A Common Sense Approach to Reaching Your At-Risk Students
From the time I was old enough to read, I knew I was going to be a teacher. Growing up as an only child, I used to spend hours playing school with my stuffed animals and dolls. To me, being a teacher was a calling. I've been an educator for seventeen years now, and I've never doubted my choice of profession; although, after particularly rough days, I have, at times, questioned my sanity.
I vividly remember the adrenaline rush I felt during my first first few years of teaching. I, like many of my newbie peers,truly believed I was going to save the world one child at a time. The majority of my evenings and weekends revolved around generating fun, diverse lessons for my students and grading papers. I strived to create engaging learning experiences, to rally the enthusiasm of my students, and, most importantly, to turn some of the not so motivated learners into thriving academic scholars. I approached each new day refreshed and motivated, optimistic and energized. Why wouldn't I though? After all, I was living my dream- I was a teacher!
Unfortunately, I also vividly remember feeling drained and trying to shake off the overall sense of defeat I often felt by the end of my workdays. I quickly realized my initial perception of high school students and the way I visualized learning taking place in my classroom were both very askew. You see, most of my students were not budding little scholars who approached learning with passion. In fact, they were not eager to learn at all, and the majority of them couldn't have cared less about the lessons I had worked on so painstakingly to keep them engaged in the learning process and rally their enthusiasm for more. In reality, my students were an apathetic audience of teenage critics who were too cool for school, and my classroom was the last place they wanted to be.
Accepting that my students were not the traditional students we had focused upon in my teacher training courses was a difficult pill to swallow. Within the first five years of teaching, I slowly learned the hard truth of my profession; most of the methodologies and instructional procedures I’d studied in college didn’t apply to the majority of my students. I wasn’t dealing with an occasional unruly pupil who broke one of the classroom rules by defiantly chewing gum or whispering while I was instructing. My students showed up late (if at all), reeking of marijuana. My students chewed dip in class, not gum, then spit tobacco on the floor (yes, this really happened). They didn’t challenge my authority by means of muttering under their breaths; they cussed me out with the gusto of a sailor caught in the middle of a storm. They generally didn't care about my authority as their teacher at all (or their impending consequence for that matter) when they exploded with a big “F**K YOU!” and punched the classroom door on the way out. They were students with reputations that proceeded their names, angry vessels filled with teen angst and resentment. Most of them had resigned to academic failure long before they reached the threshold of my classroom. My sing song, classic textbook approach was not working, and my enthusiasm was quickly dwindling to ashes of defeat. Frustrated, I knew something had to change; I was getting burned out quickly, and they were on the verge of consuming me alive.
I decided to stop trying to survive in my classroom by employing methods I’d learned in textbooks. Instead, I started to focus on what had worked for me in my limited experience. In hindsight, if one of my professors or mentor teachers would have warned me that applying textbook methodologies to an environment of at-risk students is like trying to use a stiletto to hammer a nail (it can work sometimes but it is a lot more difficult and you often miss your mark), I would have initially approached teaching in an entirely different manner. A few curt words of advice could have possibly saved me from the years of unnecessary strife that came with learning those things on my own, the hard way, through hands-on trial and error.
For seven years, I worked as a cooperating teacher with a local university. Each year I welcomed students from the M.Ed. program into my classroom and served as their mentor teacher. Fortunately, I’ve worked with some intelligent and caring individuals who have since become excellent teachers. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed some candidates fail miserably in their attempt. I can’t go without mentioning the one poor soul who stood crying profusely in front of a classroom full of teenagers while one of their classmates climbed out of the window and left school.
Since setting a student teacher loose in my classroom without forewarning was comparable to dropping an unsuspecting lamb into a pit full of hungry wolves, I always felt compelled to offer what my father calls “words from the wise” before pushing them into the spotlight of center stage. One of my student teacher's truly appreciated my approach.
“I got a piece of advice from Ms. D that has rung in my mind ever since; ‘All this theory stuff you learn in grad school…is really great. But you can discover a lot of it on your own time. Practical, hands-on experience is the most vital element to becoming a good teacher and you can only get that now…here in my classroom You just have to think about how you want to focus your energies.’ It was powerful advice that really hadn't crossed my mind before. I went home and slept on it and the next day I felt myself mentally refocusing toward the practical experience of the classroom. I rededicated my mental faculties toward the high school. I felt a genuine shift in my constitution and was happier for it." (Reflection Journal, M.Ed. Student Observer 2010)
I'd like to share some advice with those of you who are new to the teaching profession. I would also like to share some of the hard truths. My hope is to save you from having to learn these things on your own, as I did, the difficult way.
Start the Year Off With a Clean Slate
Any prosperous businessman will tell you in order to be successful, you have to fully understand the needs of your clientele. The same is true for teachers, you have to fully understand your students’ needs in order to convince them what you are “selling” is worth their time and interest. One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself (and your students) is take the time to get to know them. There are two critical points I’d like to make here:
1. Never judge your students based upon what you hear other teachers say about them. Just because one teacher (or twenty teachers) has had run-ins with a student doesn't mean they will have an altercation with you. You can reach the most detached, unpredictable student. The ability to do so is all about your approach.
2.Past disciplinary records do not prove anything more than the student has made poor choices in the past. Remember, they are kids, and kids often need guidance.
The Truth: You cannot fully understand how to reach your students until you know what their lives consist of beyond the four walls of your classroom.Once you take the time to show them you are interested in their vantage point of perspective, you will open the revolutionary doors of unimpeded communication.
