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Virginia Journal of Education

Getting Through

by Katy Ridnouer

I struggled greatly with classroom management during my first three years as a high school teacher. I marveled at those teachers who had well-managed classrooms and convinced myself that it was impossible for me to attain that kind of peace within my four walls.

I never did stop wanting to manage my classroom better, but I just hadn't put a useful verb to work that would actually help me attain that goal-I needed to really care for my students. I became tired of the frustration and decided to focus on what I love about them: their intensity, their passion, their loyalty. The more I focused on those qualities, the more I was able to respond with care. My classroom ran more smoothly, and I began enjoying the thought and reality of coming to work each day.

These a-ha moments inspired four teaching guidelines that I use every day in my classroom. They are:
i. Don't let them fast-talk you.
ii. Don't sell out your values.
iii. Stay focused on the problem.
iv. See the big picture.

By fast-talking, I mean when a student comes to you with a barrage of requests, hoping that he will frustrate you enough that you will just answer, "Yes." The chaos of an entire classroom of bodies, homework papers, the PA system and your own thoughts make it difficult to respond thoughtfully to a fast-talking student. Learning how to focus on the student and his request will help you respond in a responsible way. Perhaps the response will be that you will talk to him in 10 minutes or perhaps it will be "No," but you have to respond. You just don't have to be forced into an answer that you don't really want to give.

Students will often fast-talk to try to get around a classroom rule, so here's the approach I recommend. Let the student speak, and when she stops, look her square in the face and hold her gaze with your eyes. If the fast-talk starts up again, keep holding her gaze and raise your hand in the "stop" position. Then repeat the rule and end with, "If you need to discuss this further, come see me after class." Repetition is key, as in stating your rules as a matter of fact: "If you don't have a pass when you are late, you are marked late." "The due date is set." "Late work is marked down one letter grade."

My second guideline is, Don't sell out your values. There are so many different factions that you as a classroom teacher have to please. There are, of course, your students. They have parents, so we must include them. There is the principal, along with the other members of the administrative team. There are the other teachers, the school counselor, the school nurse, and the school secretary. Even the janitor needs to bend your ear every once in a while. All these people have their own value system, and somehow you have to respond to your own and theirs at the same time to keep everything working smoothly. Or do you?

Here are some of my guiding values: I believe that each person is a worthwhile individual; I value honesty; I value passion and flair. To "sell out" these values would be to write off Jake as a "bad kid" and a lost cause, not worth all the time it will take to reach him and help him learn; to pretend to students that I know more than I do; and to restrict students to a very regimented way of approaching a problem and thus save myself the effort required to evaluate truly original work and explore unorthodox points of view. Instead, I honor my values by not taking the easy way out; by managing my classroom in a manner that promotes individuality, honesty, passion and flair; and by having my students read literature that addresses these themes.

Here's another example: Perhaps you value being on time, but you find yourself making excuses for late paperwork to the school counselor. You feel awful because you're going against your true self, but somehow you justify it. "It's just paperwork. I'm writing a lesson plan that impacts my students today." But you still feel awful because you have to see that counselor every day at lunch. Stay true to what is important to you, and try to focus on the fact that the paperwork you are putting off is just as important to the counselor's job as your lesson planning is to your own. Your value system is how you moor your intentions to your everyday teaching life. By managing your school time through the eyes of your value system, your job will become easier because there won't be an internal struggle to get the job done. It will reflect who you are, thus it will easier to complete. You will be able to chew that ham sandwich, chat with the counselor, and actually enjoy your lunch period.

"Stay focused on the problem" is my third guideline. It's a blanket recommendation to help us remember why we became teachers in the first place. Defining the problem is the first step. Is it test scores, student behavior or time crunches? By teasing out the elements that are causing a problem and coming up with a plan of action, you will have a focus. Complaining about a problem or starting and stopping new solutions will create a moving target that will elude you.

Staying focused on the problem can be especially difficult when a student talks back, speaks disrespectfully, or disrupts class. Often, instead of addressing the actual problem, we address our emotional response to it. This can turn into a rant that actually prolongs the disruption. Another unintended consequence is that the student who started the problem is never disciplined according to class rules.

Acknowledge the student's complaint by repeating what he has said, if appropriate. Confirm to him, and the class, that you are staying on track with the lesson plan. If the student continues to create a problem, remove him from class and speak with him privately. More often than we realize, our students' rudeness arises from personal problems that don't involve us at all.

"See the big picture" is my fourth guideline. Remembering that the goal of every teacher is to help students achieve is difficult to maintain when the school day feels like a hurricane. However, student achievement is why we are in the classroom each day, making sure that each student is being challenged and continuing to improve academically.

