Discipline and the Classroom Relationship (with a side-salad of self-loathing)

Today I was removed from the class I have been teaching since August ostensibly because they need help with the end of year projects. The real reason is because I simply can’t control them.

This year was the first time I’d ever taught full-time in a school. I’ve worked for months at a time in the UK, but never from summer to summer. I’d never developed a relationship that had to sustain discipline and order for an entire year. So, I didn’t give it much thought this year. So I failed.

As it is, I tried to be the friendly-funny teacher it’s easy to be in a seasonal school. No, not just that – I was myself in class, and in real life I am friendly, kind of funny and more than kind of disorganised. When I began to have discipline problems, I resorted to threats and anger. This is not the way to go. Not even a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong: my failure didn’t turn 28 angels into 28 monsters. It doesn’t work like that, either. It was a difficult class, which I was assigned since, and I quote “we figured a man could handle it”. Putting aside the implied sexism, they were wrong. Other teachers have problems with that class, but I have the most. They don’t respect me, they don’t like me and they don’t want to do my work. Those students who are eager to improve their English are stupider due to my relationship with the class monkeys and their accomplices.

I do feel guilty about this. I really do. I’ve spent the months since my failure became apparent trying to fix it. The truth is, as I said before, once you lose that relationship, it’s almost impossible to get back.

So, what would I have done differently? Well, I would have spent an early class building a class contract with the students. I grade and return within x days, all weekend work taken on Tuesday in return for not standing/leaving class, no cell phones, finishing work etc. I would have set a routine for the beginning and end of every class. I wouldn’t have asked them not to behave like monkeys.

So, what have I learned? Well, I’ve learned that teaching teenagers is hard. Duh, right? It’s a real juggling act to be someone they respect/like but will also work for. It’s something I need to work on.

I prefer teaching adults. I’ve learned that. Adults have their own motivation (or the government who pays their unemployment cheques) and work as much or as little as they are able. It’s easier to develop a relationship, and when there are issues of discipline, the rest of the class are your allies, not your enemies.

Do I still want to teach teenagers? Good question. Honestly, I don’t know. The other 11-18 year olds I’ve taught haven’t been as bad as that one particular class. But, again, those were classes I taught for shorter periods of time. I’m hoping to get another, similar role in Mexico City next year. I think I’ll spend that time making my decision. Right now, I’m feeling like a failure and I’ve been struggling with my depression lately. I may not be a good teacher, but I’m smart enough to know that it’s not a good time to make a big life decision.

7 thoughts on “Discipline and the Classroom Relationship (with a side-salad of self-loathing)

  1. Behaviour management is something that takes a lot of work and if you let it slip, even once, it can lead to a lot more work trying to recover it.

    Rules at the start are good. Even better are rules that they have buy in to. A whole session devoted to getting the kids into groups and having them discuss what rules they would like to see imposed and then discussing these as a whole class and basically making an agreement about what the rules are is worth it. Then, any time they break one of those rules you can point at the list of them on the wall and say – these are the rules you agreed to.

    Anger never works. Shouting just makes them shout louder to beat you and uncontrolled anger is seen as a sign of weakness and therefore a victory. All teenagers, whether they consciously know it or not, spend an awful lot of time testing adults for signs of weakness or things that will make them lose control. They will call you gay, say your hair is stupid, insult your football team, ask you stupid questions. The trick there is to ignore a lot of it, or at least respond in a way which is not defensive (laughing at it helps…).

    Another trick I was given by one of my mentors: In a behaviour policy where there are degrees of sanction (a common one being level 1: verbal warning, level 2: move seats, level 3: sent out of the classroom, level 4: department detention, level 5: headmaster’s detention) there are some kids who will be horrified at getting level 1 and stop while others will push it to level 3 before they stop. The former are easy to deal with – the formal warning will stop them misbehaving for the rest of the lesson. The latter you need to identify and, as soon as they start misbehaving, move them as quickly as you can fairly do to level 3 (in some cases this could be ‘Stop that – level 1. No, you are still doing that, do you want level 2? Right, ok, level 2 it is… move seats. Oh, and you are still doing it, right level 3…).

    The old standbys of wasting breaks and hometime is also a good one. Class is misbehaving, just stand there and wait. Look at your watch occasionally. After a short time, tell them how long you have been wating for quiet and how much time they are therefore losing on break/hometime. Keep doing this for the maximum time allowed (usually 15 minutes – school policies may differ though). Most times this will stop them before that point. You can write the time on the board for better effect and leave it there all lesson to remind them (and add to it if they misbehave again. I have also sometimes agreed to reduce this time if they manage to achieve a certain amount of time with no misbehaviour in the class. The idea here is showing that there is benefit to behaving.

    Also, make use of rewards and praise a lot. Often, where you have long term problems with a class, it is because they do not feel that they are being treated fairly and the only way to get attention is to misbehave. So, have a reward scheme in place for good work. One teacher I worked with gave entries to a raffle he ran at the end of the week – each time you got a ‘behaviour point’ your name went into the raffle. Each time you misbehaved you lost an entry (everyone started with one entry). The prize was a bar of chocolate or something equally cheap.

  2. I’ve been in a similar situation: a class where I just wound up sitting there letting them run amok. The really shocking thing (looking back) was that I was supposed to be preparing them for an exam and in the end found myself almost hoping they would all fail (in the end they all passed, except the one kid who actually wanted to work in class… sigh).

    Not sure what I can say beyond that, except – if this starts happening again, keep your immediate superior in the picture and ensure they’ll back you up in any disciplimary action you take: the principal with the class I was talking about just refused to support my decisions and I felt like I was swinging in the breeze.

    I think a lot of this is situation-specific – the size of the class, and the nationality, and the age of the kids, probably all play a big part. Luckily I hardly ever have to directly teach teenagers these days, but if I found myself in the same situation again, firstly, I’d keep my superior in the picture, and be absolutely sure what kind of disciplinary measures I would be able to take, and secondly, I’d try to establish the right kind of classroom presence from the off: as someone once said to me, go in hard and you can soften up a little later. Go in soft and you’re out of options.

    Anyway, try not to let it get to you too much. If you can’t face the same kind of thing again, maybe think about working in another country and another culture – it can make a big difference. (Any news on your plans for the summer?)

    • Thanks, dude.

      No plans, yet, though if I plan to come back for August, my summer employment might be cut short, anyway. As always, it’s all up in the air at the moment. I’ve had no concrete replies from either the UK or Mexico.

  3. Hang in there. Classroom management is a lot harder than it looks. I really like Ron Clark’s books and also “The First Days of School” by Harry and Rosemary Wong. The Wong book got me through after I really screwed up my first year of teaching.

  4. Pingback: On Teaching Teenagers | Kosmopolite

  5. Pingback: Facing a Teaching Fear | Kosmopolite

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