Turning into the teacher I don’t want to be


Teaching | Thursday, September 25, 2014

Turning into the teacher I don’t want to be

Turning into the teacher I don't want to be

I’m really struggling with a class right now. I don’t know how this year will turn out, but I’m going back to the basics. (Wikimedia Commons / Ildar Sagdejev)

I’m struggling with a class right now more than I have in years.

I know that these posts here on Ditch That Textbook aren’t generally about me and my situation, but I really feel compelled to write about this one.

It’s a large class — so large that I had to find a spare desk and chair somewhere so I would have enough seats for everyone.

There are lots of big personalities in this class as well — students who poke at other students, students who bother others while we’re trying to work, and on and on. Unfortunately, some of these big personalities are drowning out the others and making the task of learning a pretty daunting one.

I’m finding myself turning into the teacher I don’t want to be.

I’m shushing them — all the time. I heard a speaker recently say that shushing students was akin to telling them to “shut up” … something I would obviously never tell them.

I assigned a massive homework assignment as punishment for the entire class, and even after I did it, I could count a handful of reasons why this was really the wrong thing to do. I don’t want my content to become punishment, and the work they were doing was far from engaging or anything that would reveal their proficiency to me.

I’ve even cut them off from technology, something I swore was a horrible idea in a blog post in Feburary. But when inappropriate messages were showing up on my projector screen in a TodaysMeet backchannel, I had to do something to “stop the bleeding.” (This is also the same class that figured out that if they hit the “submit comment” button on KidBlog hundreds of times really quickly that it would post hundreds of comments to their classmates’ blogs.) (And, by the way, yes, we’ve had the conversations about digital citizenship and appropriate behavior online.)

I’ve yelled, and the last thing I am is a yeller.

I almost don’t recognize myself with these kids. Like I said, I’m struggling. Big time.

I found Todd Whitaker’s words in “What Great Teachers Do Differently” hitting home in a big way today.

“Good teachers consistently strive to improve, and they focus on something they can control — their own performance. Other teachers wait for something else to change. Great teachers look to themselves for answers; poor teachers look elsewhere.”


Am I totally at fault here? Honestly, I’m probably not. I do my best to create engaging lessons for my students. I try to bring my best to class every day.

But if I blame my students, I will get nowhere. They’re not going to change if I blame them. In fact, it will probably get worse. (No, I KNOW it will get worse.)

I don’t know how this story is going to unfold. I do know one thing I’m going to try to improve it.

I fear that I’m not sticking to my core beliefs as a teacher. One of them is the value of relationships. It’s almost cliche today, but there’s a reason so many people rely on this saying: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

My first action is to improve relationships. I have never had these students in class before this year. I don’t know a lot about their lives, what’s important to them, what they do outside of my class. That stuff is important to them. It should be important to me, too.

As much as I want to withhold my best stuff in class from them (like all of those “Teach Like a Pirate” hooks I’m doing for my 30-Day Pirate Challenge) and make them suffer for my frustrations, I’ll still keep bringing them my best.

We’ll see how it all turns out.

I hope that this post resonates with you in some way. Again, I know it’s not the type of writing I generally do here, but it’s honest. I really felt that I needed to share it. And I can’t think of a better group of people I’d like to share my struggles with than my readers here.

So … do you have any ideas for me?

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  • Susie Highley says:

    Thanks for being brave and honest for posting this. Too often, we only see sugar-coated posts about wonderful teaching and stellar results. You took time to remind us that we are human, and things don’t always go like we planned. I look forward to hearing updates of how it goes.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks, Susie. I’m probably a big violator of the sugar-coated “everything is just right” posts … this one just felt like it needed to be told. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Mark says:

    Matt, I too have experienced similar issues when it comes to Todaysmeet etc. It can happen from time to time. Something I do is if it happens I show the class it has no relevance to what we are doing by not giving it any attention and scanning right past it. When I have finished going through the good stuff I ask if they enjoy this kind of learning and why? They always say Yes they do and explain that they learn more in these ways. I then have an opportunity to speak about the silly things and show how it distracts from the learning process and that there is no point in doing this again if it happens again. They soon catch on. The other thing that is really key to all of this if for other teachers to be using the same tech, that way they become used to it and don’t see it as an opportunity to muck about.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Mark. I like that question: “Do you enjoy this kind of learning? Why?” I’ve tried to have that conversation, but it sounds too much like a lecture. I appreciate the ideas!