This guideline reminds teachers to use professional judgment to evaluate each situation as a unique moment, colored by various nuances. Because teachers work with individual kids in specific circumstances, cookie-cutter punishments aren't a solution. Jade's rude remark might be attributable to irritability brought on by hunger; Ramon's rude remark might simply be trying to make you mad. Although your initial response should look the same-you would, perhaps, remove both Jade and Ramon from the classroom and speak with them in the hall-from then on, it's up to you to investigate the true source of the behavior. This might be as simple as asking, "Are you OK? What you said was unnecessary and hurtful. Is there something bugging you that I can help with?" In other words, use your judgment to decide if the right response is punishment or a pack or crackers or just a little more time and attention. It shows you care, and your students will know it.

It isn't always easy to stay focused on the big picture when the elements in the picture are always changing. Perhaps Tony's family moving into a shelter is the big element one day while the air conditioning breaking down is the big element the next day. You still have to teach those kids. You still have to somehow make learning relevant. It would be easier to just get mad or distracted and simply go through the motions of a lesson. But why not use the present elements to teach your class? Teaching a story that involves compassion will help students who know about Tony's situation extend compassion to him. Teaching math in a way that shows them when different elements are added, the end product changes just like when heat is added to a classroom, people get thirsty and sweaty. Help them see the connection between the forces in their lives and the lessons in the classroom.

The Lakota, along with other Native American peoples, represent this idea of connection and balance visually through the medicine wheel. I'm particularly drawn to the Lakota because I lived on the Cheyenne River Reservation in the summer of 1991 while I completed an internship in Native American Studies. Having graduated from college, looking forward to graduate school but still feeling a little unsure about my life's journey, I was drawn to this symbol. I still refer to the medicine wheel in times of stress and this is why.

When I was introduced to the medicine wheel, my Lakota teachers explained that each quarter of the wheel represents a piece of our self. This includes the physical (east), spiritual (south), emotional (west), and mental (north). When a person is balanced, each piece of a person's self is being well attended to. When a person is out of balance, a part of the self is being neglected. When I looked at the medicine wheel, I saw a bicycle wheel. I saw the lines dividing each section as spokes. When the spokes were all the same length, I imagined that the person was attending to all four areas of his life well and the wheel would roll smoothly. If one or more is too short or too long, the person is ignoring or hyper-attending to one of the four areas. The wheel would give its rider a bumpy ride.

"Mitakuye oyasin" is Lakota for "we are all related." We all struggle with the same human issues and, as teachers, we struggle with the same teacher issues.

We all feel the physical reaction that involves the east direction of the medicine wheel. Our heart rate rises when a student fast-talks us. Our palms sweat when too many stimuli come at us at the same time. A student might say, "But I have to go see the media specialist right now. She said I did. If I don't, I will owe tons of money. Please let me. I will do my class work tonight." My heart rate is higher just reading those words.

We all feel the spiritual uplift of the south direction on the medicine wheel. We see the gleam of triumph in a student's eyes when he completes a complex math problem or reads a chapter book for the first time. We value the success of our students, and it feels good to see it. Maintain an awareness of your values throughout the school day. Do this even when it is hard, such as when a student cheats or lies. Stay true to your values and respond to this student's poor choices.

Each teacher feels the positive and negative emotions of the west direction. We feel the joy when all the students pass a difficult test. We feel the sadness when a high achiever suddenly begins to struggle. It's easy to get lost in the emotion we feel in the classroom, but try to stay focused on the problem-not your response to the problem. You're going to have students who push the boundaries. Focus on what they did, why they did it, and how they are going to resolve the problem.

Sometimes we get lost in lesson planning, attendance records, homework assignments and curricular requirements. The mental part of our jobs, the north direction, is one that can consume a lot of our time. See the big picture by striking a balance between what is a valuable use of your time and what isn't. I used to spend a lot of time talking to my students about gum chewing, but I realized I was wasting a lot of the non-gum-chewers' time and my own.

Which area of the teaching life brings you out of balance? Is it the physical, the spiritual, the emotional or the mental? Awareness is the first step in solving a problem. If you can maintain an awareness of what brings you out of balance, then you are more able to respond effectively and restore your balance. Develop responses that you are comfortable with. For example, if students' handing in homework late is a problem, design rules that you will easily follow. Keep your response simple and post your expectations in the classroom. Having a visual reminder along with your verbal information will help your students believe you when you insist that they meet your expectations.

As you consider these elements of professional balance, consider why you chose your profession. Why did you prepare for so long to become a teacher? For me, it was because learning opened up so many new vistas, and I wanted to bring that to my students. Research shows that a teacher's enthusiasm will be caught by his or her students. Give your students the gift of passion for your subject matter along with your personal care. Their achievement will rise, as will your job satisfaction.

Ridnouer ( ) has taught students ranging from age 5 to 55 in ethnically and economically diverse classrooms. She discusses these four guidelines and other teaching tools in her book, Managing Your Classroom with Heart, which is available at and She is available for teacher workshops and presentations.


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