Don’t take it personally

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(I wrote about not taking student criticism personally somewhere in a previous post, but thought this idea deserved space of its own as part of the recent classroom management for newbies series.)

You spent hours the evening before looking up the details of the Nitrogen cycle. You found a plant to bring in, maybe even created a cut-out cardboard box. Your PowerPoint has exactly the right number of slides. You timed it. Those slides are colorful and well-labelled. Your drawing activity will make great notes.

Christopher is looking with contempt at your admittedly scraggly plant. He pretty much ignored the PowerPoint, talking to Owen some of the time. They have barely started drawing and those drawings aren’t labelled. When he sees you looking at him, he glowers back. He’s been looking surly since the start of class.

“Christopher, you need to get started on your drawing,” you say.
“This is stupid,” he answers. “Nobody cares about this dumb stuff anyway.”

What next? If you are unlucky, Owen will agree with Christopher. Other students may get involved.

Eduhonesty management tips:

1) When a student walks in with an obvious bad attitude, you will be better off going over to his or her desk to try to talk quietly. You want to minimize outside involvement.
2) You can’t let this go now. “Stupid” addressed to you, even if it’s about your PowerPoint, requires an immediate response. But you are on tricky ground. You probably need a real consequence, but maybe not a take-this-referral-to-the-Dean’s-office-right-now consequence.
3) Recognize this problem may have zero to do with your lesson. Yes, you worked hard to create a clear and compelling explanation of what you were teaching, but problems in Christopher’s life may overwhelm your best efforts.
4) If this behavior represents a real change for Christopher, ask him to talk to you in the hallway.* Find out what’s wrong. He may need a referral to the social worker, rather than a consequence.
5) Let the source of the problem determine the consequences.

If you find out Christopher got no sleep the night before because he was gaming all night, you can tell him you are sorry he feels so grumpy but, especially if Christopher has any track record of mouthing off, you should probably write a referral to the Dean or administration. At the very least, Christopher’s earned a classroom consequence. An afterschool detention in which he finishes his drawing would be perfect. You should call home. For one thing, his parents need to know he spent the night gaming. You might also put together a short lesson on the importance of sleep for the next day or two.

But if Christopher’s parents screamed and fought all night so he could not sleep, that’s a wholly different call. You might actually let this one go, telling the class that Christopher had a rough night so you plan to drop the issue. Don’t spell out details of your private hallway conversation. Christopher will most likely share the story with friends later. Kids appreciate being understood and cutting Christopher a break at the right time may ensure that Christopher’s future behavior will be better, not worse, because of that dropped consequence.

Compassion won’t hurt you — if you are careful. You can’t let too many excuses lead to too much compassion. If you do, you will be listening to long, sob stories all year. You will also be teaching students to use excuses to get out of trouble. It’s a short step from making excuses to whining, too. You most emphatically don’t want to teach that.

6) Any situation calling for a compassionate exemption from consequences probably calls for a discussion with the social worker as well. Christopher may need help.

I’ve skewed towards the practical here, but I wanted to provide support for an intangible as well. That lesson you thought was great? You were probably right. When you put twenty-some or thirty-some adolescents into an audience, you will always have days when your best efforts go wrong because of nothing you did and nothing you could have predicted. That’s life. That’s teaching.

Your students know you care when you cut out that little cardboard box with its scraggly plant. Just keep cutting. And planning. And pulling out the colored markers. And stapling student work on the walls. Al fin y al cabo**, teaching has to be one of the most fulfilling jobs in the world, but it’s one fulfilling roller coaster of a ride.

*With luck you will have a window in your classroom door but, if you don’t, you don’t want to step outside and leave students on their own. If you cannot talk to Christopher and watch the class, talk to Christopher after class or get someone to cover for you while you step outside. Students should always be under supervision.
**Al fin y al cabo — in the end