Once, ages ago, a new principal took over in the school where I taught in the South Bronx. It was my second year teaching, and I entered into it with high hopes. My first year had been insanely difficult, as is the norm, and I was excited to put a lot of plans into action to ensure a better year.
But I hadn’t counted on the effect my new principal would have. While my first year was tough – figuring out how to balance lesson planning and grading and classroom management and testing and what have you, my administration and coworkers were great. I had people to whom I could go for help, people who treated me with kindness and gave me the benefit of the doubt.
Principal number two, we’ll call her Mrs. Vader, dramatically changed the culture of our school from day one.
She yelled. Constantly. And she was always looking for something to yell about. If a few teachers showed up to a staff meeting a bit late, everyone got a lecture. If some teachers forgot to submit their lesson plans on time, everyone heard about it. If you used one of your contractual sick days, she screamed at you. If a student got into a fight on your watch, she screamed at you. If you were late to pick up your class from lunch, she screamed at you. If you misunderstood something she said and asked for clarification, she screamed at you.
I wish I were exaggerating.
She made lofty, asinine expectations for us. Every bulletin board had to have student work with zero mistakes and exactly four staples per paper that were all horizontal. If a 1st grader had a spelling error, or should you put 5 staples on a paper at an angle, she would rip your entire bulletin board down – IN FRONT OF YOUR CLASS.
She made no effort to get to know us, referring to us in the hallways as “Hey you,” or “Um, lady who teaches 4th grade!” She knew nothing about our lives and was culturally insensitive. She made fun of teachers’ accents and even wished us Jewish teachers a “happy” Yom Kippur, even thought that is the most solemn holiday Jews observe.
A massive transformation occurred in me. I’ve always been a people-pleaser, a perfectionist go-getter who loves nothing more than going above and beyond. I like working hard, crossing t’s and dotting i’s. But suddenly, I was sullen. I was moody and angry. I had a terrible attitude about doing anything she asked me to do, even if it would have benefited my students. I used up all my sick days, because I dreaded going in, and I rolled my eyes behind her back. I basically did what I wanted with my door shut and trained my 3rd graders to look and act the way she wanted when she came in for an observation. And the moment I was offered a job at another school, I took it. Leaving behind wonderful kids who needed me because I could no longer stand the atmosphere.
I often think of Mrs. Vader and how she changed me, because I’ve seen that very same change occur in my students. When I lecture an entire class about not finishing work on time, even though the majority of them did. When I get on their case about bathroom behavior, even though it was just a handful of kids who had trouble with it. When I assign something that is very difficult, but don’t have time to answer questions. I can look out and see the hard-workers of the group change. And it’s sad.
With all the stresses of our job, it’s easy to become, even on some very small level, like Mrs. Vader. We can get irritable or frustrated – justifiably – and then act in ways that destroy our classroom culture.
Every year, I make it a goal to avoid, as much as possible, a culture of despair. When I felt despair in the South Bronx, I had no motivation to try. I knew anything good I did wouldn’t be recognized. I knew that if the entire staff wasn’t perfect, I’d be yelled at. I knew that if I made one mistake – no matter how tiny it was – there would be no redemption.
Our kids have to have hope in the classroom, or they will give up. It doesn’t matter how much self-motivation a student possesses, they will stop giving us their all if they don’t see the point in it.
So, how can avoid being the Mrs. Vader of our classrooms? Here are some ideas I’ve come up with. But I’d love for this to be a dialogue. Please leave a comment for me, telling me what you do to avoid a Culture of Despair.
- Make Sure Every Day is a Fresh Start – No matter how tough it is, you can’t carry a grudge into the classroom from the day before. If Tommy threw his notebook and screamed an obscenity and had to be removed from the classroom – greet him the next day with a smile. Unless he brings it up, don’t mention yesterday’s trouble. Look immediately for something you can complement him on, even if it’s something as small as “I’m so happy to see you sitting in your seat, ready to learn.” If he wants to discuss it, do so neutrally. Remind him that the past is the past and you’re ready to move on.
- Leave Room for Mistakes – As I mentioned in my last blog, failure has to be an integral part of the classroom culture. Mistakes are proof that you’re trying something new, and should be looked as stepping stones. Academically, give students chances to review and rework, so that one wrong answer or one missed assignment is not a death sentence. This doesn’t have to be universal. You might offer re-dos on some assignments but not others, because this can certainly add to your workload. Have extra copies of the work that students can grab if they lost their original copy. In my next blog, I’ll discuss how to set up your classroom so students become independent and proactive about taking care of such things, so this doesn’t add to your already huge list of responsibilities.
