Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Making a new me

Recently an amazing thing happened in my classroom.

Up until last Thursday my third period was a constant source of stress. I have this one girl who we will call Tawanda who has tested me from the moment she arrived. She text messages and talks while I'm talking and complains and makes a big deal about how HARD it is to do an assignment. Wah. And the rest of the class is just lazy. Last semester about 70% of them failed.

So Wednesday I went on this long rant about how they need to care and their future depends on it and blah blah blah. And they were all like "Waaaaaaah but you don't do this and you don't do that and school is just so haaaaaaaaaard!" And Tawanda gave me a dirty look because she is the ringleader of the whiny club.

My shoulders are up around my forehead by now and I'm exhausted every afternoon. Something has got to give.

So I went home and I thought. And I thought. And I thought.

And the next morning I came back with a new seating chart and a new attitude.

After all the initial waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah I hate my new seat! bullcrap, I gave the following speech:

"The new seats are not a punishment. I spent about an hour this morning arranging and rearranging and putting you where I thought you'd have the best chance of improving your grade. Because that's what this is about, your academic achievement. I was about to start calling parents when I realized maybe there was more that I could do to change the attitude in this room before we get the outsiders involved. You guys are always telling me you want me to change things, so today I'm changing things. It starts with new seats. The person you usually sit next to may be a great person and they may be your best friend, but that doesn't mean they're good for your education. So I put each of you next to someone who will be a good influence on your grades.

"But I'm not just asking you to change. I'm changing too. I will grade your papers and get them back to you sooner. I will come in here and listen to you instead of talking at you. I will not roll my eyes, I will be a more positive teacher. And in return, you will all work harder on your own education because I know you want to graduate and leave me and go out and make some money, and it all starts here in this room with a new attitude."

Then I gave them the day's lesson. And they listened and took notes and paid attention. And even Tawanda nodded in agreement with my speech and asked some good questions. And Friday when they didn't do the homework I didn't get mad. They asked if I could read the assignment out loud, so I did. And even this one kid who has never turned in anything all semester - even he did Friday's assignment. And this other kid who's super smart but never does his assignment because he's trying to get revenge on his hyper-critical parents? Not only did he do the assignment, but he walked around and helped other kids do the assignment. I lavished him with praise. I lavished them all with praise.

I graded papers in a timely fashion instead of waiting until the last minute. I made neat, orderly lessons with clear instructions. I stopped grumbling when they don't listen and learned to explain the material again for the 37th time. My new motto in that room is to be quiet and calm and just accept that these will never be the kind of students I want them to be. So I have to learn to adapt to their ways instead.

My shoulders aren't exactly a wave of serenity, but they aren't up around my forehead anymore. I haven't gone home exhausted in three school days. And today when I had the class read Tawanda dove into the book she's been avoiding for weeks. She admitted it turns out to be an easy book and maybe not such a bad one.

Sometimes if things don't work like you want them to, the best thing to change is you.


  1. nice one, Emily. hope that Tawanda will start making self-changes, too!

  2. Emily, you have my deepest respect.

    This is one of the most moving, hopeful and inspiring blog posts I have read in a loooong time. And I go through about 500 a week now.

    I was trained as a high school teacher and sometimes I feel I should be teaching, but I've always thought it is too hard for the money paid.

    As a matter of fact I teach screenwriting now (probably harder and paid less! ;).

    Anyhow, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated this.

    And as to Comment #1: It obviously isn't about Tawanda but about you. And the fact that your energy hasn't drained, means you did the right thing, and an amazing thing, too.

    Again: RESPECT!

  3. Anonymous9:18 AM

    I just got done editing a book called No Teacher Left Behind by Bryan Fiese, which focuses on the differences between today's generation of students and the ones that came before it. It goes into detail on how to approach those differences in the classroom, and some of the things you talked about here fit that model perfectly.

  4. Anonymous4:53 AM

    I’m not a teacher but I have an incredibly high level of respect…awe, for teachers.

    In fact I’m on a personal campaign to the President in support of our teachers.

    The fact that some teachers have to purchase school supplies with their own money disgusts me…to no end.
    But I digress…

    I like your post. I like the point you’re making with these children. A point that might not be made today…
    A point that *will* be made in years to come, when these then women and men will ask…

    What did Ms. Blake say…?

    What they choose to do at that time will count the most.

  5. Thanks for the good thoughts, everybody. Most of them failed their last test, so I'm really testing my new philosophy today.

  6. Don't fret about the immediate result. I 200% agree with Anonymous who says "A point that *will* be made in years to come".

    You don't need to "test" whether you are doing the right thing or not. In you heart you already know you are.


    (Secretly of course I'm hoping with you there will be some immediate improvement when you see their test results)

  7. yo, it's me. Same club. Tomorrow, I'll tell 10 seniors they are failing the first semester. They'll have to go to Adult School or summer school or something, or they won't 'walk' in June with the other grads.
    And you know what?
    Not my freakin' problem at this point. You take them as far as you can. You show them their own weaknesses and how to counter them. You extend the big deadline three times (yes, I did). And then, if they get an F...you go home, have a snack and take a nap. They EARNED that F, baby.
    Thai food, soon, okay?
    P.S. check my blog for notes about our Union Station trip. I met someone who looks like you, only smaller: she's your Mini-Me.

  8. And this other kid who's super smart but never does his assignment because he's trying to get revenge on his hyper-critical parents?

    Actually, he's bored. He is brilliant, but after getting put down and tromped for being smart enough times, he's given up. He doesn't do homework because he doesn't need to, he probably pulls extremely high marks on tests. I'd bet that he probably isn't popular. He keeps closed because he no longer trusts people. He's angry, at alot of things, with good reason, at least to him. You gave him two things, a challenge and the ability for his intellect to be viewed by you and his peers as an asset. I know him well, because I was just like him once.

  9. Anonymous6:57 PM

    Really lovely post.


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