Through my 14 years of teaching and working in education, one event stands above the rest as my absolute best teaching experience. Through it I learned so much about teaching and dealing with students. My hope is that the student involved was at least partially changed for the better from the experience as I was. I also hope that there is something in this story that can help inform and inspire you.
My Best Teaching ExperienceLet's call him Tyler. Tyler was a troubled student. He was enrolled in my senior American Government class followed the second semester by Economics. Surprising as it was to many former teachers, he had made it to senior year. However, he had spent a couple of years in and out of full inclusion classrooms. He had numerous behavior management issues. I don't remember his exact IEP at this point, this happened about 10 years ago, but I know that he had impulse control and anger management issues. He had been suspended many, many times in previous years. The previous year he had been mainstreamed with a co-teacher in some classes. However, for 12th grade, he was in my room without a co-teacher.
I knew he had problems before the first day. His ESE coordinator came and visited me during planning week to have a talk about him. My style of teaching is such that I am very stern in the beginning, allowing students to get away with very little. I have always done this on purpose believing that it is easier to soften up as the year goes on than get harsher. I learned this the hard way my first year of teaching. I decided that I was not going to change the way I taught or interact with him in particular because of his issues.
He sat in the back row. I had never used a seating chart with students on the first day when I was just getting to know them. Every time I talked at the front of the class, I would ask questions of students, calling them by name. This helped me learn their names while getting the kids involved. Unfortunately, every time I called on him he would respond with a flip answer. He knew the answers when he listened but he didn't want to be called on. If he got an answer wrong, he would get very angry.
About a month into the year, I was beating my head against the wall trying to connect with Tyler. I could usually get these kids to be involved or at the very least to sit quietly. However, he was just loud and obnoxious.
Tyler had been in so much trouble through the years that it had become his modus operandi. He expected it and he expected his teachers to know about his referrals and suspensions. For every new teacher, he'd push and push seeing what it would take to get a referral. I tried to outlast him and work things out my way. I had rarely found referrals to be effective because students would return worse than before.
One particular day, Tyler was talking while I was teaching. In the middle of teaching I said in the same tone of voice, "Tyler why don't you join our discussion instead of having one of your own." With that, he got up from his chair, pushed it over, and yelled something I can't remember other than including the words, "You B----!" Well that was definitely referral time. I sent him to the office with a discipline referral, and he received a week's out of school suspension.
Now so far you might be asking how this could be my best teaching experience. So far it was actually one of my worst. I dreaded that class every day. His anger and mumbled words under my breath were almost too much for me. The week's out of school suspension was a wonderful hiatus, and we got a lot accomplished that week. However, the week soon came to an end, and I began dreading his return. I knew from talking with his other teachers that he would be back angrier and with a chip on his shoulder.
I devised a plan. On the day of his return, I stood at the door waiting for him. As soon as I saw him, I asked him to talk for a moment. He seemed unhappy to do it but agreed. I basically told him that I wanted to start over with him. Further, I gave him permission that if he felt like he was going to lose control in class he could step right outside the door for a moment to collect himself.
From that point on, Tyler was a changed student in my classroom. He listened, he participated. He was actually a smart child and I could finally get to see this in him. He even stopped a fight between two other students one day. And you know the most ironic part of it all? He never, ever used the privilege I had given him to leave the class for a moment. I believe that just giving him the power to decide for himself made all the difference.
At the end of the year, he wrote me a thank you note about how good the year had been for him. I still have it today and find it very touching to reread when I get stressed about teaching.
In the end, this experience changed me as a teacher. Students are people who have feelings and who don't want to feel cornered. They want to learn but they also want to feel as if they have some control over themselves. I never made assumptions again about a student before they came into my class. Every student is different; no two students react in the same way. It is our tasks as teachers to find not only what motivates each student to learn but also what motivates them to misbehave. If we can meet them at that point and take away that motivation, we can go a long way towards a more effective classroom and learning experience.