Thursday, March 1, 2018

Communication and Teaching: Dealing with Challenges

You've prepared for your assignment as best you could and piled your bag of tricks full of useful stuff to help keep students on track. You've utilized every method possible to help students stay focused or return to the task at hand. But you are still experiencing a few hiccups with a student or two that is making class time distracting.

My typical classroom - Jae Holt
My typical classroom
At this point you could mentally throw your hands up and say "I give up, this kid just doesn't want to learn," or send him or her out of the classroom to remove the distraction. And those are reasonable choices that most students and teachers might expect a substitute to do. After all, you are there as a temporary educator and it can't be helped if students choose not to respect your time.

But here's the thing. The majority of off-task and disruptive behavior happens because a student is encountering frustration, boredom, or is otherwise preoccupied. It isn't that they don't want to learn (most of the time), it is that they are not in a mental state that helps them learn.

In the mood to learn

In classes like math or Language arts, where there is a lot of critical thinking and problem solving involved, students may feel they are behind their peers and feel embarrassed that they don't understand what's going on or frustrated that no matter what they do they aren't catching up. This is when a lot of giving up happens, and if you give up too then they see it as implied agreement that they are incapable of learning the material. These students need occasional reminders that they are smart enough, and you are there to help them through this difficult mindset.

Sometimes you get this - Jae Holt
Sometimes you get this...
For other students, the material may not be challenging enough, and so they choose not to do the work. As a substitute, you are not in a position to give more challenging work (unless the teacher provides it), so the best you can do is ask these students to engage in the work in other ways, such as by helping. Ask these students to help other students, or even help you understand where everyone is in their learning.

And there are still others who are just not emotionally in your classroom. Drama happens every day in middle and high school, and often you can steer these mini soap operas out of their immediate minds. But for some, troubling or traumatic experiences that happen outside the classroom can preoccupy a student's mind and make it impossible to keep them focused. If you determine that a student may be experiencing an emotional difficulty, gently and quietly suggest that he or she go see the counselor.

Helpful strategies to increase engagement

Even after you've tried these tactics to engage your difficult students and they still choose to be difficult, don’t give up just yet. There are still some other tricks you can do to minimize their disruptive behavior on the other students.

Doing assignments together is a great way to keep everyone on the same page. It also means the students who are not paying attention don't have an excuse, because you are practically giving them the answers and all they have to do is copy it off the board. Students have an incentive to pay attention because the class as a whole is working through a problem or question. Calling on random students to help you answer a question or start a discussion will keep most students focused, because no one likes to look silly when they are called on and not know how to answer. But inevitably, it will happen, so don't point out that if they were following along they would know it. Instead, say "That's ok, let me help you get to the answer." A non-judgmental response will not put them off but lets them know they are not off the hook for having to engage in the lesson.

If you give a privilege or take one away, students take notice. All students love privileges, and that makes a good incentive to stay engaged. Some privileges include choosing seating (or reassigning a seat), using their phones or other electronics, game time, and any other free-time activities. For especially difficult students, make deals with them: if he or she does the first three problems, you will let them play a math game or jump around just outside the door for one minute (be sure you are able to stand at the door so you can see both the student and the class). You could also give them extra work, if you have back-up plans in your bag of tricks, as a negative incentive to work.

One last thing you can do is to move around. Standing still kills learning. When you move about the classroom, you can see what students are doing behind their desks and laptops, who they’re passing notes and whispering to, and who isn't on the page you're currently working on. You engage with the students by reminding them that you are in the room and you expect them to be learning. You can use tactics like lightly tapping on their desk or shoulder to return them to their work.

But in the end…

You can - Jae Holt
You can
You have exhausted your last trick and tried your best tactics, and you STILL have a student who is unwilling to stay engaged. First of all, take a breath. It isn’t your fault that a student chooses not to be an active learner. But also know that chances are it isn’t completely the student’s fault either. While you may feel like you’ve given up on the student, your effort on that student’s behalf is not unnoticed.

At some point before the end of class, have a quiet conversation with any students you feel were not engaged with the day’s lesson. Include in your conversation at least one positive thing they did accomplish, and tell them that although you will be mentioning their difficult behavior to their teacher, you will also let the teacher know that they did something positive. And this is a conversation, so ask these students if there was anything you could do better (in general) the next time you happen to be a guest teacher again. Sometimes, you won’t get anything beyond a shrug, but often students are willing to tell you what might be helpful to them.

When you stick by your students and encourage them to learn, they will be much more attentive or at least more respectful than had you entered the room ready for a fight. “My way or the highway” doesn’t encourage cooperation in adults, so it’s safe to say it definitely doesn’t work with kids. Get a feel for the class as a whole before you start singling challenging students out, and even then be discreet and respectful. You don’t know what is going through their heads, and you don’t need to. You only need to be encouraging and provide encouraging methods to promote participation.

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