Feb 18, 2018

Teacher Journal #2387: "How do you deal with negative experiences in the classroom?"

My co-teacher expresses her feelings
It just so happens I was on Facebook and I saw a post from a kid I taught way back in 2008. He just got a job as a cable news reporter; he’s stationed in South Dakota working the weekend news desk. It made me realize not only how fast time flies, but how in this job, in teaching, in working a classroom full of students, so much depends on a "red wheelbarrow."

What I mean is: so much depends on the subjective experience! For example - I get really bogged down in the minutiae of teaching - the grading, the preparation of lessons, photocopying (double-sided, with staples) - that I do not allow myself to zoom out and get a better perspective on what I am doing and why I am doing it. Let yourself be the wheelbarrow à la William Carlos Williams.

I have to constantly reflect on my teaching practice. Not the mundane stuff. But the me who is in the classroom now. Like. Sometimes I am not happy with my class, how it is running, and what I am doing. If I am having a bad day at school - it's probably because I am preoccupied with all of the stuff I have to do and the little time I have left to do it. I will admit - it makes me crazy and my students notice a shift in my personality. “You didn’t do your homework?” I ask with a more accusatory tone. And the kids slink down into their chairs. Not a good sign.

I feel like we bring our psychological junk into the classroom. Well. Anywhere. But it is interesting to look at the classroom setting. I do not think educators think about this enough. No matter what your rapport with your students is - bad, so-so, or great - if it is a group of thirteen kids and a teacher - that’s fourteen globules of psychological junk. The good news is that technically the teacher has more experience dealing with psychological junk than the adolescent students in the room. But it is a mistake to ignore that junk. I have the power to make “a lesson out of it.”

It is a good idea. Take a negative feeling you have about your class. I feel like my students do not care. For me - it’s the feeling I get that my students - who are English Language learners - do not spend enough time practicing English outside of my class. It frustrates me. I noticed I was becoming annoyed by it - especially when in class my students would revert to their own language rather than what they were supposed to be doing.

When that happens I either A.) become pissy (which is not a good remedy - I’ll have you know) - Or, I will stop myself and think why is so-and-so not loving ENGLISH!!! Usually, it is because he or she does not have the vocabulary or does not know how to phrase what they want to say OR they are lost on the meaning of the lesson or off track on what I want them to achieve.

For the past two years, I have been building my own ELL curriculum. So I am well-aware that many of my lessons do not always hit the target. I am constantly tweaking lessons, fixing lesson goals, and thinking really hard what I want my students to achieve when it comes to skills and abilities. Often I am scrambling to get my students back on track. However, I have to remind myself that learning is still going on. Those negative feelings are valuable if I allow myself to be curious about them.

I do this. I ask, "What feels good about learning English RIGHT NOW. What feels bad RIGHT NOW. And because it is a language class I write all that junk on the board. It looks like this:


I realize that many of my students do not practice English outside of class because they do not feel that English is important to their social and home life. They do not speak English with their family, their friends, or in their social lives. English is something they associate with work, school — all things outside of their personal sphere. In fact, one odd thing is that the kids in my current class who do try to assimilate English into their “out-of-class” time sometimes get ostracized. But I can make lessons out of those experiences. I can try to make a speaking class based on those scenarios because I have been listening to my kids complain, gloat, and talk. Turn the tables. Get them to externalize their feelings. And if they do it in English - guess what?!  - we both win!

Not everyone will feel great about being in the classroom - I cannot get all of my students to love English or to immediately see its purpose. However, just like that kid who is now a television news anchor - when he was in my class as a high school student - he didn't always see the point of what we were doing in class. Maybe I didn’t either. But I remember conversations we had. I do not always remember the lesson. But I do remember the conversations.

"Why do I have to learn about Homer? Isn't he some dead white dude?" And then we read Homer. And then we talked about how we felt, and we were able to be in that moment - like a William Carlos Williams poem.

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