Communicating the expectations

Another long week and I am learning from my teaching experience everyday! Last week was challenging. My learners have been testing my patience, mostly a process of negotiating expectations, verbally and implicitly.

In absolute frustration, I spoke to my sister who always helps me see things clearly. This time she spoke to me as though she’s been sitting in my classroom silently, observing the crazy antics that have been unfolding between my learners and I. We decided I need a strategy for communicating effectively with my learners, and being consistent in what I expect from them; giving reasons for these expectations. So for the past week, much of my teaching has been infused with comments about “is this behaviour acceptable for Grade 9s? Why do you need me to shout before you pay attention?...I think you can do better than that!”...the list is endless.

This is going to be an ongoing battle because it requires clear communication and understanding as the teacher-learner relationship is established. One of the challenges I have in all the classes I teach is the expectation from the learners that good and strict teachers shout (raise their voice at a particular pitch) in order to get the attention of the learners. When the learners realised I’m not a shouter (and I don’t have a booming voice either), one of my Grade 8’s told me “Ma’am, you’re too nice, we’ll never listen to you.” And he was right. If the learners were making a noise and I needed to get their attention, they didn’t listen. My response was the teacher stare directed at the noisiest bunch in the class until they fell silent. In some classes this took 5 minutes away from teaching time.

Eventually I decided to explain my reasons for not shouting in class: it’s not that I can’t shout, but I do not see the value in communicating with them at this level. I prefer speaking to them “normally”, with respect. I also emphasised that their insistence that I shout at them implies that they are incapable of self-control and they need to be bullied into listening to me.

One learner and I had an altercation in the boys’ bathroom about establishing expectations for his behaviour.. He (amongst others) was being disruptive in class and I made the grave error of singling him out and asking him to leave the classroom, BIG MISTAKE, HUGE! He stormed out and as he did I realised that I was potentially losing the battle of winning him back. I decided to let my guard down, ran after him in spite of him charging into the boys’ bathroom enraged and feeling humiliated. We had an honest conversation (in the bathroom) and I apologised for humiliating him and he apologised for his behaviour. He hasn’t been as “good as gold” but I can see a change in his behaviour. At least he looks at me with less malice when I teach and he participates in the discussions quite regularly.

I have also started investing time into speaking to learners individually about their behaviour. Initially I always stood in front of the class and made sweeping statements about “Grade 9s, you are not listening” even though a small group of individuals were guilty of this. This means that at the end of each lesson, I have a “chat” with one or two learners whom I notice are struggling with paying attention or displaying attention-seeking behaviour during class and being disruptive. This is exhausting for me but rewarding for the learners as we are able to have a mature conversation about their attitudes and whether they think they can change their behaviour so that learning can happen in the classroom (especially the learners who are disruptive). The response has been amazing. Many make the effort of changing their behaviour and lately I am always asked, “Ma’am, how was my behaviour today?”. And I always respond, “Much better, keep it up”. I thought I would have to use grand gestures of encouragement, but a simple acknowledgement of a learner’s presence in the classroom makes them change their behaviour. Yesterday, I had a Grade 8 girl saunter away from me while I was talking to her. I was dumbfounded. After I regained composure I asked to stay behind after class. While speaking to her I realised that she and I are in a battle because her attitude requires more patience. It’s almost as though she’s never been asked to be respectful, she says what she wants to people, generally rude. The conversation with her will be ongoing.

I’m still struggling with making them realise that their education is their responsibility. Another mismatch in expectations are consequences with handing in work and doing homework. Learners seem to think I should put them in detention or punish them with writing lines if they don’t do the necessary work. I’m indifferent to this: firstly I think detention is too easy ( a blog post for another day) because it doesn’t really force them to reckon with the consequences of not taking their education seriously. Secondly, detention becomes my problem because I have to remember the punishment and why I am giving it. So I keep asking them: why do they need the threat of punishment in order to hand in their work? My wish is that they understand that their work is their responsibility and sending them to detention doesn’t necessarily mean that they will understand this fully. So I have told them: if they do not do the homework I set for them, they will suffer and not me because they will lag behind in class; if they do not hand in work on time, I will not mark it when they do eventually hand it in because they have dishonoured an agreement(I always try to negotiate when they should hand in their work to me in relation to their other homework).

I’m not sure if this form of setting expectations is the best route for me to go, but I’m happy for the trial and error process that is unfolding. I will however have to be consistent in my approach and challenge individual behaviour above seeing the learners as a collective. It seems simple enough, right: treating kids like individual means they have to be more responsible for their own behaviour?


Anonymous said…
Oh my darling, what an awesome teacher you are! This route is difficult, but it is so worth it in the long run. Unfortunately, because they are USED to detention/shouting (thanks to your peers and generations of teachers before you), it is an ongoing battle, but utterly utterly worthhile to pursue. It takes more energy, but gives it back. Strength and light to you always sista xxxx Corinne x
Anonymous said…
Go teacher Atha Go!!!! i love the fact that you have taken the time to build solid life foundations for these kids and not just subject them to run of the milll coercive mechanisms to get them to do wht they themselves should recongise is good for them! well done. I remember in my youth i too respected more the teachers that took the time to respect you and to address you properly. so much so i find in my "old age", i dont relate to people in a position of control or superiority over me, who cannot have a decent interaction with me around the issue of expectation. as such what youre doing is probably frustrating as hell, but will prove invaluable to your children in future.
Noxy M said…
A wonderful reflection from a truly passionate teacher. Shouting hardly ever works, and any experienced teacher knows that your approach to treating learners as individuals is the right way--the behaviour is the symptom of something else, and you cannot get at what that is without knowing that student.

One thing I always find helps (esp. with year 9s) is the completely non-verbal cues.. e.g. a student is obviously doing something he shouldn't which could potentially disrupt what is a very nice classroom atmosphere where everyone else is listening... walk past his/her desk and just tap a finger on the desk to let them know you have seen them. it makes them aware that they are noticed, without the humiliation. then as soon as they are doing what they should be, praise them publicly. It does a lot for getting rid of bad behaviour for attention seeking and showing off in front of friends.

I love your attitude to detentions--i think you are spot on!

Keep up the good work! Usale kakuhle sisi wam emfundweni.

Sis' Nox.

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