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October Blues
by Shani Jackson

I thanked God when October ended. It was rough -- a slap in the face after a kiss. A blizzard after a gentle spring day. September ended well. My classroom hummed. Students came into class and started on their warm up, usually in a relatively quiet manner. Students seemed to master the skills we covered, and generally behaved. If they misbehaved, a gentle nudge usually sent them in the right direction. This teaching thing wasnt as hard as everyone made it out to be. I mean, I had some fine tuning to do, but in general I had this thing covered.

Until October slapped me.

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Im not sure when things fell apart, or why. But the very students who were aiming to please me in September were rolling their eyes at me and sitting drooped over in their chair refusing to pick up a pencil to attempt a problem in October. And the students who needed a little nudge in September seemed to feel they had free reign over my classroom -- getting out of their seat when they wanted, talking when they wanted. When Chelyn let her bubble gum pop as she looked me straight in the eyes -- after Id repeatedly asked her to throw away her gum, I almost lost it. My classroom was starting to look like a bad scene out of Dangerous Minds or Lean on Me.Until October slapped me.

Though I was teaching my students algebra and about isolating variables, I just couldnt isolate the problem. What had taken over my once joyful, exciting, full-of-learning classroom? Was it the depressingly dreary and rainy Houston October full of flooding and thunderstorms? Was it the fact that I was teaching the difficult concept of addition and subtraction of integers? Was it that the entire school seemed a bit loser and wilder? Maybe students were just wild in my class as a carryover from other classes? Or was it, worst of all, in some way a reflection of my teaching and classroom culture?Until October slapped me.

I thought. And thought. Even when I wanted to turn kids upside down and shake them for not doing their work or disrupting class, I had to look at my own practices as a teacher. My students arent evil people. While they are the terribly awkward beings that we all were at 12 and 13, (and okay -- yes, I do have some 14-and 15-year-olds) they arent evil. They talk back, doodle during class, and dont always do as asked. But they arent bad kids. So it had to be me. Why didnt they understand integers? What was I doing to block them from success? Why werent they invested?

Though I still havent completely isolated the issue, Im sure thats because there were a few things at play in my students behavior. I have since identified a few rookie mistakes -- like not returning papers in a timely manner, making idle threats that I didnt stick to, and not contacting parents quickly enough. Ive learned my lesson during this six weeks. Not only do I return papers within two days, but I also show the students their grades and help them track their grades during the six weeks.

Also, by giving only problem-solving quizzes, students who had the technical skills to solve our math problems, but were still developing the critical thinking and problem- solving skills, were increasingly discouraged by their math performance. So Ive started balancing quizzes that rely on technical skills with those that rely on the combination of critical thinking and technical skills. This helps all students feel successful in my classroom.

After talking with my fellow co-workers, Ive learned that October usually is one of the hardest months of the year. Indeed. Fortunately, it is November, and I am plugging away. My classroom has re-discovered some of the peace and productivity it had in September. Students are learning and working on monitoring their own behavior so I dont have to. But I cant get comfortable in my classroom as it is now. My students can keep me honest with this as they remind me, and each other, of the quote of the week by Winston Churchill that they had to write and reflect on for the middle week in October: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

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  • Emma McDonald: New Teacher Advisor
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    Article by Shani Jackson
    Education World®
    Copyright &copy 2006 Education World

    Posted 11/13/2006