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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

This is the fifth part of a six-part entry. Start with the introduction.

When I refer to targeting students, I don't mean that I target them literally, of course, but you can fantasize about whatever you want. I do. Others have.

Z.Z. Packer wrote a chilling short story called "Our Lady of Peace" (found in the collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere) that I often think about: In it, an inexperienced young teacher struggles to get her high school students under control. She eventually gives up and goes on a violent rampage. I've been there (the young-and-inexperienced part), but I never did that (the violent-rampage part).

Although it was kind of therapeutic to read this story, there are ways to target students that don't involve a vehicle moving at very high speeds.

Some kids need specific behavior plans, which can include daily or weekly check-ins with a principal, a counselor, or a parent or guardian. Some respond to an incentive plan. Some might need referrals to counseling or a social worker. And some students might just need a larger dose of your positive attention and love.

Try this: In each of your classes, identify the one or two most challenging students. If you have a large group of challenging kids, decide on which ones possess the superhuman power to throw off the whole class or can exert the greatest influence on their peers.

Now, in the next two weeks, try to spend half an hour alone with each of those students, maybe during lunch or after school. Even better, invite each kid to lunch. Bring something to share.

When you extend the invitation, let the student know that you want to get to know her better. Try saying something like, "It seems like you're struggling in my class. Maybe we didn't start off the right way together. I want this to be a good year for you. I want to get to know you better and to hear about your experiences in school and in my class."

If the kid turns you down, chose another student -- but very few will turn you down.

At your lunch, ask a lot of questions: "What do you like to do outside of school? What kinds of music, movies, and television shows do you like?" At first, keep the questions nonthreatening and impersonal. Try to connect. Listen. Try to find something about the kid you can like.

At the end of your meeting, ask whether the student would like to do this again. Say, "I hope that some of the challenges we've been having might not be so bad if we get to know each other a little. I want you to succeed in my class. I want to serve your needs. But you also need to follow my rules. Would you like to have lunch again next week?"

You are on her side, right? You do want her to succeed, right? Let her know. Let her know that you care about her, but emphasize that some of her actions aren't acceptable. A little targeted work like this, especially at the beginning of the year, can go a long way.

And, again, check your assumptions: Why do you think that seventh grader is so hostile and angry and disruptive? Most of the secondary school kids I've known who have acted like this are scared little children. Though I don't have to tolerate their violence and disruption, it helps me to remember that it's not personal: There were many adults before me, both in and out of school, who didn't respect them. Although some kids may seem beyond reach, I have also found that most can hear, if only for a brief second, a message of "I care about you." For some, this makes a critical difference in the way they'll behave in your class.

I know that it's really, really hard to be in a place of love and compassion, day after day, when you have 150 students and you're exhausted and don't know what you're doing tomorrow and can't see your desk under the piles of paper and you didn't eat lunch. Do whatever you can to get yourself into that good place as often as possible. (This usually starts by sleeping, exercising, eating well, and doing things that are fun and relaxing and not school related.)

But you can't do this job (and you shouldn't) if you can't see the really challenging students as traumatized, damaged children and -- as corny as this sounds -- if you can't respond to them with love and kindness.

If you try any of these strategies, please report back! Let us know what's worked and what hasn't. And check back for the next part of this entry.

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Samantha Jennings's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the idea of inviting students, who may display some behavioral problems, to get to know you better by sharing lunch together. It sort of reminds me of the expression, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer". That is definitely NOT to say that any of our students are our enemies, though it may feel that way sometimes. One student's behavior can truly affect the entire classroom for better or for worse. Because of that, it is important to reach out to those "target" students in the hopes of modifying their attitudes and/or behaviors. Recently, I have developed a closer relationship with one of my students who really struggles academically (although, behaviorally, she is every teacher's dream). I couldn't seem to motivate her to improve her study habits and to ask for help when she needed it. One day, I kept her in during P.E. time to make up a test she had missed due to absence. During those forty minutes, she and I chatted about her family, school, and what she felt she was good at (she told me that she wasn't good at anything). I, too, opened up to her and told her stories about my own struggles in school. For some reason, we really connected and ever since, both her grades and the quality of her work have improved. Best of all, she now feels comfortable enough to ask me for help when she needs it and her confidence has risen. As a teacher, I couldn't have asked for a better result! All it took was forty minutes of my time. Our students are definitely worth that and more!

Linette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the important reminder to spend time with the students to show you care. I had lunch with 2 students at a time during my student teaching, but haven't done this since I started teaching. I think I will start it back up again. Also, I try to attend students' extra curricular activities (go see them play football, soccer, cheer, wrestle, etc.). The students really see that I care when I come to see them on a Saturday.

