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Disengaged

Ralph Phillips[Editor's note: Miss Brave is a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Queens. She blogs at miss brave teaches nyc, where this post originally appeared.]

On any given day, I might find myself frustrated by a number of things that go on in my classroom. I’ve written before about minor calamities (broken pencils! lost folders!) and major ones (suicide threats! thrown chairs!). For the most part, those incidents — like many things that happen when you become a teacher — had nothing to do with my actual teaching ability, but rather my ability to not jump out a window in the face of overwhelming despair.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed something that does make me worry about my teaching ability: A number of my students, during mini lessons, are deeply engaged. Deeply engaged, that is, with various activities other than paying attention to my mini lesson. They are drawing on their folders. They are playing with their fingers, or with the person’s hair in front of them. They are, in short, paying so little attention to the lesson that they are not even bothering to pretend to pay attention by staring at a space approximately above my head.

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of methods for bringing these students back to earth. There’s the singsongy, syrupy approach, in which I praise various other students in the vicinity of the offending student who are paying attention: “I can see that A.J. is ready to learn. I would like to thank Tanya for paying attention…” This approach has a calming effect, but when you have students who are seriously hardcore not paying attention, they don’t even notice you’re doing it. Then there’s the cranky bitter teacher approach, in which I zero in on a daydreamer with laser precision: “Manny, can you repeat what Jada just told us? …I didn’t think so, because you’re not paying attention.” I’m not such a fan of this one.

Recently, though, I realized what does get their attention: not pleading, not “I’m waiting,” not barking out orders to “sit on your bottoms, eyes on me.” What does get their attention is when I really get into my teaching; when I use funny voices, or toss in jokes, or act over-the-top animated like I’m just having such a good time teaching and we all will too, ha ha ha! In short, when I teach like a teacher should teach. Which leads to a vicious cycle, because when I’m frustrated by looking out into a sea of uninspired third graders who aren’t paying attention, it’s not easy to throw myself into a lesson that I’m convinced no one’s listening to anyway. So I carry on with the other stuff, and half our day is lost on just getting settled on the rug.

My principal told me once that maybe I focus too much on that management, that I should just concentrate more on my teaching and the rest will follow. I think I need to experiment with taking his advice.

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