  • Kelly B says:

    If a student misuses the technology in my class. I remove them from it and make them do everything the rest of the class is doing on paper and pencil. They hate it. They hate that everyone else is having a good time and they beg to get back on the technology. I teach in a computer lab. Instead of writing referrals, I have them shut down. They are more upset about that than if they got called to the Principal’s office. Usually it only takes one time. In the meantime, I would use a tool that you could moderate posts.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kelly. With that class, I have switched to Socrative instead of TodaysMeet so I can see everything before they can … plus they have to provide their names. I like how you find their “pain point” — shutting down hurts more than the referral!

  • Jill Conner says:

    I once had a similarly difficult class. I had tried all of my usual methods and nothing worked. I finally just laid it all out for the students and asked them what was wrong. I told them what our common goals were and explained my job in the classroom — what my administration expected of me. I told them I was obviously doing something wrong and asked for feedback. I gave them each an index card and asked them for suggestions — anonymously. I was shocked with the results. I had a few suggestions, but most of them admitted that the fault was theirs. Some even apologized. After that, things were smoother. Not perfect, but it seemed it brought about an understanding between us. They knew that I cared and was trying, and they started trying, too.

  • Chaz says:

    Hey Matt – I REALLY appreciate the authenticity of this post…it helps me to connect more with you, teacher to teacher and human to human, verses just another anonymous netizen (which seems to be at the heart of the issue with this class!) I truly can relate – I have dealt with such large and mischievous students in the past.

    It seems one of most important things here is to find some way of connecting with them empathetically – have you tried being emotionally honest with them, so they can connect with your intention to help and serve them as a teacher? One method I have found that has helped me in this regard is Non-Violent Communication (NVC) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication) and NVC in the classroom (https://www.cnvc.org/about-us/projects/nvc-schools/nonviolent-communication-schools) I look forward to keeping track of your progress with them!

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks for your comments, Chaz. Sometimes I don’t think to write these posts because I’m so focused on giving people practical, useful advice on how to integrate tech. I appreciate your insight on that!

      I’ve not heard of Non-Violent Communication, but I’m going to check it out. Judging by the analytics from my blog, it seems I’m not the only one clicking through to see it.

  • Molly says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Matt. It really is all about relationships. I had a rough start last year too as it was a new, young group of students who were in and out of my classroom as a result of our schedule. Once I had them in my class consistently and was able to build those relationships, things improved. Hang in there…keep showing them you care.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks, Molly … I will hang in there. Today was better. I met them at the door, used eye contact, smiled, called them by name. That was enough to make things better in and of itself, I’ll bet. I appreciate your comment!

  • Frank says:

    Hey…turns out your human. “Students sharpen their ‘social teeth’ on the bones of their teachers.” – My dad said that once to me and it stuck…it’s not personal. Here is my prescription.

    What you need to hear:
    1) Kids can be really ugly sometimes – remember they are a good reflection of their parents…if they lash out it is because someone lashed out at them.
    2) You are getting through…I have had students come back years later and say thanks. Kids who I never thought paid attention or cared…you become the good voice in the back of their heads telling them to work hard and succeed and do the right thing.
    3) Get back to hard work…overplan a few lessons – overwhlem them with a couple of really worked out lessons – the over preperation can lead to a few good classes and it sounds like you need a few successes.
    4) Your job is to give them the oppurtunity to learn – I say you do that in abundance…some of it is up to them.
    5) You are your own worse critic. I used to beat myself up every week and someone finally told me – ‘Hey – you knock it out of the park on a regular basis’ I was stunned but the comment was repeated by a lot of people and I learned to take it easy on myself.

