Our focus on broad reform might blind us to more effective individual solutions in the classroom.
My first year teaching had me working in a town 50 minutes north of Waco, Texas. The population numbered in the hundreds, and there was literally one stoplight, located at an intersection where the K12 campus sat on one side, a gas station on the other.
The rest was pretty much farmland.
Rural life is unique, as I quickly learned. My suburban upbringing and adult city living gave me little preparation to understand and connect with my middle school students, at least initially. It may also have been youthful ignorance on my part. Though I felt old then, I stood in front of that first year class at the ripe old age of 23.
I expected these young whipper snappers to be excited about all and anything I had to teach them.
Of course, they were not. After eventually accepting that fact, I had to devise ways to compel attention.
Especially from my male students. They were less interested and demonstrated poorer behavior, in general. I don’t mean to stereotype. When I look back at my entire teaching career, the most problematic student – behavior-wise – happened to be a female.
But the fact is that boys underperform girls in school, at every level. And one component of that, I think, is behavior and buy-in.
One of the students in my 7th grade class was Josh. He was funny. Very funny. And he loved to make people laugh, even if it meant interrupting class, interrupting fellow students. Leaping out of his chair mid-play reading to mimic Peter’s cat from The Diary of Anne Frank.
I found Josh entertaining and wonderful. Whether this speaks to an immaturity on my own part, I will leave to the reader to decide.
What I do know is many of his other teachers found his behavioral outbursts merely obnoxious, and Josh often found himself in detention.
Class interruptions are obnoxious. But what I saw in Josh was someone who was paying attention. His riffs were derived from what we were actually doing, the texts we were reading. That’s something.
So I talked with Josh, and we came up with this plan: he could sit wherever he wanted (he happened to prefer at the back of the class, by the bookshelf), as long as he paid attention and saved his commentary for appropriate, agreed-upon times.
As a reward, Josh got to do something that gave our entire class a boost.
Josh was fascinated with Greek mythology, and read all of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series with a devotion that can truly be described as fanatical. He regularly brought different gods and goddesses into otherwise modern conversations, and scribbled drawings of them all over just about everything.
So we gave Josh a regular column in our class newsletter entitled “God of the Week,” wherein he picked one ancient deity to highlight.
And if his behavior was especially good, Josh got to present his column and “teach” a mini-lesson.
Josh’s behavior was just about perfect from there on out.
I often think of that first year teaching, and of how quickly Josh’s behavior changed when he had real motivation to limit his humorous commentary and let other students learn without interruption.
And I think the Education Community is trying to solve lagging student performance on macro-levels, which is good. Our public schools need innovative solutions and ideas that are broadly distributed and broadcast.
But sometimes I wonder if we miss the human reality of a classroom. That students are people, and that when they feel valued, heard and seen, these smaller humans respond.
Just like us.
Photo: Flickr/US Department of Education