Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How To Survive a Difficult Class

I was talking with some colleagues in the hall about some of our more challenging classes. One of the teachers brought up the class I had last year. She told me she didn't know how I survived it and continued teaching. I thought I'd share some of the lessons I learned during and since that difficult year.

Let me tell you a bit about that class. First Grade.  A VERY young first grade.  Lots of... well, let's just say they were a very energetic group with many behavioral challenges. We had difficulties with getting along. There were some aggressive incidents, but there was also bickering, tattling, name-calling, etc.on a fairly regular basis.  We had problems with stealing.  Classroom items, student snacks, and money went missing on multiple occasions. On top of that, the students as a group were academically low.  Some were not classified as ESL, but it was quite obvious that Spanish was the only language spoken at home.  All of this was complicated by the fact that I had just started at the school in a new district and new grade level.  I had my own learning curve to negotiate. In my 17 years of teaching, I had had only one other year as challenging as this.

Mind you, I consider myself to have pretty strong classroom management skills.  I tend towards a positive discipline philosophy. I've studied Harry Wong's First Days of School. I've attended CHAMPS and Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS) training. I've implemented the strategies I learned in my classrooms for years.  I pulled out every strategy I had in my bag of tricks. We had class meetings. Lots of class meetings.  We role-played. I read aloud books that teach social skills. We practiced procedures. I taught and retaught problem-solving strategies. I implemented rewards and consequences.  I made changes to the classroom environment. We had more class meetings. And on, and on, and on.  It was absolutely exhausting. And disheartening.

So, how did I survive with my love of teaching intact? Here are a few things that helped me.

The class may be driving you crazy, but you cannot take your frustration out on the children.  If you do,it usually backfires anyway, as the behaviors then get worse. You can't let the group problems affect your relationships with individual children.  Build those the best you can.  Get to know each child the best you can. Greet each child with a smile every day.  If you're working with a child, try your best to reach and teach that one child.  You can empathize with the child's problems, but you don't let the problems become an excuse for bad behavior or low achievement.  You try your best to help the child in front of you. You may not reach that child today, but there is always tomorrow.

Complaining doesn't help. It offers no insight or solutions. So don't. Stay away from the teacher's lounge. It's the place where complaining lives. Don't hang out with the teachers who are constantly upset with something about their class, the school, the parents. Seek out positive people. Try to focus on what is working. Small things mean even more in a tough year.  Celebrate when a child moves a reading level or gets a math concept. Make sure you notice (and praise) when the child with poor impulse control actually does the right thing.  Read and reread the "happy notes" you get from the kids. Smile. Even when you feel like crying... smile.

You don't have to do it alone. Ask your administration to help you with a behavior plan for the most high-need children.  Sometimes, you may need to have a child removed from the classroom. If that happens, it's best to have a plan in place and the lines of communication open. If you don't have a supportive administration, find a fellow teacher who can partner with you for those difficult situations. Sometimes, it's better for the child if he/she can have a safe place to go away from the classroom.  Sometimes, it's better for your sanity if you can send the child someplace so you can have a break. Ask trusted colleagues for their classroom management advice. Find out what tricks they use for smooth transitions.  Ask for new ideas for attention signals.  If you need classroom management help, ask to observe a colleague or two.  Write down any ideas that might help.

Use email, phone calls, and notes to keep parents up to date on class information.  Communicate as much as possible. Make it clear that you are concerned about and care for every child in your classroom. Make more positive calls than negative ones.  That will help make parents your ally in their child's education. When you only call or write for bad behavior, parents begin to resent you. They are more likely to accuse you of picking on their child or treating him/her unfairly. If you also call or email with good news, they are more likely to help when there is a concern. Listen to parents' concerns.  Do what you can to accommodate requests (such as conference appointments, extra homework, or weekly reports). Enlist and welcome parent volunteers. Believe me, you will need the extra help.

Because your class is a difficult one, it's going to intensify the feelings that you are never caught up, that there is always more to do, that there is never enough time.  In a year like this, more than any other, you have to set limits.  Whether you choose to work late only three nights a week instead of all five; or you decide to leave when the kids leave on Fridays; or you leave the bagful of work at school over the weekend;  you need to make time for yourself. You cannot work 24/7.  If you try, you'll be exhausted, you'll ruin your health,... and you still won't be caught up.  So, get enough sleep.  Eat healthy foods.  Take your vitamins. Take a mental health day, if you need to. And above all, take some time for yourself to rest and recover and get ready for the next day, the next week, the rest of the year.

Trust yourself. Trust what you know. Trust your colleagues.  Try something new. Try something again. Have another class meeting. Try another attention signal. Try another approach. Practice coming to the carpet for the 50th time this year. Remember, they are children. Today may have been a bad day, but tomorrow is not here yet. You are making a difference.

If all else fails, remember you will get a new class next year.  You'll make better decisions as a result of what you learned from this class.  Last year's class was my inspiration for my Kind and Caring Classroom poems.  I've used them this year and they've helped me to build a much better classroom community with my current class.  If you think they might help you, they are available in my TPT store.

I hope this helps. Please share any thoughts or advice you might have in the comments.

Until next time,

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