This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).
Hired at the last minute to fill an unexpected vacancy, Sarah started her first job as a high school science teacher two weeks into the school year. At 30, she had stepped away from pursuing a doctorate in chemistry because “I thought I could make a bigger difference to students if I got them when they were younger,” she said.
Now she would be teaching the lowest-performing students in a rust-belt city suffering from deep cuts in education spending and punitive state testing policies. Morale was low in the classroom, too. “The kids had not had a teacher for two and a half weeks,” Sarah recalled with a cheerful grin. “They thought I was going to quit--and I think to some extent some of them were trying to get me to.”
Having done her practice teaching with more privileged students, Sarah found her very diverse class of eleventh graders “an eye-opening experience at first.” Three years later, she vividly remembers scenes from her first months:
It was definitely chaotic and definitely upsetting. Kids not getting to class on time, kids not putting their phones away during class, kids being disrespectful with their language. And when you have ten kids out of a class of 26 that are behaving that way--one of whom is yelling inappropriate things out a window at another teacher--it’s sort of hard to not make it confrontational.
But Sarah had always had an interest in human behavior. As soon as she realized that many of her students played on the school’s football team, she came up with an end run of her own.
I made it a point to go to the football games every Friday. I even went to one away game that was like an hour drive. But when I went to the football games, I was sitting next to kids’ families. I wasn’t obnoxious or embarrassing about it, but I made sure that if there was a way I could say hi to the kids that I taught, I did. They knew that I was interested in what they were doing. They knew that I was going to be sitting next to their mom on Friday, so if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do, there was going to be trouble. And they knew that I cared by my doing that--and that was huge. Huge!
That approach “helped me get the critical mass of the kids to be on board a little bit,” Sarah recalled. “I knew that if you could deal with a situation with an adolescent in a way that’s not confrontational,” she added, “there’s a much better chance that the student will change his or her behavior and redirect himself or herself in a more productive way.”
Little by little, she remembered, “I won the kids over. Not everybody all at one time, and not even everybody.” Her classroom was no exemplar of perfect behavior, she said, but “we had built a relationship and they didn’t want to disappoint me.”
Humor as a Connection
As the year progressed, Sarah often used humor to connect with students. One boy, she noticed with sympathy, was trying hard to ignore the distracting presence of his buddies so he could bring his progress report up to a C. “You have to be silly and creative,” she said, laughing as she recalled the spontaneous ploy she tried:
So there was a little desk by me, and [the boy] was up there by me. And then his friends keep trying to creep over and bother him. So I got up, and a couple of them were football players, so I got a little, like, “I’m blocking for him right now. And I know to stay low and lead with my shoulder, so you better watch out. He’s gonna get his work done, ‘cause I’m blocking for him!”
Sarah began to notice that her students actually brought more open minds to some academic tasks than did their more advanced peers. With hands-on inquiry--such as a physics task involving paper airplanes--they were “far less attached to having the ‘correct’ answer,” she said.
Still, she found that “you have to check your expectations at the door” as far as the social and emotional tone of her class on a given day. Like a good coach, she kept a number of strategies in her playbook to manage whatever came up. For example, “If I knew there were kids that were fighting, I was going to try to keep them out of eyesight of each other.”
Sarah’s continuing belief in the learning potential of every student reminds me of the pre-game chant made famous by a small-town football coach in the television series “Friday Night Lights": Clear eyes, full hearts--can’t lose. Three years after her post-Labor Day initiation into teaching, this career teacher knows her winning strategy:
You have to meet the students where they are exactly in that moment. Like, what happened yesterday happened yesterday. What’s happening now is happening now. What’ll happen tomorrow will happen tomorrow. That’s just how it has to be. If a kid has a meltdown on Tuesday, Wednesday I’m at the door with a smile on my face. “How ya doing? Are you having an okay day? Come on in. Let’s get our stuff done.” That’s how I make it through.
Listen to Sarah speak about meeting students where they are:
Photo by Nick Whalen.
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