    What you need for yourself
    1) You not only teach content you teach how people lead a good life. You need to get balanced and take a mental break to get back on track. Put in a movie on Thus, stay in bed on Friday and have a great weekend. This sounds counter intuitive…but coming back refreshed, better and balanced is being a good example for your students.
    2) When you feel yourself getting to a point where you are going to make a bad teaching desicion…make a joke out of it and laugh a little. Must be done with great care…For example: A student once did something pretty bad in my class and topped it off with a swear word (this class was going downhill and I was in a similar position). Everyone looked for my reaction – I looked at him square in the eyes and said “Just because your my nephew doesn’t give you the right to do these things”…I took a candybar out of my desk, gave it to him and told him I wasn’t going to tell my brother – his dad. The student was African American and I am white. I kept up this lie all year…the kid had a great time in my class and the students knew better than to mess with someone who was clearly out of his mind….Lessson: go crazy in a good way… by the way he is in his 20s and still refers to me as his uncle on facebook.
    3) Use the office. If you have a good principal (hard to find) you can play bad cop – good cop.
    4) Contact parents of every student on the phone. When I did this (I had 123 kids) I realized how many great kids I had and the ones I struggled with had some pretty big hurdles in their life.
    5) Count your blessings – wherever you are someone has is worse.

    By the way – love your blog.


    PS Hang in there! 🙂

    • Matt Miller says:

      Wow, Frank … I’m speechless. This may be the most amazing comment I’ve ever received on my blog. You told me EXACTLY what I needed to hear in that first section. And I love your “social teeth” quote … never thought of it that way.

      I like your suggestions, and your reaction to that student was PRICELESS! And when I say priceless, it’s obvious that the repercussions of it lasted MUCH longer than you ever thought.

      Count your blessings. Isn’t that the truth?!? I am a very blessed guy … and this comment of yours has definitely been a blessing, too. Thanks again, Frank!

      • Kerryn says:

        I love your use of humor, Frank! I’m wondering when my first nephew, niece or cousin might turn up in one of my classes 🙂

  • Christine says:

    Matt, You are spot-on that it is about developing the relationship. This is more difficult in a large class, but will pay big dividends if you take the time and work to get to know them individually. I’m an experienced teacher and have had this kind of class four times in my career. Two were lit survey courses of 75-students each, one a 24-student first-year writing course, and one a 15-student adult high school class. I blamed the class size for the first two, though in each instance, it was really only one student who instigated. The second was also only one student. In the first instance, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it; in the second, I waited until six weeks in, which was still too late, but that time I realized that what would have helped were one-on-ones with all of the students, so I began scheduling them into my classes early in the term from then on. I had few problems with classes for years, until last fall when I taught the adult high school class. It was a public speaking course, and I decided to forego the conferences for some group “getting-to-know-you speech activities, thinking these would do the same thing–big mistake. I also discovered quickly that not one but nearly every student in the class was a disrupter. By the time I realized I needed to go back to my one-on-one mini-conferences, I had lost a third of the students. I set the 5-10 minute conferences before/after class and sometimes during class if the class activity allowed for it. The only purpose of these was to form a bond between me and the student, which makes them want to perform. While I eventually lost about half of the adult high school class, many of those who persisted and learned did so because of the relationships we built. I did some other things with curriculum, but the conferences were clearly what made the difference.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Christine —

      I love your one-on-one mini-conferences idea. When kids know that you see them as individuals — and they can see you as an individual — that can be so powerful. And I’ll bet those face-to-face interactions were so valuable.

      Thanks so much!

  • Chantell Manahan says:

    I’m having a similar struggle this year with THREE of my classes! This whole grade level has a reputation for being unruly, and most of them had a first year English teacher last year who really struggled with classroom management. They think this year’s English class should be more of the same. I think you’re on the right track by focusing on building relationships. Tailoring many activities to their interests, learning styles, and strongest multiple intelligences has helped immensely. I love the reminder that we can only focus on improving what we’re doing. It’s not going to change overnight, but we will persevere! Good luck!

