Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The culture of "why can't you just...?!"

Over the years I have observed a phenomena that I didn't understand at first. I observed teachers yelling at students and I didn't understand why. My first teaching year was in kindergarten and it seemed harsh to hear teachers yelling at those oh-so-adorable five year olds, but as I progressed through the years and grade levels, I not only heard it more and more often but occasionally found myself doing it. It wasn't until recently, however, that I realized the tone, frustration and meaning behind the yelling; it's undertones pleaded "why can't you just...?!". It begged of the students, "why can't you just sit still?" or "why can't you just stop making noise?" or "why can't you just do the work?". The yelling wasn't just out of anger or annoyance, many times, but of a deeper frustration that teachers weren't running the classroom that they'd desired. I suspect that this frustration stemmed from culture shock on the teacher's part (something I've written about before) but even veteran teachers and those born, raised and educated in this city have fallen into the pit of yelling at their students.


A recent article by The Cult of Pedagogy explores those moments of breakdown that we all experience and gives some great suggestions to how to manage them.

The article  doesn't, however, address the frustration that comes with the "why can't you just" yell. It is a feeling of despair and momentary hopelessness; it is a feeling of loss of control; it is a feeling of 'maybe I'm not cut out to do this' or even a feeling of not understanding the current experience of the student (s).

The first stage is to know and understand the backgrounds of your students. This isn't something that is often expressed to new teachers or even veteran teachers who transfer to new schools, districts or states. A very good friend of mine had a solid seven years of teaching English in another state under her belt and still experienced this culture shock when she moved to New Orleans. She astutely observed a difference: "In Wisconsin, you have the students' trust the minute that you walk into the room and have to really work hard and screw up to lose it but here, you have to earn the students trust and work hard to get it and keep it".  Many students in this area have unstable home AND school lives, sometimes moving from place to place to stay with various family members and also having a revolving door of teachers over the years, some of whom care and some don't and some who are knowledgeable and some who aren't.  Many time this leads students to push teachers in an attempt to test them and determine if they can trust them. For the teacher, this looks like defiance and disrespect.

Knowing the big picture background is very helpful in developing patience when students are testing limits. Knowing students' individual backgrounds is even more helpful for knowing how to manage the behaviors. A student who is testing their trust in you will need a different approach than a child who may be defiant because his home life is in chaos and he needs to feel like he has some autonomy.
It is super helpful when feeling that "why can't you just" bubbling up to finish the sentence. Give a second to think "why can't you just keep your hands to yourself? Because your brother moved out to live with his father and you are lonely and want someone to engage with." "Why can't you just do the work? Because you didn't understand the directions or the modeling and you're lost and would rather talk to someone than sit alone, unable to work".  It can also help to ask the student these questions and help them be self aware and luckily, the younger they are, the easier it is to help them adjust.

The second stage is for you to be self aware. Much like the article from Cult of Pedagogy, being in tune with out own feelings makes a big difference not only in our work but in our personal lives as well. It is helpful to notice that you are more likely to yell out when you're hungry, or the student has done it four times, or you might be insecure about how a new lesson might go, or if you feel an illness coming on. Occasionally we are triggered more easily at these times and can send a confusing and upsetting message to kids: 'this behavior was acceptable yesterday or last week but now it's not, so I need to work to figure out where the limit of acceptable behavior is'. This can cause even more trouble in the long run.

I have come to know when I am more prone to being easily frustrated and am getting much better at heading it off by telling students how I feel (and this works because of the relationships that I develop with students and the empathy that we have for each other) and they tend to manage themselves even more strictly than I typically do. I have also learned to distinguish between loud voice and yelling.  Sometimes students need to hear a loud, stern voice- this is a voice that asserts your expectations. A yell, however, is loud and asserts that you are frustrated and maxed out and, for some students, that they've won the battle of control over the classroom. We never want the students to win control. Even on our worst days.

Finding ways to keep our patience in tact and still manage students is a tiring but important task that, thankfully, many of us have support in doing.