Do kids come to school with better behavior every other year?
Seems like a silly question, right? But it was one that I actually asked myself at one time. After several years of teaching, it seemed like every other year I had a great batch of students that made the year pleasant; while the alternate years provided a group of kids that drove me crazy due to their difficult behaviors in my class. On the good years, the kids were generally self-managers, independent, responsible and easy to teach. Now that’s not to say that there weren’t days or moments when someone got into a lot of trouble, but for the most part our days were filled with great learning and respect. The years with the difficult groups were stressful, hectic, challenging, and just annoying.
Early on in my career I realized that my classroom management classes from college were NOT enough. I needed to learn more. I took more classroom management courses, read books on the subject, and learned from colleagues various strategies that are proven to provide teachers with well managed classes. In no time, I saw a huge difference in my students’ behaviors and was even being complimented by colleagues about how well I was able to manage my class.
When I became a mom I learned even more. Having a son diagnosed with ADHD caused me to find alternative methods to help kids that “don’t fit the mold” become more successful. In fact, it got to the point in which I welcomed those challenges into my classroom. Then, time went on and this weird pattern of easy then challenging classes began to emerge.
I knew that I was using the same strategies and practices. I still believed in my students. I was even at the same school so I knew that the demographics weren’t changing. What was the variable that was causing this mysterious difference? Is there something in the homes; something about our society? Was is just crazy luck of the odd and even draw? It couldn’t be me. I was the constant. Or could it?
Yes, you guessed it. It was me. I discovered that the year after a challenging class, when I was preparing for the next set of students, I would tell myself that “I refuse to have another year like last year!” So I’d deliberately teach my new students what my expectations were. I’d train them in the classroom routines and procedures and we’d practice them over again if they weren’t being done well or if there was confusion. I even used visual aids as reminders.
Opportunities for student leadership and voice were also provided. In those first couple of months, I let them know that I believed in them, that I cared about them, and with purpose, we built a community of respect. It was those years that were smooth and delightful.
One way that I helped to reinforce those things in my primary classrooms was to have the students make a booklet or bulletin board about the things we learned. I especially liked the booklet because then my students could take it home and tell their family about the routines, procedures, and opportunities for learning throughout the school day.
Then came my error. After having such a great year with a community of students that were respectful, self-managing, scholars, I slacked off. I’d go into the next school year with a happy heart, ready to join my next set of delightful students. The year would begin and I would teach the routines and behaviors and expect the kids to pick them up with maturity and respect. I entered the year treating them just like the kids that I had said good-bye to only a couple of months ago.
But that’s where I missed the most important piece. They weren’t last school-year’s kids and they hadn’t had the same training that the previous set of kids had had. It took time to build the great community that we had had the previous year. It took building respect not just assuming it was there.
I realized, later than I wished I had, that intentionally training my students every year, with the same purpose, explanation, rigor, and accountability made the difference. My students came to me each year needing my direction and deserving the respect of proper training in routines and procedures. It wasn’t their fault that I didn’t give them my best. I was being no better than a tour guide who tells you that there are amazing things to see in the city, but not giving you a detailed map. You might be able to find your way around and see some neat things, but you’d miss out on the really great cafe that only locals know about or the cool underground tunnel that was coursing beneath your feet.
Teaching and training our students about the specific expectations of our classes, and respectfully holding them accountable for engaging in those routines and procedures makes a world of difference to them and to us. So take my advice and learn from my mistakes. Take plenty of time, and then more time, to intentionally teach your students about your classroom, your expectations, and even your building’s staff. Don’t cut corners. It may seem like you just don’t have the time; that you need to get into the content as soon as possible and just manage the issues as they arise. Or it may be that you think your students don’t need such specific guidance. You can manage issues as they arise. But in doing that; you will only make your year more stressful, hectic, challenging, and simply annoying. You don’t have to wonder what happened. You might just prevent some of those funny questions rising in your head too.
Go forth and lead like an amazing tour guide that not only gives you a great map, but takes you with them to the cool café.