It’s been a while… A while since I last blogged, a while since the last academic year finished and a while since I last engaged in some external reflection. As a look around this blog will reveal, I am a teacher who places great value on reflecting on experiences in the classroom, identifying what worked well, what didn’t and why, and where to go from there. However, those reflections don’t always need to be made in the immediate aftermath of the lesson itself. Sometimes, taking a little time (or, as some may say in this case, a lot of time!) to reflect on events is very much a worthwhile task, which allows us to focus on the bigger picture….
Last year was a strange one for me, very much a year of ups and downs, achievements and struggles. Away from work, it was a fantastic year as my wife and I welcomed a new baby boy to the family and celebrated our tenth anniversary. I also successfully passed my MA course and the Turkish driving test, both with flying colours. At work but outside the classroom, it was a good year too. In addition to the MA, I received a special award for ten years’ service at my school and was officially placed in charge of the English programme in my year group and the student blogging programme in the whole department.
Alas, when we come to the main focus of any teacher’s job, what went on in the classroom, it was a very different story… A year of struggles, problems, headaches a frustrations… A huge part of the problem was behaviour as I was faced with several students with little or no regard for school rules, little or no respect for each other and their teachers and seemingly no care or fear of any consequences. As a result, I found myself constantly dealing with fights, bullying, physical and verbal abuse (I now have an extensive knowledge of Turkish swear words!) and students who were either unwilling or unable to accept that what they were doing was wrong.
I have had ‘difficult’ students before and ‘challenging’ classes but they were limited in number, perhaps one or two students in class who, with time and patience, were able to show improvement, or a class which I was eventually able to inject with some enthusiasm for learning. Last year’s classes were something else though…Of the six classes I had, there were major difficulties with five of them at some point in the year (and throughout the year with two of them). The one or two students per class I mentioned above became six or seven students in these groups and I can honestly say four of the most challenging students I have ever met, I met last year.
I’m not just talking about kids who couldn’t sit still or were loud attention seekers either. I can’t go into too many specifics without breaching my school policy but these were kids who were at times violent, often reused to join any tasks, deliberately disruptive and completely unaware/ disrespectful of any boundaries.
Over the course of the year, it all took its toll. I found there were some classes I really didn’t look forward to walking into and hoping that we could get through the 40 minutes without any major incidents started to take precedence over learning objectives. After work, I just wanted to forget about it (hence the lack of blog posts over recent times) and it’s only now that I have started to look back and see what I can learn from the whole experience.
Looking back… - Image by Giselle Santos via eltpics
My starting point what to go beyond what went wrong and think about why the year passed the way it did. I identified numerous factors, some of which were (or should have been) under my control and some of which were not. Of the factors beyond my control, there was the fact that last year saw a shake up of the education system in Turkey, with 5th grade (the grade I work in) changing from the final year of primary school to the first year of middle school. In order to minimise the impact on the kids, it was decided that they should remain in the same classes (they usually get placed into new classes when they enter middle school). However, under the new system, they no longer had a ‘class teacher’, that is one teacher who taught them core subjects like Turkish, Match and Social Studies and was also responsible for the class. Instead, they had individual teachers for each lesson with no single teacher being in charge.
The class teachers have always been the first port of call when a branch teacher is having difficulties with a class or a particular student and in most cases, working together, the problem can be solved. However, last year, that support suddenly disappeared. There was no ‘authority figure’ that the students respected above all others and that made dealing with in-class incidents very difficult.
Also, the changes in the education system meant there were lots of other changes and teething problems at the start of the school year. Lesson schedules, allocation of hours to each subject and classrooms were constantly being changed and took a couple of months to sort out, which created a lot of uncertainty for teachers and students alike.
As for what I could have done differently, well, there is the thing I tell myself every year, that I should consistently apply class rules and my classroom management strategies from the start. At the start of the year, I was guilty of not taking immediate action over certain incidents, partly due to the changes and uncertainty explained above, but also because I thought I could try to contain and solve the problem by myself. As a result, I called parents in to explain the problems we were having in class perhaps too late.
There was also an element of unpreparedness. I told my colleagues who had taught these classes previously that I didn’t want too many details about potential problems and things to look out for as I didn’t want to be prejudiced in any way before even entering the class. However, with hindsight I can see there were some serious pre-existing issues with certain students and it may have served me better to have advanced knowledge of them and be prepared.
Finally, I may have taken a few things for granted. In the past, I have always striven to catch students’ interest by personalising topics and making the lessons engaging for them and I have always waited to reap the classroom management benefits of having enthusiastic students. Alas, that alone is not always enough. While focusing on engaging the students early in the year, I neglected to establish class routines and realistic expectations for my lessons. Expectations wise, I suffered as students thought my skills-based lessons would just be ‘fun’ and then reacted adversely to hard work. I also had to battle against pre-conceptions based on their previous teachers who it would seem were more willing to use Turkish in class than I am and were less demanding in terms of in-class activities, project work and class blogging. If I had shown more awareness of this, I could have made life in the classroom much easier.
And, it always pays to look on for the positives and remind myself that it was not all a year of doom and gloom. One important factor to remember is that is was not just me. The other teachers who went to these classrooms all experienced similar problems with the same students. Their teachers from the previous years were the same. Also, while five of my classes caused problems at some point, the other class was great. The students worked hard, were keen to learn and we had great lessons together.
I also should focus on the individual successes. One of those five classes did improve greatly in the second semester and became much more engaged in and enthusiastic about learning. I also mentioned four of the most challenging students I have ever met… Well, that number could easily have been higher but I did manage to succeed in making progress with some other students.
One girl springs to mind who was causing all sorts of problems early in the year, insulting me in Turkish, refusing to do any work and bullying other students. With time, patience, attention and regular communication with her parents, she calmed down, started to show an interest in class and I was able to instil some confidence in her, which was seemingly the root of her problems in English classes at least. In another class, one boy demonstrated almost a complete turn around after I started to use Class Dojo. He loved his avatar, valued the points he earned and was always keen for a glowing weekly report to be emailed to his parents.
There were also other students who had previously felt intimidated by their classmates’ behaviour and lacked confidence in English whom I was able to successfully bring into the lessons more and make them feel a valued part of the class. This took lots of one-to-one pep talking, praise for showing effort and simply giving them the chance to show themselves through free-choice project work. I felt this was time better spent than trying to get the challenging ones back on task.
Phew, that was quite an experience to reflect on and quite a post to write! It does feel good to put it into words and externalise it in some way. The next step is to think forward about what I can take from this and apply to the forthcoming year but I’ll leave that for the next post…