- Make Success Attainable – Your curriculum has to be challenging for students, but success has to be within reach. If you see that students are having trouble, build in time to work with them or have a peer help. If many kids don’t seem to understand the instructions, there’s a chance they need further explanation. If you find yourself constantly frustrated that they “don’t get it,” there’s a good chance you need to teach it a different way.
- Correct the Behavior, Don’t Insult the Kid – Just as we have to allow room for academic mistakes, we have to be ready for behavioral mistakes, too. When a student is off-task or is being disruptive, avoid putting them down and focus instead on their behavior. In fact, see if you can word it as offering help, rather than being punitive. “Susan, what can I do to help you get started?” is a much more positive thing to say than “Susan, stop being lazy and work!” Susan will see that I want to help, instead of thinking I’m out to get her.
- Ask What’s Going On – If a student is having trouble meeting expectations, ask them, privately, why they’re struggling. If you are genuinely interested and are calm and compassionate, you may just find there’s a very good reason for their behavior. I’ve learned about dangerous or difficult home-life situations, bullying situations, substance abuse situations, and self-esteem situations this way. I was able to refer the student for help, and then they were not only able to succeed in my classroom, but our bond was pretty unbeatable after that.
- Don’t Pile on Consequences – If you’ve used your standard set of consequences and it isn’t working, it’s time to switch course. At my school, we give agenda marks. More marks equals heavier consequences, such as phone calls home or detentions. However, if I’ve already given a mark and the behavior continues, I don’t just keep giving marks. Having a kid go from no consequence all the way to a referral for mild behavior in one class period isn’t effective. Often, that student needs a change of scenery and may benefit from sitting in another teacher’s class for a bit. If you find that a student has continued trouble in your class, a conference with a parent is in order. But piling on consequences will only make the situation more stressful, and won’t lead to a swift turn around.
- Take a Sincere Interest in Students’ Cultures, Backgrounds, and Interests – Students get turned off pretty quickly if they feel you are dismissive of their culture. You can use student interest inventories at the beginning of the school year (there are a million examples on Pinterest) as a springboard, but you must take an actual interest and be proactive. Listen to the music the kids like. Resist the urge (if you have one) to belittle it or make fun of it. Find out what movies they’re watching, what apps they’re using, what video games they play. Incorporate these things into your curriculum (like having the students make an Instagram page for their favorite book character). Ask questions about their holidays – especially those that are not part of the dominant culture. Talk about food and language and countries of origin with a curiosity and respect. Remind yourself – often – that your personal cultural norms are not everybody’s cultural norms. (And take a professional development in Culturally Responsive/Relevant Teaching when you get a chance.)
- Don’t Lecture – If one or a few kids does something they shouldn’t do, don’t lecture the whole class for it. Have a small-group meeting in the hallway or keep those kids after class so you can discuss it privately. This is less embarrassing for the kids in question, and they’ll be more likely to listen to what you have to say if they’re not being humiliated in the process. And this prevents the rest of the class feeling resentful for being lectured at if they didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t know who did something? Did you sit on a tack and have no idea who planted it, or someone threw a stack of ungraded papers away? Ask for everyone to write a letter with any information they have, then move on. The kids who didn’t do it will be grateful to avoid a lecture and more willing to help. And – bonus – you lose MUCH less instructional time this way.
- Own Your Mistakes – When you have a down day, which you probably will, own up to it. If you act like Mrs. Vader and lecture the whole class because two kids made an enormous mess, take responsibility for your mistake and apologize – sincerely. Tell them why you think it was wrong and that you’re making a plan to do better. Not only will they respect your contrition – they will get to see that growth mindset in action!
- Make Time for Self-Care – This is a lot to ask of you. In the long run, it makes teaching much more peaceful and enjoyable, but it can feel like a lot, especially in the beginning. Validate that the frustration you feel is real, but try not to get going down that path of negative rumination. This job can be frustrating at times, so it’s important to take care of yourself. Easier said than done, but find something that takes your mind off the classroom and set aside time to do it each week. Running or reading or baking or hiking – whatever it is, if you invest in your own happiness and optimism, it’s easier to bring that into the classroom.
So, as we enter into our 2017-2018 school years, let’s chat about how to stomp out – for good – those cultures of despair. Give your students the gift of optimism. It’ll take some work on your end, but ultimately, it’s a much more enjoyable place to be – for all of you!
- Five Resources to Create a Positive Classroom Culture
- The Positive Impact of Hope on School Culture and Student Success
- A Culture of Hope: this is a website and book that I plan to explore much, much more!
- Preparing for Cultural Diversity: Resources for Teachers
- Color Brave JCPS – A fantastic group of local teachers working to create equitable education for all.