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Grade Math

July 16th, 2004

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How can I manage a classroom with several disrespectful and disruptive students in the 8th grade?

I teach 8th grade math at a title 1 school district. Our campus is considered unacceptable according to state standards, as teachers we are trying to take a different approach to the way we teach these students, but they have been unresponsive. We have little to no support from the home, and the overall mentality of the community is not any better. Does anyone have any advice?

Students are not disrespectful and disruptive for no reason. THEY are the ones not getting supported at home-- never mind you the teacher. What you'll usually find is that the disrespectful students have been disrespected themselves. The disruptive students come either from a background of being ignored or from a background of witnessing adults with no self-control. Sadly, many times, teachers, principals, and schools in general who think they're doing well continue to be a part of the problem. It's all too common to take a hard line against these kinds of behaviors and dish out punishments unrelentingly while feeling righteous and justified to do so. But they don't learn from punishments alone. Appropriate behavior must be TAUGHT, not told, and that's the critical problem here. A disrespectful student is constantly told that he's disrespectful in a frustrated, irritated tone of voice with glaring eyes. That itself is disrespectful of the teacher in some way, or will certainly be perceived that way. Yet it's all too common. No one would even think that this was a bad teacher. Yet that's a big piece of the problem. So what can you do?

Do some reading up again on Maslow's hierarchy of needs as well as the educational theories of Pestalozzi. I'm sure you remember those names from your college training days. There's value to the viewpoints expressed in each (they work together). The idea is that before you can teach students, you must get them to a point of being able to learn. Till the ground and ready the earth before planting, etc. This isn't new-age mumbo-jumbo. It's well-researched fact that often gets shoved aside because of all the stress and scrutiny and anti-emotionalism in schools nowadays. Everyone thinks it's too touchy-feely to teach emotional management to kids, but that is precisely one of the things they really need.

At a school-wide level, you can improve student performance drastically (it's been done in several schools in the US already with excellent results) by just trading the fried slop for real and healthful food in the cafeteria. This comes from the bottom of the Maslow pyramid, actually, and improves grades and reduces behavior problems for schools that do it. Implementing just a short block of time where students can be active and burn energy has also been shown to reduce behavior issues. Most importantly, teachers need empathy training. Yes, really. It's actually highly unprofessional and an embarrassment that one can become a teacher in the US without being trained to properly manage your own emotions, but that's the state of affairs. If you can address school-wide standards of appropriate and inappropriate behavior for teachers, a lot of disrespectfulness from students would go away too. (I talk to "problem kids" all the time-- they like me-- and a regular, constant complaint is other teachers misunderstanding them, interrupting them, not listening to them, not explaining to them why they're in trouble, etc.)

What you can do in your own classroom is to remember that you teach students, not 8th grade math. Yes, I know that your boss, society, politicians, parents, and everyone else is breathing down your neck about the math. But you don't teach math. You teach students. It's an important distinction to keep in mind at all times. Your primary job is teach students how to be successful and contributing members of society. One of the key tools you specifically are using is the skill of mathematics processing, which you teach not so they can balance their checkbooks as adults--that's always been a stupid answer to the "Why we learn math" question-- but because it is quality brainfood for the logical half of their brain. A mathematically-competent person has a more agile brain in figuring out any life problem logically, not just how many pizzas to order for your party.

Implement more activity in your classroom if you can, but most importantly, listen to them, get to know them very well, love them without question or condition (they need that so badly!!), at all times remain calm and respectful without ever raising your voice (get a whistle to use as an attention signal rather than yelling if need be at first), and build them up as much as you can. If you support them as human beings and treat them well, they'll learn your math easy. Focus too much on the math and the bad parents, though, and there will continue to be problems.

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