching at a gifted high school—the best in my province—these students would be…more disciplined. This was wrong to assume on my part. Teenagers will be teenagers, students will be students. Yet, I ask myself: Am I doing something wrong?
(A better question to ask, though, would be: What can I do better?)
I think back to when I was 16-17 years old in high school. I wasn’t much of a talker in class (and I’m still not), but I do recall my friends who were. They’d whisper and giggle in the back, text and Snapchat their friends, have one earbud in one ear, mouthing the lyrics to whatever song they were listening to, etc. They were a distraction, but I honestly learned to drown them out throughout the years.
What did my teachers do then, and what can I learn from them?
I remember some of my teachers scolding my friends, punishing them and calling them out; if the situation had escalated, they would ask the student to leave the room and make a note to email or call their parents. Was this effective? Eh, somewhat, I suppose. On one hand, they stopped being a distraction. On the other hand, they stopped caring about the class. My friends spent that time zoning out, and although they weren’t distracting others, they couldn’t seem to care less about being there.
I don’t want that. I don’t want my students to lose focus or motivation.
Instead, I want my students to be engaged. Learning. I don’t want to take away their opportunity to learn because of some slight misbehavior, which could’ve been a result of so many things.
So what should I do? Well, I’m still figuring that out. I can’t say that I’ve gained complete and utter patience, but I definitely have a lot more than what I first left the states. I’ve learned to exercise mental flexibility in order to broaden what I am capable of doing, tolerating, and achieving—and this has been anything but easy.
Nonetheless, I am challenging myself to also practice selflessness. I’ve got to remind myself that I am here to teach, to educate, to foster learning and growth. I’m not here solely for myself, but also for my students. In these moments, it’s important I hold myself to a degree of patience and selflessness—not selfishness.
Remember that, David.
I’m still in the process of finding the right balance between discipline and support. And this isn’t to say that you can’t have both simultaneously.
I’m just trying to figure that out. I’ve got time.
Classroom | Photo Credit: David Thai (2018)