Friday, April 22, 2011

The Funny Side of the Crying Game

I've had an amazing response from colleagues, mentors and friends to the last post about my shameful crying episode. Most surprising was to discover just how common these feelings are for new teachers - and just how many of my peers are out there having their own cry :-) A good friend told me they've even been crying in the car on the way home, and a mentor who I hold in the highest esteem told me they nearly resigned in their first term because they thought they were a terrible teacher.  It seems it comes with the territory - and you can sort of see the funny side if you imagine all those secret crying corners. So, if you're reading this because you've had a cry in the classroom (hopefully not in front of the students!) - take heart - it's part of the process! And don't be afraid to share the story with trusted mentors and peers. Chances are they've been having a secret cry too.

So what advice did I receive? Here's a summary and some further thoughts:

A certain level of control is necessary before you can do the exciting stuff
This response from friend and fellow new teacher Beth Bevan echoed the experience of many of my peers:
One thing I have learnt though is that you need to build the strong relationship with a challenging class before you can break out the really exciting stuff. If you don't have that certain level of "control" you won't be able to reign them back in when it's time to discuss the learning, or time to work quietly on a task. It doesn't mean you need to be the scary disciplinarian, you just have your find your way of telling the kids they're off track and bringing them back to focus. And it certainly doesn't mean your wonderful teaching strategies go out the window, it might mean you introduce things slowly, remembering that they need to get used to you and your style being a different way of learning too and this will take them out of their comfort zone. By the end of the year, your most challenging class could well be your favourite.
See students as individuals - not 'that class'
Some very helpful and practical advice I was given was to stop thinking about my challenging class as "that class" and instead view it as composed of unique individuals - each of them with their own story, their own personality, needs and responses. When you do that, it becomes so much easier to forgive their individual transgressions - you're not facing a whole class, with a mob personality that's attacking you (even if it feels that way sometimes!).

Who do you think you are?
In the nicest possible way: Don't kid yourself that you've got something special that dedicated teachers who came before you haven't tried. It makes good movies, but it ain't true. Accept your limitations and the reality of the current context.  I'm reminded of a Buddhist teaching called "To Care and Not to Care" - or to use the lingo, getting the right balance between Compassion and Equanimity. We need to have compassion with our students, but also not be so caught up in emotion we can no longer help. Some things can't be changed just by us wanting them to change - we need equanimity to accept things as they are, while still keeping our heart open so that when and if students are ready for us, we are still there for them.

"I hate you" - but it's not personal
In her wonderful book "Relating to Adolescents: Educators in a Teenage World", Susan Porter repeatedly warns teachers not to take students' admiration and interest seriously: "they don't care about you". Teenagers are interested in themselves - and their interest in you is only based in how it relates to them. I'm coming to realise this caution also applies when students say they dislike you, or are rude to you - it's the same: "they don't really care about you" - the emotion isn't that personal - you the teacher just don't figure that much in their personal lives. So next period, they could be all different again.

And how is this class going now? I have changed my teaching strategies to use more 'working quietly' activities (book work, worksheets) and once the class is settled, I walk around the class to students and teach individually or in pairs.  We're not at the stage yet (me included) that we can have sustained whole class discussion about mathematics. I also offer more differentiation options, allowing students to choose the level of difficulty they want to start at. The wonderful thing is now that the shouting (theirs) and the crying (mine) has stopped, I'm really taking pleasure in the variety and humour of the class.

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