    • Matt Miller says:

      Wow, three tough classes! I thought I had it rough! You’ve given me a good list of ideas for building those relationships. Good luck to you, too … we’ll get through it and be better for it! 🙂

  • Kari Catanzaro says:

    I had the exact same problem today, Matt, with my lowest level (also most immature) class in 6th grade- using Todaysmeet as a back channel during a video but couldn’t stop the off-topic questions and comments. When it crossed into something inappropriate (language) and students began typing in other student’s names to post their rude comments, we had to shut it down. Some classes just aren’t ready for that site- we’ll try it again in a few weeks, but I’m going to save the chat transcript and show them what what going on and why we had to shut our computers down. They are always sad at the choices they have made and hopefully will try to do better next time. I appreciate what Mark shared- but sometimes you just can’t ignore the comments (per my principal- if students are misusing it, it can become blocked at school so they have to learn to keep the discussion on point, just like a verbal discussion). I’m going to reteach them how to use the tech tool another day. We’ll keep trying.

    Don’t lose heart, Matt (or anyone else struggling with a challenging class- we all have these classes and those kind of days). While I completely understand that you don’t want to blame your students, you also shouldn’t beat yourself up when the students make poor choices; we are all in this together, this adventure called learning, and we have to work together- both teacher and students have the responsibility for making a class activity succeed or flop. We as teachers can control how we set up an activity, we can control how we teach, but we can’t control student actions any more than we can control the weather. Hang in there- hopefully your difficult class will start to “buy in” and you can be the teacher you want to be!

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks, Kari. (Honestly, I was hoping to see a comment from you on this!) That’s something I’ve really learned deeper into my teaching career — it really is a joint venture between teacher and students to achieve success. I’m going to keep working to get them to buy in, and even if they don’t, I still want them to know that they’re important to me and that I want the best for them. Thanks again.

  • David LaBoone says:

    Thanks for sharing this frustrating situation. I read this today and thought of you: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/power-positive-phone-call-home-elena-aguilar?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=blog-positive-phone-call-home-link

    Best wishes, and thanks for all of your sage advice to us!

  • Joy Kirr says:

    I know what you’re talking about. And I LOVE all the comments on this post – they will be helpful to others who have this class! Here’s my hope for you: You will, someday, have that dream class back again. I might have it this year! I am (so far, knock on wood) so fortunate to have sweet, caring children on my class lists. We are taking time out almost each day to reflect on something that we did (or didn’t do) the day prior, and that has made all the difference. One tip from TLAP that I love – try to be 100% for your first through your last class. You might need more sleep than EVER because of this class, but you can only do what you can. Continue reaching out to them and try those parent calls or emails home – I’ve sent at least two a weekend, and those kids come in smiling bigger now, too. Thanks for posting this! Maybe your students should read how you’re reflecting…! ;D

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks, Joy. And thankfully, I do have several really wonderful classes this year, and I really do like lots of kids in this class, too. I think they really have potential … they’re just a lot to handle sometimes. I think you’re right … it may be time for calls and e-mails (the positive kind!).

  • Gail Stevens says:

    Don’t have much time to comment (need to get to school!) but wanted to say that I emphathize with you and the struggle you are having this year. I, too, have one of those classes (actually two!). Extremely large class sizes (30 plus), low academic ability, and larger than life personalities make for a difficult management challenge. I’ve been working on building relationships, adding more “hands on” learning opportunities, as well as managing my own expectations. I have seen some small improvements, so I am hoping that these small victories will keep me sane. “Progress, not perfection” is my new mantra!

    Just know you are not alone. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences.

  • Mark says:

    Flip this article has got some nice airtime by the looks of things… It goes to show just how many of us feel like we try but never quite seem to feel like we are winning. With all the admin and the issues in the classroom it can be quite difficult to feel achievement. I think we can all be a little too hard on ourselves sometimes and while strategies for class management are important, we have to face facts… Sometimes it can all go wrong! Sometimes your best class can be your worst one day or a student that you thought was amazing lets you down… Welcome to teaching, the job where you are under paid, often undervalued and the results of your efforts are rarely felt and experienced by you but rather by them many years on. So what can you do to get through the day when it is one of those tough ones? The thing that helps me is, I try to make a difference with something or someone each day. At the end of the day no matter how bad it has been I can still look back and go I made a difference there and focus on the positive. Ultimately that is what we are in teaching for isn’t it? Making a difference. Your point Matt, about building relationships was spot on but we must not fall into the trap of building relationships in order that our teaching is more effective. For me building relationships and making a difference is the priority and the spin off is that they learn more effectively… Have a restful and blessed weekend man!

