Category Archives: Student Relationships

40/40 Led Me to 20/20

By Destinee Hodge May 5th, 2014 5:00 PM

Almost three years ago, I stepped through the doors of Kelly Miller Middle School having little idea what to expect. I had heard the good, the bad, and the ugly during my training about individual teacher’s experiences working in one of DC’s lowest 40 performing schools. Going into an environment with many underperforming students and wanting to see them succeed was a very daunting task. I remember wanting to approach my students and new school community with an optimistic yet realistic mentality. How could I have high expectations while not being naïve toward possible student behaviors and mindsets? It seemed like an impossible balance to strike. Whether or not I acknowledged it then, I had pre-conceived notions about how this journey would go.  These mind-sets were based on my past education experiences and what other people told me to expect.

If I had the chance to go back three years and give myself some advice, I’d share what I understand now more than ever— at the end of the day, my students and I are both human beings. That mutual humanity is what brings me back each morning. Are there days where students are disrespectful? Yes. Have I ever witnessed inappropriate behavior from students? Yes. Have my students thrown me a surprise birthday party? Yes. Have they shown an incredible enthusiasm and tenacity for learning a new language? Absolutely.

This duality is my daily experience. As many frustrations as I may have about student behaviors and administrative expectations, I have enough positive experiences by virtue of student relationships to create a harmonious balance in my life. The bond I have with my current eighth graders is an excellent example of how both the positive and negative elements in a low-performing school environment can balance out. Over time, the relationships I’ve built with my students have contributed to a better classroom environment. There is a shared understanding that my classroom is not just Srta. Hodge’s room, but rather a place where foreign language instruction lives in the minds and voices of every student I teach.

I now see it as my duty to pass this perspective to people who are considering working in one of the District’s 40/40 schools or those who are already on their way there. No single story, experience or viewpoint should shape your mindset going into this position. In your classroom, there will be difficulty and there will be beauty— focus on the latter and you will have a positive experience overall.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Middle School

By Sean McGrath March 20th, 2014 10:00 AM

I want you to think back for a moment to when you were thirteen years old. I mean really think back. Put yourself in the shoes of adolescent you. What was it like to be physically on the verge of adulthood but mentally still a child? With the hormones flowing through your body at an alarming rate, were you in control of your emotions and feelings, or did you allow them to control you? Were you dressed in all the latest fashions, or were you like the author, pictured below, who was a rock star only in his own mind?

Not Pictured: An Actual Rock Star

Not Pictured: An Actual Rock Star

It’s no secret that the teenage years are among the most tumultuous in a person’s life. Books like Surviving Ophelia and Raising Cain detail the crises that, respectively, adolescent girls and boys navigate during the ages of 11–19. The question is, why?

During these years, the human brain starts to develop from the ground up. The first segments of the brain to develop – the Brainstem and the Midbrain – are responsible for regulating the bodily functions necessary to survival: blood pressure, body temperature, and so forth. This leaves the Limbic and Cortex areas – those that regulate judgment, logic, reason, and rational thinking – as the last ones to mature. This has a huge impact on adolescent behavior, leaving teenagers more likely to behave with reckless abandon and ignore the consequences of their own actions.

It’s why so many people will inevitably respond with a “good luck” or a “you poor dear” when told that I choose to teach this challenging age group. So why do I choose to relive the worst years of my life 181 days out of the year? Precisely because of these aforementioned qualities.

The erratic nature of teenage years means that, without proper guidance and support, erratic behaviors can acquire permanence in a person’s brain. In fact, according to Linda Burgess Chamblain, PhD, in her pamphlet, The Amazing Adolescent Brain: What Every Educator, Youth Serving Professional, and Healthcare Provider Needs to Know:  “Brain connections that are stimulated and used repeatedly grow stronger while unused connections wither away.” In essence, teenagers who are taught to think critically during the times when they are least likely to actually think critically, will be empowered to make positive life choices.

At my school, we begin every day with a Developmental Designs Circle of Power and Respect. This advisory program, created by Dr. Terrence Ross, consists of four parts: greeting, sharing, play, and reflection that meet the specific needs of adolescent children: autonomy, competence, relationships, and fun. Incorporating this understanding of middle-level children into daily lessons and classroom management means that I spend a lot less time yelling than I did during my first year as a teacher. Now, I understand my students better. A girl who is misbehaving in class by calling out is trying to assert her autonomy. A boy who would rather socialize than learn about The War of 1812 is expressing his desire to build interpersonal relationships. It doesn’t make that behavior any less frustrating in the moment, but it does allow me to tailor my reaction so that the behavior is corrected rather than punished. This corrective action, what we call “Take a Break”, builds a relationship with students while allowing them to reflect on their disruptive behavior.

For example, I had a student one day, Jeremiah*, who decided that he didn’t want to use his pencil anymore and flung it halfway across the room. While raising my voice at him, calling home, and giving him a zero would have all been warranted reactions, they wouldn’t have reached the root of the issue. Instead, I calmly asked Jeremiah to “Take a Break” in another classroom. J got up from his seat, grumbling along the way, took a reflection paper, and walked to the directed classroom. He came back 5 minutes later with his reflection sheet filled out. He was quiet for the rest of class. After the bell rang, I called him over to my desk and spoke with him for a minute.

“Hey man, lemme ask you something. What’s going on with you?” I said.

Silence.

