"One thing you need to know is that they are really chatty," said the teacher's email. I'd been invited to do a demonstration lesson in a 5th grade class. Previously, I had asked the teacher about the logistics of her classroom (SMART board? yes. Popsicle sticks? yes. Rows or paired seating? chatty.).
"OK," I thought, "I guess I need to teach them my strategies." I went through my mental rolodex of classroom management acronyms, picked one and made a poster.
On the demonstration day, I located the 5th grade class at the assembly. The teacher smiled and waved at me, and we walked to the room along with the rest of the class. She stopped me before we all went in. "They are really bad," she quietly apologized. "Do you want me to help you?" I looked at the line of children in front of me, thinking "I wonder which of these kids is the toughest?"
I went to work: I watched how they entered the room and I made mental notes: Who had influence with his peers? Who had a desk facing AWAY from the front of the room? Who was sitting alone? Who had a Peanuts Pig Pen-style ring of trash and muck around her desk? Then I went into the room. But I didn't begin the lesson. Instead, I began connecting.
I started with Pig Pen. "You have a name like mine," I said. "It's spelled fancy and I don't know how to read it, but I bet it sounds great." After some posturing, the young lady finally says her name is Lanhia (Lah-nye-ah) as she smiled through three crooked teeth. I began with Lanhia because on the outside, she (and her desk perimeter) looked like a disaster, and I usually find that students like her need extra help connecting and focusing.
On my way to the SMART board, I visited the desk that was facing the BACK of the room and was a good 5 feet away from any other student desks. I clued in to this child because he was clearly isolated and could be using attention-getting behaviors to sabotage lessons. Tomas was busy trying to (not) fall out of his chair. "Tomas, I need someone to click my Power Point slides today. Will you move your chair to the table in the front please?" Tomas was sure I was joking.
Pretending not to notice his suspicious gaze, I moved past Linus who was guarding a hastily crafted note to some 5th grade enemy using the worst swear word a 5th grader might know. "Mmm, how about you throw that away?" I suggested. I stopped. I waited. I smiled with warmth. He froze. "Yeah, let's toss it." I suggested again. Linus nodded, crumpled it and walked to the trash can.
"Gahh! Not this again!" moaned a boy in the front row. His sidekick giggled. "I remember you guys too!" I said. "I am so excited that this classroom has some experience in this topic from 4th grade. We will be able to use your help today." The boy pursed his lips at me. I think I had about 2 minutes to say something interesting.
"This is not about me." I said in my head. Then I said it out loud, "Today is not about me. Today is about YOU. Today, we will talk about YOU." I made eye contact with as many kids as I could. I smiled.
The rest of my lesson was a breeze. But it wasn't a breeze because I wasn't working hard. I worked very hard for the next 45 minutes (until the recess bell rang). It was a breeze because I had strategies for connecting and for instruction, and I used them. I was persistent.
Persistence in the Face of Classroom Setbacks
Things feel like a breeze when you have strategies and you know how to use them. It is easier to persist with a challenging class when you realize that setbacks aren't special and unique to your struggle. Everyone, every teacher, has tough classes; it is a part of the journey. The goal isn't to GET the good class. The goal is to grow and cultivate one. Good classes and good puppies are made, not born. So when a class acts out and pushes back, a persistent teacher moves in closer.
When classrooms are in chaos, it is not that we have a bad class or even a bad teacher. It's just that we have a group of people without strategies that effectively move them in a positive direction. Negative strategies have taken over and the players feel powerless to overcome them.
People in a growth mindset look for ways to influence a challenge in a positive way (Dweck 2006). In teaching, we call the ability to manage a class and to facilitate high levels of learning "with-it-ness." With-it-ness is an example of feeling like you have agency – my actions matter. I have influence over others and will use my influence in a positive way.
A fixed mindset thinks that the combination of kids in a class make it a good class or a bad class. But humans need to be explicitly taught the language and behaviors of school. We need practice in the social rules and the academic rules. We would never expect a puppy to just know how to act and call it a bad dog if we never tried to train it in anything. We would own that behavior ourselves.
Connection is key. We know how important relationships are between teachers and students (Hattie 2009). Persistent teachers are curious about their students and what is making them tick. "What, exactly is so troubling for you? Why, exactly, is wearing your hat so important to you?"
Persistent teachers are child-centered. "My rules are in place to advance YOUR learning. I make rules that allow us to learn more and to learn better. Your learning is my goal. I am here for you. If you are not in class, learning, then I have failed. This is why I come to work. Can you come back to the class and we can try this again?"
If that doesn't work, try this: "Can you tell me what you need that you are not getting?" The answers will surprise you.
The next email I got from the 5th grade teacher said "Thank you, you mesmerized them."
I haven't done my job well unless I conference with the teacher from the demonstration lesson. It would be a terrible waste of time and energy for her to come away from this experience thinking I am some magic pied-piper personality that can enthrall bad kids for 45 minutes and leave. This is the prime opportunity to debrief. "What did you notice I did to get to know the students as quickly as possible? What effect did my actions have on the kids? How did I treat the kids who had the biggest behavior issues? How did I treat the shyest kids? What did I do about the professional participants?" It is key that she understand how deliberate, systematic, and genuine I am when I approach interactions with students.
They seemed mesmerized, but it was actually engagement, learning, and growth. And she can grow to be mesmerizing too.
About Emily Diehl
Emily Diehl is an instructional coach and educator consultant for Mindset Works. She works with K-12 classrooms, parents, and educators in raising levels of student learning, especially with implementation of the CCSS. She has contributed many lessons and experience to the Brainology program and actively implements growth mindset strategies in her school district.
About Mindset Works
Mindset Works was co-founded by one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation, Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. and K-12 mindset expert Lisa S. Blackwell, Ph.D. The Company translates psychological research into practical products and services to help students and educators increase their motivation and achievement. For more information, visit http://www.mindsetworks.com.