Now and later

October can be a long stretch for teachers and students. 

Maybe it’s because the school year isn’t new anymore. Teachers know who their students are. We did ice breakers and team-building exercises to get to know one another at the beginning of the year. We assess their work to figure out what they need and how to support their learning.

Inevitably, the end of the first quarter brings with it deadlines, piles of grading and extra meetings. Teachers are busy, and students’ stress levels increase as report cards loom.

It’s tempting to abandon resolutions we set over the summer, revert to old habits and stick to what we’ve done in the past. But the busiest periods are when we need them the most.

I needed mine when a student started FaceTiming during class. The class was reading quietly, and she asked to step outside to take a phone call. I was happy to let her step away, as that’s the norm my student teacher and I have worked to establish. But she returned to the room before the call was over and carried on while the other students tried to work quietly.

It seemed ridiculous. I didn’t understand how a ninth-grader would decide this was the best way to handle the call.  Just before throwing my arms in the air, I reminded myself that I set a goal in August to be less reactive when my most challenging students misbehave during class, that dialogue is an essential component of the restorative practices my school’s implementing and, as someone who writes about building positive relationships with all students, it was an opportunity to put those articles and blog posts into action.

But I still didn’t know what to say.

When in doubt, I follow the advice of a long-time mentor who watched me mishandle similar issues when I shared his classroom during my first year of teaching. 

“Remember,” he told me over and over again, “they don’t act out to disrespect you. When you have a conversation, deflect their attention away from the negative behavior and you might figure out why they’re doing it.”

So I asked the student to return to the hallway, commended her for stepping out to take the call and asked her if everything’s okay. 

“It was my friend,” she said. “He’s in the hospital. I was taking care of him this weekend but now he’s by himself. I didn’t want to miss class because I’m already absent so much, but he needs me and I don’t know how I’m going to get there after school.” 

After a brief pause she apologized for talking in class. I was again speechless, so we returned to class and got back to work.

Letting her speak first accomplished two things that I couldn’t have initiated myself. First, she did have a good reason for her behavior and shared personal information that helped inform my planning and instruction for weeks to come. I already knew her life outside of school was complicated, and she did only make it to class a couple days each week. But now I have some context.

Additionally, it turned a negative experience into a positive. She returned to class knowing that I care about her, but also that she needs to bring her grade up in order to pass the class.

Sometimes the right approach with students is to say less instead of more. I was lucky to guess right this time and hope to find more (and less obvious) opportunities to have similar conversations with other students more often. 

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