“Okay, you don’t have to tell me if it’s personal, but your behavior in class today was inexcusable. You know we don’t throw pencils here. What’s going on?” I continued to pry.
After a brief pause, Jeremiah answered.

“Sorry, Mr. McGrath. There’s just this girl, and, well I don’t want to talk about it, but I shouldn’t have thrown that pencil.”

“I understand, bud. If you want to talk, you know you can come to me.”

“Thanks, Mr. McGrath, see you later. Oh, wait! What was the homework tonight?”

So, when people ask me why I teach middle school, it’s not just because I enjoy subjecting myself to erratic behaviors and outlandish statements – although, believe me, that’s absolutely part of it. I understand the needs these students have, and if I can, in some way, help them fulfill those needs and encourage them and guide them to become more thoughtful people, adolescence may just be a little more bearable.

Student-Teacher Relationships: The Cornerstone to a Successful Classroom

By Amanda Jonas February 19th 4:45 PM

 “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Thich Nhat Hanh

A student told a lie about me. Marcus* told his mother that in math small group, somewhere in between teaching changing improper fractions to mixed numbers, that I had called him a bad name. He even went a step further, telling his mother that I hated him and picked on him constantly.

How could Marcus get it so wrong? How could I hate any kid? I was the teacher that took kids out for fro-yo after school and the teacher that kids wanted to sit next to on the bus. Had Marcus missed the memo? What made him feel this way?

The very next day, Marcus did something even more confusing. He came up to me after school, gave me a huge hug, and said, “You know. Even though I get mad at you, you’re still my favorite teacher in the world.” If I could insert that confused emoticon face right here, I would.

This befuddling incident led me to some serious deep thinking. What was the difference between a student who writes, “Ms. Jonas, you are like a mother to me and a long lost big sister” on his or her homework and a student like Marcus?

The simple answer is relationships. Although I had fostered positive and strong relationships with most of my students, there were some students, like Marcus, for whom I had not yet had the opportunity.

In my experience, relationships are the cornerstone to any successful elementary classroom. Someone once told me “kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Yeah, it’s cheesy, but it is 100% true. Having a strong relationship with your students, one where they know beyond a doubt that you care about them, not just academically, but as people, is incredibly important.

For anyone that doubts this theory, think back to the last time you had a coach or a boss that you knew disliked you or didn’t seem to believe in you. Now, think back to a time when you had the opposite: a coach or boss that not only liked you, but knew about your interests and dreams. Now tell me who you worked harder for, and who you trusted more to lead you?

I fear that sometimes in this high stakes, results driven climate, we forget that we are inherently nurturers of the soul as well as classrooms teachers. I recently met with my master educator who noted how warm and supportive my classroom felt. My master educator made a comment about how much my students were participating, unafraid to ask questions or make mistakes. When kids feel supported and loved, and know that someone will be there for them until they get it right, they feel safe enough to take academic risks.

While the results of these relationships are wonderful, they are not always easy to forge or maintain. It would be a complete lie if I told you it is easy to form strong relationships with every child who crosses the threshold of your class. There will be those children who seem difficult to reach or others, like Marcus, where you have no idea where you stand with them. The interesting thing is that the students who seem to give you the hardest time are almost always the ones who crave a loving, supportive teacher-student relationship the most.

According to a study by the American Psychological Association (APA), a child’s poor relationship with even a kindergarten teacher can set a child up for lower academic achievement up through eighth grade. Conversely, when teachers build strong relationships with students, they are less likely to act out or display defiant behavior. The reason? According to the APA, those students act out less because they know and trust you. Relationships are crucial especially when they are hardest won. The APA is a tremendous resource on how to foster and build relationships with even our most difficult students. With their help and some of my own experiences, I have complied a short list of relationship building tips.

You can’t fake it!

Fake it till you make it may work in show biz or passing off Sears as Hugo Boss until you can actually afford it, but it does NOT work with kids. Believe me, kids can tell how you feel about them. No matter how difficult or how many Hail Mary’s you need to say before class, you must learn to love every single one of your students.

What about that one kid…

Even with your most challenging kid, there is always something to find in them that you can latch on to. Those are the kids who need you to be there for them the most, and often times their little outbursts and tantrums are really just their attempts to get someone’s attention the only way they know how. The APA says that especially in urban, high poverty schools, teacher student relationships are crucial because they build resiliency in students and ultimately lead to higher academic achievement.

Is it too late?

It’s almost February, you might be thinking. There are only 5 months of school left, 4 if the polar vortex strikes us again and we have a month of snow days (wouldn’t that be terrible?). Is it too late to repair broken relationships or to foster ones I haven’t even started yet? The answer is absolutely not. The APA found in a study of over 4,000 poor and minority students that in only five months, students whose teachers worked to build stronger relationships had higher grade point averages than their peers whose teachers did not make that same effort.

Where do I start?

Kindness. Start with kindness and the mindset that you are vitally important to these children whether they willingly admit it or not. Take time to learn about who your students are and where they come from- more than surface questions like whether they enjoy reading or math more- and show a genuine interest in what they care about. Also, don’t be scared to be the real you around your kids. I am naturally a sarcastic, thoughtful and opinionated individual, and this translates into who I am in my classroom. My students enjoy seeing this part of me as their teacher, ultimately making us closer.

References:

Kaufman-Rimm, Sara (2014). Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education/k12/relationships.aspx?item=1

Amanda Jonas is a 5th grade math teacher at Stanton Elementary School.