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The New Teacher Advisor

The Secret Weapon:
Getting to Know Your Students

Classroom management is one of those issues that often is a stumbling block for new teachers. In fact, it can be a stumbling block for veteran teachers as well. More specifically, it is the element of student discipline that causes so much consternation and frustration. Many teachers confuse classroom management with student discipline. They'll say, "I'm having real trouble with my classroom management." When the fact is, it is student behavior problems that are causing them grief.

So, why am I writing about student discipline and classroom management when the title of this column is about getting to know students? Well, the truth is, building positive relationships with your students is the number one way to forestall any behavior problems that can arise in the classroom. The more students know and respect you, the more they will behave for you in the classroom.

So often we enter the classroom and expect our students to respect us without having done anything to earn it. I am the teacher. Therefore you must respect me. Wouldn't that be ideal? Unfortunately, our students do not hold the same view, especially older students. "Why should I?" they ask. "What's in it for me?"

Think about it for just a minute. When was the last time you automatically respected a person you'd only just met? Normally, it takes me a while. That person's actions, consistent over time, will eventually earn my trust and admiration. So why should we expect to receive this instantaneously from our students?

Building positive relationships with our students is about taking time. We must take time every day to say hello to each one. We must take time to find out how each student is doing and to talk one-on-one. We must take time to care about each student in our classroom. This isn't always easy. Below are a few ideas to help you get started and to help you when working with those challenging students.

First, schedule some time in your lesson plans to go around the room and greet each student. I schedule that during the first five minutes of class. While my students are working on their focus assignment and copying down the homework for the day, I take my clipboard and go around to each student. I check the focus assignment, make sure they've copied the homework in their planner, and say a quick hello. It gives me an opportunity to gauge the student's emotional state and see whether we are having a good, bad, or so-so day.

If a student looks as though something is going on in his or her life, I'll take the time to stop and ask "How are you today? You look a little sad. Anything you want to talk about? Let's talk when I get everyone started on the class assignment." That lets the student know that I noticed, I care, and I'm willing to take time out of my day to talk. Some will not want to talk, but others will. It is the gesture that starts the relationship.

Second, actually take the time to talk to your students and get to know each one as a unique individual. You will find so many different personalities stuck together in one classroom. By getting to know those personalities, you have a better understanding of how they will interact with one another. That understanding will help you in planning groups, defusing possible situations, and coping with problems that arise.

If you continue to see your students as a group (Period 1 or ELA2), you are focusing only on the group personality and are missing the individuals. How then can you deal with two students who might be arguing? John might have a laid-back personality and require much baiting before he'll fight back. Sal might have an aggressive personality and constantly bait others sitting near him.

Let's say April comes to you and says, "John reached out and hit Sal while you were working with Joanne in the back of the room." What do you do? If you only interact with the class as a whole, you might be inclined to think that John deliberately hit Sal for no apparent reason, and send him to the office. That might result in John feeling unjustly punished and start feelings of resentment toward you. Sal might celebrate that he pulled the wool over your eyes. Woo hoo! Now, what else can he get away with?

If you've developed a relationship with both boys, however, and know the personality of each, you are better able to discuss the issue with them and come to a decision regarding consequences. John might get a consequence for hitting Sal rather than coming to you, but he is not punished as harshly as he might have been. Sal gets a consequence for baiting John and understands that this behavior will be watched for and not tolerated in your classroom. Can you see how knowledge of the individuals in this scenario affects the possible decisions?

Third, take time to show students that you care what is happening in their lives. When you see one of your students upset, find out what is going on. Take the student aside and ask probing questions to get the heart of the matter. Show sympathy and let students know that you are there to listen when they need you. Often just the simple act of taking the time to listen is enough to show a student you care.

That isn't always easy. You will have those students who will bait you, challenge you, and disbelieve you. Those are students who live in situations where there is no trust in the home or who are belittled and abused by their own family. If their own family treats them so badly, then why should you care? There are no blood ties between you. Why would you go out of your way to help them? Many of our students test and challenge us as a dare to themselves. No one else in my life cares about me, so I'm going to go ahead and push away this teacher. That way I can't be hurt.

When you come across a student who seems to have a chip on his or her shoulder, who constantly baits you, or who goes out of the way to make you miserable, that is the student you need to consistently show you care. Ask after that student each day. "How is your day today?" Student: "What do you care?" Teacher: "How was your day today?" Student: "Okay, I guess." No matter what the response, continue to ask. Do exactly as you would for a friend, no matter what. Let the student know, "No matter what you say or do, I will still care about you."

Now those students will really push and test you. Just how far will you take this caring thing? If you can outlast the testing, then you will have gained the respect and trust of a person who has had little of that in his or her life. Most likely you will end up with someone who will admire you for life. You also will see a sudden drop in behavior problems as that student is now on your side.

Don't give up on any of your students. Get to know each as a human being and not just as a student. You might find yourself quite surprised by the amazing thoughts that go on inside their heads. During your career, you'll find many kindred spirits and many friends who will continue to come back and visit you. You also will find a huge drop in behavior problems. That doesn't mean they'll go away completely. Kids will be kids, after all. However, you should not have as many problems as you did before. Why? Over time, taking the time to talk, listen, and care have earned the respect of your students.

An added benefit is that they'll pass the word to those students younger than themselves. "Hey, hope you get Mr. _____ next year. He's tough, but he's cool! Mrs. _____ is strict, but she's a great teacher!" In the end, you will be remembered as someone who took the time to treat each student as an individual, as a person, and you will be loved for it.

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