As I left my school building on Friday afternoon I walked out with that heavy feeling of regret we teachers often feel when a lesson does not go how we know it should have gone. This was not because of a lesson though, but because of how I reacted to one student.
He and I had come up with a behavior plan together. We had talked about what behaviors needed to change and how we would work together to help him monitor those behaviors in his classroom. I shared this plan with his other teachers and made the materials we needed. We practiced it in a small group first so he was comfortable with how to respond.
The first time he gave me a chance to use our reminder system I forgot. It was a Friday afternoon. We had a lesson to finish, other students to manage, data to collect and homework to hand out. Instead of following through with the plan I simply gave him a verbal reminder. He immediately gasped. Through gritted teeth he mumbled, “I thought you promised…” The hurt in his eyes was clear. We had a deal and now I was another adult not sticking to my word. I apologized and made sure I followed the plan the rest of the afternoon. I hope I rebuilt the trust I lost.
The experience was a good reminder to me that while I am teaching I need to remember why I am here. I did not get into teaching to deliver perfect lessons, or to work through a perfectly paced unit. I got into teaching to teach kids. All of them. To take concepts they are struggling with (academic or behavior) and help them not just learn but master those concepts. And there I was, letting myself become frustrated with a student who needed teaching simply because my to-do list got in the way.
Working with students with atypical behavior problems can be challenging. The longer I have been teaching the more challenging it seems to be. Not because the kids themselves are changing because the behaviors are the behaviors.
It’s because what we are asking of them and of ourselves is changing. There are so many more assessments and evaluations for both the students and teachers than there were 10 years ago. The curriculum is getting more demanding, what we are asking of students is more challenging, and what we are asking of ourselves–collecting more data, keeping a faster pace for instruction, and pushing students harder–has become more difficult as well.
Students who have atypical behaviors seem to stick out now more than ever. Maybe it is because the faster pacing changes how we manage our classrooms, or maybe it’s just because we as teachers are so stressed that we have less patience and understanding for those atypical behaviors.
Despite our added stress and the challenges that come with a faster paced, more extensive curriculum, we cannot forget the kids in front of us. We cannot let ourselves plan lessons for students we are not teaching. You know, the students who sit with their hands in their lap during lessons, never call out, never bring playground rifts inside our classroom, and who always show the utmost respect to all adults they work with. You know, those students. I’ve never taught a class like that and frankly, it sounds kind of boring.
We teach the kids in front of us. The kids who need lessons to be shorter so they can focus, the kids who need us to differentiate activities, think outside the box, change up our behavior plans and re-think our routines and lessons.
We need to give ourselves permission to try new things, look at our students with a different perspective, and see if we can adapt what we are doing to meet our students’ needs. It’s OK if our behavior plans and grand ideas do not pan out the first time. Every time we put something in place we are learning more about the student and we are a step closer to finding a solution in the future.
Part of that is taking the time to listen to our students so we know their perspective as well as our own. We can develop behavior plans or interventions together so they feel ownership of the plan and understand exactly what behaviors we want to see change. And then we have to do the hardest part: Following through on our word with the students despite our stress, our to-do lists or our bad moods.
Last week I took the time to do all the right things to help a student, except when it really mattered. I allowed my stress to eat into my classroom management and allowed my desire to plow through curriculum get in the way of my ability to follow through on a promise to a student who needed me.
It sounds like a little mistake, but little mistakes build up over time. I need to keep monitoring my own reactions to behaviors to make sure I am not letting myself forget who I am teaching and why I am here.