A really frustrating thread

After a jillion posts back and forth, I share the frustration of the following post:

I can’t help but wonder how many others on the list feel as

frustrated as I do when I read these, because short of exhorting

everyone to be caring and observant of problems, I can’t remember

ever, in all these years, seeing a clear explanation of what exactly

we should be doing that we arenít. PLEASE — tell us!

The post actually referred to something I had written. As I pondered where I had gone wrong, it seemed that the problem is in offering specifics, as this writer says. But how do you offer specifics when you don’t know how a particular person handles particular situations? My own experience in this is very rich, having shared about fifteen years of teaching with a very experienced and very sensitive teacher. We were quite different in some ways but shared goals for foreign language teaching. We talked several times a day, every day, over many years and many cups of coffee.

There were times when our exchanges got very tense, very emotional, because the classroom is a pit of dynamics. Each student with his own agenda, needs, attitude, personality, and so on. These interact with each other as well as with the teacher. My friend will read this entry and offer his own observations, I am sure, but let me share a few things that seem to have helped me.

One thing he said recently and that I posted was that I have the ability to step back from a situation so that I am not emotionally involved. My first year teaching, I saw teachers get into power struggles with kids and was appalled. Kids always win!

Where does that ability come from i.e. how is it developed? In my case, many years of practicing psychotherapy where you hear things tough to hear, watch interactions hard to watch, but keep your mind running to come up with interventions that will move the process along in a positive direction. One thing that helped me get to the point where I could practice this was practices like karate, meditation, and so on, where you work on controlling your mind.

That doesn’t mean you don’t have the emotion; it just means you let it pass through you (these things are much better expressed in books on the topic). You can experience it; you don’t want to deny it or repress it, but you cannot allow it to control your mind, to cloud your mind.

Then as you keep your mind clear, you observe the situation. What you do then varies. We all know terms like redirect, confront, distract, befuddle (that’s my favorite – when I do something so silly it defuses the situation). All you’re doing is breaking up the dynamic and the focus.

An example: snotty kid says “I don’t have it” when everyone is turning in homework and then proceeds to open up his cell phone and check for messages. You can ignore it, but it may attract the attention of other students who giggle appreciative of this cretin’s machismo. Often teachers feel the need to assert their authority and hurl a warning toward the kid like, “You know, that’ll be a zero.” The reply might be, “Whatever.” Or it could be a whiny “That’s not fair; I didn’t know it was due” or “I didn’t understand it”. Now you’ve got a ten minute discussion ahead of you, taking you off track.

Some things you might do other than helplessly threatening the kid with a bad grade or to confiscating his cell phone or going off track is to design the lesson so that paper will shortly be used to do an in-class assignment. A more on-the-spot thing to do might be to off-handedly say, “Next time you have trouble with the assignment, leave a message on my phone here and I’ll call you back on your cell and help you out.” This may disarm him or the other students by offering help instead of doing the usual “teacher thing”.

You could be funny and ask him if he wants to put your number into speed dial. Or you could ask him to run the attendance up to the office, a totally unexpected act since it demonstrates a certain level of trust. You might even ask him to tell you how to enter speed dial numbers into your phone when there’s a break.

These things break the pattern of interaction, the antagonism. Some teachers cannot do this; they just have to make the point that this kid has pissed them off. But, of course, that is the kid’s agenda. It may be formulated like this, “My old man is a dick; all these people are jerks and here’s one more.” or “None of these teachers like me, why should I care.” or “These guys will think I’m stupid if I ask him how to do the homework so I’ll just blow it off.” and so on. All you are doing is breaking the pattern in a way that allows him to rejoin the common effort.

Common sense must prevail here. Some days you just let someone alone. If you are a 25 year old female hottie, you don’t offer to give a 17 year old boy your number. Etc.

Please comment on this approach.

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