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Learning to Deal with a Difficult Class

[Editor’s note: Ms. Socrates is a second-year science teacher in a high school in Brooklyn. She blogs at Teacher’s Diary where this post originally appeared.]

Overall, my second year as a teacher has been ten times easier than my first year — I am feeling confident and in control, even when I allow the students to take the wheel for a bit. It feels great! But there is one class that I’m still having trouble with.

My largest class happens to also contain about 15 of the most difficult students in the grade. While this means that my other classes are wonderful, devoid of any trouble-makers, this class reduced me to tears yesterday for the first time this year (although I would never actually cry in front of them, I saved it for later). Standing in that room, watching every single student talk without giving me a second thought, I felt like a newbie all over again. What if, I thought, this is how it’s always going to be.

Today, I got back out there and managed to get them somewhat under control. Here’s how.

1. I let my feelings out the night before.

By airing out my frustrations with this class, I was able to look past just how hurt I was and think about what the fundamental problems were. The current topic of topographic maps is not the most thrilling thing in the world, so for already-rowdy kids to have to sit and listen to me talk about contour lines would take a miracle. I don’t blame them for talking over me. At the same time, they need to learn this and I can’t even get through the explanation of a lab, let alone the lab itself. It seemed like nothing would ever work and I needed to get those feelings out.

2. Give the students more power, not less.

When I created my lesson plan for today, I incorporated a 10-20 minute discussion with my students about what was going on. I opened up the discussion for them to share with me how they felt the class could be better. Many students frankly admitted that they found the class boring and I was able to convince them that the faster we got through the boring stuff, the faster we could move on to more exciting topics. I also asked them to consider the fact that the less they listened to me, the longer I had to stand up there talking and the less time they had for group work. Overall, I think they respected me for asking their opinion. I even pulled one of the most difficult students aside after class and asked her if she would be willing to work with me to make the class more active. By giving her ownership of the class, it becomes more likely that she will value the class and respect me as her teacher.

3. Invite others to help you improve.

The last thing I did today to hopefully improve the situation is that I asked my AP to come observe me in that class. Many new teachers — especially those without tenure — shy away from having administrators in the classroom. However, they often have invaluable insight into improvements you can make and are less likely to sugar coat things for you than other teachers are. I personally enjoy getting feedback whenever I can, especially when it has the potential to drastically improve a class’ performance. In fact, my AP called me a superstar later in the day, commending me for being so committed to student achievement. Rather than setting myself up for a failed observation, I showed my administration that getting students to learn is far more important to me than their opinion of my teaching.

My advice to all teachers is to put students first, always. Before your ego, before your pride, before your job even. If we can’t do that, then public education stands to lose a lot. When times get tough and teachers are being judged on the performance of their students, who is going to take on the difficult classes?



  • 1 bronxactvist
    · Oct 15, 2010 at 7:07 am

    Teaching is not a one size fits al profession. This may work with these students but not work with others. Peer review is what is done in every other profession with great success. I implore you to establish a good relationship with admininstration but remember in all there is mutual respect between labor and management. You can also try using monitors, getting the parents involved, rewarding effort .

  • 2 D
    · Oct 15, 2010 at 7:47 am

    While the second year of teaching may be easier, it is still very difficult due to very limited experience. I am a ten year social worker who works with the most needy students at my high needs, high poverty school. I would advise you to be very careful about giving responsibility or more control over the class to one of her most “difficult” or “disengaged” students. In my experience, giving to a student who has offerred little effort in the class is the wrong message for your learning community. Giving to disruptive students as a means to pull them in usually results in more disruption from the rest of your class as they come to understand that your approach is to give to students who make the least amount of effort. Don’t get me wrong, these students must be engaged and motivated, but it must take place in a way that makes sense, moves the entire class and mimics our real world.