Establish Empathy: Do Not Try to Be a Dictator!
“Ms. D has a special kind of rapport with her students. She likes to show off her new shoes to the girls and talks with the boys about their girlfriends and football. After a fight nearly erupted in class and she looked to be on the verge of breaking, I witnessed her calm herself down then sit in front of the class and command their attention. She started a conversation about how her classroom is an environment of respect and understanding.” (Student Observer M.Ed. Program, Fall 2010)
On the first day of school every year, I tell my students that I am a teacher but I DO NOT curl up in the storage closet in the back of my classroom for a good night's sleep after a long day of teaching. I go home to a normal house, where I have a normal children, an abnormal amount of animals, and personal issues that would make their toes curl. (You should see their eyes perk up!) I want my students to know who I am beyond Ms. G, English Teacher Extraordinaire. I assure them that I, too, will have days when my life outside of school affects my mood, and I will get frustrated, just like they do, from time to time. I’ve found that sharing small pieces of who I am with my students indirectly allows me to squelch most of their misconceptions. I’m not living in a closet and reading books while calculating ways to make their lives miserable. Most importantly, I want them to understand I am human, and, like all humans, I am not perfect, nor will I every pretend to be.
The Truth: Once your at-risk students move beyond the delusion of the “perfect teacher” they will begin to open up to you, the human-being. It is at this point you will begin to see the genuine side of your students rather than the teenagers who use anger to mask their disappointments in life so far. In order for you to empower your students, it is important for you to create an empathetic environment in your classroom. To do so, you must be your authentic self. Don’t feel like you have to come across as “tougher than nails” to be a successful teacher. The old belief students will respect you more if you don’t smile until after Winter Break is no longer applicable to today's youth. You are a teacher, a mentor; you are not a prison guard. Kids who balk at authority do so because they feel backed into a corner. At-risk students are less likely to blow up on you if they see you as a genuine person rather than teacher whose primary focus is on enforcing stringent rules.
The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men (Lesson Plans Are NOT Etched in Stone)
“None of the lesson planning strategies, textbook activity ideas or in-class examples could apply to her classroom. When watching her class, I wish sometimes that there existed a textbook of contingency plans, as in: How to Plan Your Teaching Day When You Know Half Your Class Will Arrive Late, Stoned or Not At All. Ms. G's ability to think, strategize and re-evaluate "on the move" is a skill I hope to someday emulate.” (M.Ed. Cooperating Teacher Evaluation 2011)
As teachers, we have to be flexible. One of the most frequently asked questions from my M.Ed. students was, “How do you know how much material to plan so you teach from bell to bell?”
My go-to response? “You’ll figure it out with experience. The longer you teach, the easier it becomes.”
I remember stressing out over the same thing when I was new to teaching. My cooperating teacher told me to “always over plan” in order to be prepared for anything. Well, that was partially true. When teaching high school students you do need to be prepared for anything, but over-planning and filling any downtime between bells with busywork doesn't equate to adequate preparation. In fact, a few of my most coveted memories of connecting with my students and guiding them through life’s most difficult times involved no lesson plans at all.
The Truth: Part of teaching authentically includes showing kids that sometimes things don’t go as planned, and, on occasion, that is absolutely OK. I am not suggesting new teachers forgo making lesson plans, nor am I trying to underestimate the importance of planning your instruction daily. However, being able to readily adapt is part of maturing into a well-rounded adult; it is your job to model this ability in your classroom. Before you can successfully impart academic knowledge, you have to initiate your students’ desire to learn. Approaching each class period with flexibility and a willingness to say “sometimes life gets in the way” (on those necessary occasions) provides a valuable opportunity for you to connect with your students beyond academics. As a result, you will establish meaningful, lasting relationships with your students. You will find that as your rapport grows, your lesson plan worries will cease to exist. For me, they seemed to disappear at some point when I was actively engaged in teaching rather than planning what to teach.
A Bee for Your Bonnet (Or a Few Final Cliches for Reflection)
My final advice to you is simple: put on your coat of many colors, do what it takes to reach your students (I blush to admit I learned how to Whip and Nae Nae in front of a classroom full of 16-year-olds. Trust me, it wasn’t pretty) and always, always be genuine. When you find yourself doubting you can do it, and you will have those days as well, remind yourself of the reasons you became a teacher. I’m willing to bet it wasn’t for the money.
High school students are like wild animals in search of prey; they smell fear and use it to their advantage if you allow them to do so. Stand your ground, yet give your students respect without expecting them to earn it first. Plan for the worst, but anticipate the best. And, most importantly, just because you are teaching at-risk students doesn’t mean you should lower the bar. Instead, raise your expectations and wait with bated breath. Make it clear to your students (with you as their cheerleader) you expect them to exceed all expectations. Be honest and don’t mince your words. They are in high school so give it to them straight. Trust me, they will appreciate your bluntness. Let your students know bullshit is just that, bullshit. So, make it clear that in your classroom they are to stop making excuses and get on with it If they need a pep talk, give it to them. If they are in need of what I refer to as a Come to Jesus moment, or a swift kick in the rear end, preach it! And finally, when in doubt (and you will have your moments, trust me on this) remember the Golden Rule, Students are more likely to remember how you treated them over what you taught about your content area-especially those at-risk students who are often overlooked and under acknowledged. A little respect goes a long way.