I want to start by saying that I love and admire the teachers I work with everyday. Each of them has superhuman strength in their own way. I know they have one of the hardest jobs in the world and they do it with a smile. I also know they absolutely love their students and often call them their “kids” because they truly are for the year they spend together.
But, there’s a big difference between a loving teacher and an effective teacher.
The following is an open letter to teachers who love their students and try their best everyday, and who struggle with creating a classroom environment conducive to respect, responsibility, and order. We all know them and we probably all have a few in our schools. From a School Counselor’s point of view, these teachers are the hardest to work with because they mean well but when things inevitably fall apart, we are called upon to fix the mess.
Thank you. For your warm smiles, gentle hugs, and creativity you share everyday with your students. You are amazing.
I know teaching is hard. You have more demands placed on you than ever before, and more challenging behaviors popping up in your classrooms every year. I also know you wish that your efforts would produce more peace in your classrooms. I know you’re frustrated.
Perhaps my observations and advice might be helpful.
The kids in your classrooms haven’t changed, but the world they were created in has. More and more of your kids are coming to school from homes that often feel unsafe or unhealthy. Many of your kids have been exposed to trauma, some repeatedly. They are coming into your classrooms unprepared, anxious, and scared, although they may not outwardly show you this.
The kids in your classrooms have a desperate need to feel safe, cared for, and like they belong. They need a classroom that is organized and predictable.
The classroom rules you create together the first week of school, they need to be followed. Everyday. They need to be displayed in the room and reviewed regularly. Your kids need to know that these rules matter. If they don’t, many of your kids will begin to feel a need to control the environment because the adult is not. They might start acting up and getting others to join them. While these behaviors might seem “out of character” and bizarre to you, they are a scream for you to hear what the child needs. Please listen.
The behavior management chart that’s hanging on the wall, the one in which students move their names or flip their colors, it needs to be explained explicitly and used consistently. If you’ve taught your kids about respectful and responsible behavior, as well as what warrants a move/flip on the chart, they need to know you’re going to hold them accountable. Use your chart. If you don’t, your kids might view the chart as meaningless and their behavior isn’t likely to change. If you only use the chart when you’re really frustrated, your kids will be confused and might feel unsafe in your classroom. You might even see an increase in problem behaviors as a result.
The individualized behavior charts you’ve created (or had help creating) to assist a few of you’re “heavy hitters,” they need to be worked on with each child and used consistently (there’s that word again!). If used as a threat for not earning rewards, your kids might turn more toward their “heavy hitting” behaviors because those might be more rewarding or predictable than the chart. If used inconsistently, your kids are likely to feel even more like a failure than before the need for a chart was prompted in the first place. This will inevitably breed more problem behaviors.
The consequences you decide upon when your kids misbehave, they need to be followed through on no matter what. When your kids show tears, tantrums, and emotional outbursts upon earning a consequence, please know they are working through their behavioral choice. They have earned the consequence; you didn’t give it to them. If you attempt to appease their feelings and make it better with a bribe (stickers, toys, one-on-one time with you), you are taking away their right to self-soothe. They will work through the difficult feelings in time, after which you can process with them if needed, but not a moment before. The consequences should be determined before behaviors occur, so you are not left to dish them out in the heat of the moment, and so the link between behaviors and consequences is clear and consistent.
The older siblings, parents, or aunts and uncles of the kids in your classrooms who you’ve had before, are not the same. The kids you have now deserve a clean slate and expectations that match their individual abilities. If you know your kids are going to be trouble because their brother/sister/mother/father was, then you can expect trouble.
If you call upon the services of your School Counselor to help with the “heavy hitters,” please know that there’s only so much I can do in a 20 minute meeting with a child exhibiting problem behaviors. When I send him/her back to the environment in which they feel unsafe or out of control, you can bet all that we talked about or practiced will have disappeared along their walk back to your classroom. This is not the child’s fault. They are simply trying to survive in the best ways they can manage. If acting disrespectfully or silly or angry is meeting their need to feel in control or heard, you can bet they will do just that if there’s no better way.
Your students’ oppositional behaviors are not about you; they’re about the environment in which you have created. Their defiance is not a personal attack on you. Their defiance is a coping mechanism to feel safe. If the environment in your classroom is unpredictable, you’re sending a clear message to your kids that you cannot be trusted.
The positive feedback in your classrooms should far outweigh the negative. Try a 5:1 ratio. When your kids feel safe in a controlled and consistent environment, positivity will radiate from your room and from your kids. Your classroom will be the peaceful, learning-focused place you’ve always wanted it to be.
In summary, your kids need a teacher who creates an organized, consistent, predictable classroom. One in which they not only feel loved by their teacher, but also respected, challenged, listened to, and most importantly, safe.
Kayla, an Elementary School Counselor