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by: Caleb White
Earlier today I checked the roll to see who’d be absent from my history class in the last period of the day. Nuts. It looked like close to a full complement, and this particular class has some challenging personalities. You know, the stoner, the loner, the clown, the jock. There are a handful I’m really glad to have, my supporters who don’t need to be convinced of the relevance of history, the value of education, or of anything really. Then there are the rest, who could go either way any given day.
Today, they went the wrong way. I wasn’t super-prepared, and technology let me down. I don’t blame the kids for going a bit “feral”, as we say in Australia; the lesson wasn’t one of my best. However, I still allowed myself a few complaints after the bell, as I sat there recording the behavior. Why can’t they control themselves? I need teacher aide support. Is it even that hard to just copy off the board?Why can’t they control themselves? I need teacher aide support. Is it even that hard to just copy off the board? Click To Tweet
I am a second-year teacher, a late starter in my mid-thirties, and in my less pessimistic moments, I truly believe I can make a difference. I can inspire these kids! Yet no matter how prepared I am, how much sleep I’ve had the night before, how blue the sky is in my beautiful corner of Queensland, students are going to throw me curveballs all day long.
Adolescents are unpredictable. Their age and everything going on inside make them so interesting, and yet, some are more demanding than others. I remember reading an oft-cited article by JJ Arnett (1999) when studying for my qualification that discussed the myth (or not) of “storm and stress” in adolescence. Some experts decry the theory as myth because it isn’t universally applicable. Not all teenagers go through it, I know; I’m a good example of the placid, even-keeled kid that never gave my parents or teachers much trouble at all. However, middle school students are renowned for the challenges they present teachers. If you’re having an off-day, they are particularly adept at sensing it and responding with gusto. Personally, I’d rather they knew the meanings of words like ‘adept’ and ‘gusto’, but you win some, you lose some.
We are nearing the end of the first semester, and everyone’s feeling the strain; teachers, students, parents, and caregivers, we’re all tired and in need of a holiday. What we don’t need is a newspaper article such as I read this week in the local rag. “REVEALED: The worst behaved schools”, it trumpeted gleefully. It must have been a slow news week, because making the headlines today was Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, demanding a zero tolerance approach to bad behavior in the classroom. That would be fine, if all students’ personal circumstances were the same if behavior was just that – behavior – and nothing more. Teacher educator Karen Peel responded to the minister’s quick fix, saying that punitive approaches “often exacerbate behavior problems in schools”. I learned early on that I had no idea what challenges students faced outside of school, and a heavy hand only pushed some further away.
The truth is, however, that as rough and simple as some middle-schoolers seem, their lives at this age become increasingly complex, and they may know less than we do about what’s going on inside. Teachers may sigh about the drama, vent about the disrespect, and wring our hands over the decline in literacy, but we know that our young people are in the middle of a storm. For some, we may be their only port at present. For me, it’s back to the drawing board most days, figuring out how to make the classroom a safe and supportive place, and aiming to be better prepared … someday.
Arnett, J.J., 1999. Adolescent storm and stress, reconsidered. American psychologist, 54(5).
Peel, K., ‘Zero tolerance’ is the wrong approach to classroom behaviour management’, EduResearch Matters, 13 June, viewed 13 June 2017, <http://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=2254>.