by Randi Skaggs
I’ll be honest: I like to be liked. Popularity was a goal of mine from the time I was very young – a goal I rarely achieved as a shy, nerdy goody-two-shoes, but a major goal nonetheless.
A few years ago, toward the end of my first year of teaching middle school after transitioning from elementary school, we were trained in Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). We sat down in the library, exhausted from a day of teaching, and watched a video of a woman telling a kid to put his skateboard away. In the first scene, she was shrill and angry, and the young man retaliated. In the second scene, she was respectful, calm, even a bit jokey with him, and he complied with the rule. “This is ridiculous,” a coworker whispered to me. “Being nice isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
But I found the video compelling. I’d had a good rapport with my elementary kids, but found that I was constantly at odds with my middle schoolers. If I changed my approach, could things be a bit easier?
I found that it worked wonders for me. My classroom management became one of my biggest assets, according to my evaluations, and getting the students to do what I wanted them took far less effort and frustration from me. And, bonus – I was the popular teacher! The kids loved me! They piled letters of admiration on my desk and drew flattering pictures of me. When people would tell me I was a saint for teaching middle school, I’d smugly reply, “When you treat them with kindness and respect, they’re the most wonderful people on the planet.”
I should have known.
I’ve been a parent for nine years, and it’s one of Murphy’s lesser known laws that the minute you feel like you’ve mastered a parenting skill, your child will show you just how little you know. As it turns out, this rule applies to teaching, as well.
This past year started out like all my previous years teaching middle school. I very clearly and positively explained the school and classroom rules and expectations. I repeated the rules when the class didn’t comply, praised them to no end when they got it right, and gave individual students the benefit of the doubt when they did something incorrectly. For example, if I asked the class to line up according to rows and a student stood up whose row hadn’t been called, I’d calmly and kindly say something like, “Hey Bob – just a reminder. You’re in the red row, and I haven’t called them yet. Please have a seat until you hear me say ‘red row.’”
But it didn’t work. Students would look me right in the eye, smirk, and line up anyway. It’s OK, I reminded myself. Their brains are wired to resist and test all the world’s rules and expectations at this age. You just need to find a way to harness that.
And try, I did. Since I’m a language arts teacher, I’d find articles about others who’ve broke with convention – Colin Kaepernick, for example – and had the students learn vital reading skills this way. But they didn’t quite make the correlation. They had varying opinions on Kaepernick’s decision to protest the national anthem, but many of them had very little interest in the actual article, and they didn’t get my subtle hint that they could use their instinct to break tradition to stand up for bigger issues, rather than constantly testing my rule that I expect you to sharpen your pencil in the transition time before class starts, not right smack in the middle of my mini-lesson.
I’ve always been the kind of teacher that uses humor to both keep students in line and teach my standards. And it’s always, always worked before. Not this year. They got the jokes, and they’d laugh, but then I couldn’t rein them back in again. In fact, this just inspired them to tell their own jokes to other kids, who, in turn, told more jokes. When I’d try to get them to settle down so we could get back to the lesson, they’d reply, “But you told a joke. Why can’t I?”
Which was a solid point. It was unfair of me to expect them to switch gears so quickly, I see now. But at the time, I stubbornly clung onto my style. “This is how I teach,” I’d think. “It’s worked every other year, and any moment now we’re going to turn a corner and it’ll work with this crew.”
But it never did. Don’t get me wrong – if you had walked into my classroom this year, you’d find most students engaged and working. I moved students along academically, and I expect their KPREP scores to reflect that. There were individual triumphs, like the student who refused to read aloud at the beginning of the year and was failing my class who ended the year with a B average and performed a monologue in front of everyone. But every single moment of this took tremendous effort from me, and it wasn’t the smooth, easy, enjoyable flow that I’ve had for several years now.
And I wasn’t always the favorite. I was especially stern and sometimes shrill with one particular class, and there were several students who simply tested every single classroom expectation over and over on a daily basis, and definitely saw the gruff side of Ms. Skaggs. It made me sad when I could see that some students were relieved to leave my class and go elsewhere.
And while I felt like a victim while this was happening, I realize now it was my fault. After a decade and a half of teaching, I would never expect my curriculum to remain static. I attend professional development sessions every year, and I implement what I learn. I read the latest research and adapt my practice to meet the needs of my students. Oh, I have a lot of introverted students this year! More individual work. I have a lot of artistic students! More art-based projects. Immigration is all over the news and on everyone’s minds! Let me develop a lesson around that. I pride myself on never, ever laminating my posters, because I don’t expect that I’ll teach a concept the same way – year after year.
But I expected that my classroom management was so perfect, so flawless, that it didn’t need to change. What I never did this entire year was truly evaluate what I was doing to see how I could adapt it to these students’ individual needs.
This crew of kids had a hard time joking with me while respecting me. And I had a hard time letting go of the “cool teacher” personae that I’d enjoyed in previous years. Had I just adapted my style to be more stern and distant, while still remaining positive and respectful, could this year have gone differently? I’ll never know, but I suspect that it would.
So, when next year begins, I’ll continue with the pillars of PBIS – clearly stating expectations and using as much positive reinforcement as possible to help them comply with the rules. I’ll get to know my students individually, and adapt my curriculum to meet their needs. I’ll treat them with dignity and respect, and I won’t get frustrated when they test expectations, seeing as that’s what their brains are wired to do.
But I’m also going to study them as a group, and determine which type of teacher they need to learn. The goofy one who cracks jokes and makes up musical-theater-style songs about expectations, or the more traditional one who acts like the grown-up she actually is. Because it is my job to meet their needs, after all. And I’ll try not to take it too personally if I’m not the most loved teacher, as long as I’m the most effective one.
To begin, I intend to start with the following resources this summer:
- Responsive Classroom (An In-Depth Look at PBIS)
- PBIS World (Specific and Targeted Interventions)
- Edutopia Resources for Culturally Responsive Teaching (Although I didn’t specifically address CRT in this entry, it is a crucial and growing part of my practice, and absolutely integral for implementing PBIS in JCPS. I will address it at length in future entries, and I look forward to learning much more about it this summer.)
Moving forward in this series, I plan to speak about the importance of building relationships in the classroom and start conversations around the challenges, triumphs, and new approaches pertaining to that. Please join me in creating a culture around growth and adaptation because our students need the very best of us, not the “us” we necessarily want to be.