Kelly Raimondi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that it is a great idea to eat lunch with your students. However, I do not think it should just be with those students who have behavior problems. I feel that a teacher should eat lunch with all students to get to know them. This is a wonderful way to have conversations with your students about their families and what they like to do when they are not in school. When I taught third grade, I ate lunch every Friday with a few students. They were all very excited to eat lunch with me and couldn't wait for their Friday. This was a great opportunity for me to learn about my students and see if there was anything they needed from me or just see how they were feeling about school. My students also enjoyed learning about me and my family. Eating lunch with my students let them know that I cared about them and was there to help them. When our students know that we care about them, they are more likely to follow the rules and complete their work. They want to please us. I feel that eating lunch with my students and showing them that I care has helped me to create a wonderful classroom environment where my students trust me. It has also helped me to become a more effective teacher.

Katie Mathis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that eating lunch with your students is a way to get to know each and every student on a more personal level. I actually eat lunch with all of my students every day. This is a time we share what we are thinking about the work we have done so far that day, and just about our lifes. Us teachers have to do so much to get these students prepared, sometimes we forget that they are still children and they like to do other things besides school work. It is so important to get to know your students on a more personal level. This way you know what they like and what they don't like. This can actually help you in the long run. It also does show the students you actually care. I completely agree with the teacher said that she went to some of their extra curricular activities out of school. I went to one of my more challenging students football games and it was like he had seen a ghost. I had told him I was coming but I guess he didn't believe me. He was SO excited!! It also made me feel good, and I feel like we have a closer relationship now. Reach out to those "targeted" students. Never think that they are a loss cause, because most of the time they are just trying to grad someone's attention.

Jessika Giovannettone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"Effective teachers are specialists in building relationships," (Kottler, Zehm, & Kottler, 2005, p. 45). In order for us, as teachers, to manage and motivate our students, we must first understand who all of our students are. Unfortunately, education's "test driven" climate has led to a loss in the human dimension of teaching," (Kottler, 2005, p. 6). Though the mountain of standards and curriculum is daunting, establishing effective relationships with our students will help us to meet those necessary goals.

I think the first step towards this, is to let students know that you believe in them and value them. In my class, I strive to make all of my students feel that they are valued participants. One way I accomplish this, is through my use of "wait time." When I call on a student for an answer, I'm sure to scaffold that student, as necessary, so that they meet with success. My goal is for students to know that if they take the risk to participate I will be there to help them succeed. I also stress the importance of learning from mistakes (the mistakes we make ourselves, as well as the mistakes of others), and reflective thinking. I encourage my students to give each other time to think things through, and help each other through difficult problems; rather than competitively outdoing each other with right answers. In doing so, I have noticed an increase in participation, as well as more understanding amongst students.

There are always; however, students who push the boundary lines regardless. My aim is to show compassion and understanding for all of my students, regardless of their behavior. I agree with Elena, that most challenging students are "traumatized, damaged children," and I keep this in mind when they are at their worst. As Elena has suggested, and many others have since tried, taking the time to meet with students on a personal level can lead to a more effective relationship in the classroom. As part of a behavior plan, I have used lunch with myself as a motivator. I am always amazed at how hard a student will work towards earning uninterrupted, quality time with myself. Besides lunches though, during the day I try to allot time to speak with various students personally. In this time, I try to be aware of my own nonverbal behavior and to fully attend to what that child is trying to tell me. Although this can be especially challenging in a classroom of twenty-two, seven year olds, giving those two or three minutes of undivided attention can be just what a child needs to get back on track.

When disciplining, I utilize the "I-message." In this, I state the specific behaviors that I am having issue with. This criticizes the behavior rather than the child and allows me to assert my feelings clearly. I also encourage my students to use the "I-message" when dealing with confrontations on their own. Using the "I-message," the offended explain how they feel and state the specific reason why they feel that way, as well as what they would like to happen next. For instance, "[person's name], I don't like it when you _________________. It makes me feel ___________. Please ___________." When a situation arises, I utilize that time to model the "I-message" and teach my students how to assert themselves positively.

Although at times, it can feel almost impossible to squeeze anything more into a school day, taking the time to connect with your students is something worthwhile to do. When students feel valued and appreciated, they are much more likely to become willing participants in the classroom, as well as motivated learners.

Reference:
Kottler, J.A., Zehm, S.J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kelly,
Thank you for your comment. I agree with you -- teachers should eat lunch with all their students! I used to prioritize the most challenging kids and eat with them as soon into the school year as possible and then I'd create a schedule to make sure I had time for all the other kids. The thing was, I quickly learned that I really enjoyed their company (when I started I was teaching 2nd grade). I looked forward to being with them outside of the classroom. I found them fun and entertaining and wise and wonderful. Thanks for the reminder that we should get to know all of our students!
Elena

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Samantha,
Thanks for sharing this wonderful story! It really is amazing, isn't it, that sometimes only 40 minutes can turn a kid around? We're bombarded with new and improved teaching strategies to use that promise to raise test scores, but sometimes all it takes is a little time and personal connection to make a huge change. Thank you for sharing,
Elena

Tonya's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great ideas in this blog. Thanks for sharing. I think that having a one-on-one time may help a current situation I am having to handle. Lunch sounds like a good idea.

Tonya's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that the I-message can be a great way to communicate with students. In cases where students must be corrected because of behavior, it allows a teacher to clearly show students they are displeased with the student behavior, but not the student as a person.

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