  • Justin Klyczek says:

    I’m struggling too. For the same and different reasons. I appreciate you putting this post out there. Look at the great responses. I have nothing to offer or than this: what you do matters.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks for that, Justin. Sometimes, I think that’s all we have to hear — be reminded that what we do matters. It really does. Thanks for summing it up into one sentence.

  • Patrick Reid says:

    I don’t have any suggestions, and I didn’t even look to see how old this post was, but it did strike a chors with me. I fear back channeling for that reason, I hate when I shush, and every year when my evaluation and reflection comes up classroom management is always my top mention of how I want improve. So since it your post hit me, and I don’t have a suggestion right now, I am going to share it. Sharing is caring, right?

    • Matt Miller says:

      Yes, absolutely, Patrick! I appreciate that. And maybe through the sharing, we’ll both come across someone that offers some insight that helps us both. I think that’s how this process should work. So thank you!

  • W. Norton says:

    Have you tried Dash-81, it has filters for language and you can just delete comments you do not want or block students from the conversation.

  • Danielle Chase says:

    Wow! It is as if I had written this. This is my 10th year teaching and one that I am so relieved to be over. I did turn into the teacher I never wanted to be. I had very large classes as well with some big personalities as you put it. I tried many things to get my class back to where I would be happy but also so all of my students would be able to learn. I have done an enormous amount of reflecting and one of the things I think I was lacking was a relationship with my students. I normally begin the year with a getting to know you type of activity but I did not this year for fear of using up too much time. I think I felt overwhelmed and didn’t want to take the time to get to know each of the students more personally. Now I look back and see how much time was wasted almost daily yelling at students to stop talking, stop touching each other, stop throwing things….
    I can promise you this – that next year, no matter the class sizes, I will take time to get to know my students better because they deserve to know that I care not just about their education but also care about them as individuals. I hope your next year goes better for you as well.

  • Greg says:

    I think it is great to read a post like this. I am in tech integration and all I read in the many blogs and sites I follow is the best-case scenario. Sounds great, but in my role when you get down to teachers actually teaching, reality is often different. I think it takes great courage to stand up and say “I need some help” especially if you are the guru! I won’t add to the already great list of suggestions, I just wanted to say well done on writing a post like this, my hat is off to you.

  • Karen says:

    Ahhh….I can relate. I just started teaching high school and two of my classes are just like this. It doesn’t help that I’m required to give lengthy pretests, go over a million school rules and procedures, hand out and collect endless forms, check out textbooks, teach note taking, set up notebooks, and tend to countless other distractions in the first few weeks. I don’t blame the kids for being bored. The cell phones and ear buds are a huge source of frustration for me. I didn’t want to be that teacher who takes them away (and even try to build in at least a few activities where they can use their phones during class), but I’m at a loss of what else to do.

  • Loni Kite says:

    I know this post is an older one, but I came across this post while exploring your blog for my Educational Technology (DED 318) class at Kansas State University, and I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you for writing this post. I think this post, more than any other on your site, demonstrates what an amazing teacher you truly are. People do not often admit when they are having difficulty or making mistakes, but in this post you had the courage to. More than that, you decided to learn from those mistakes and to find a way to move beyond them. The greatest teachers are the ones who are human enough to make mistakes, admit to them, learn from them, and change their approach. You are a great teacher.

  • Br Christopher says:

    I am having similar struggles with a class of middle school students with lots of personality and several with significant learning needs. I have yelled, shushed, threatened, all of it, and I hate that I react like that. Every teacher just dismisses them as “that class”.
    Breakthrough moment came a couple weeks ago, when I jettisoned a weeks worth of content in order to share with them (and have them research) fixed and growth mindsets. We still struggle, but I know I got through to them: they have begun to use the language of mindsets and challenge each other to try! Going to be a bumpy 4th quarter, but we have a common reference point with mindset niw.

    • Matt Miller says:

      But it sounds like you’re all headed in the right direction! I can really sympathize with this situation … bumpy road ahead, but there’s progress. Best of luck to you.

  • Amber Hines says:

    I do not know if someone has already said something similar. I have had this experience last year. It was my one year that I though was going to be my last year teaching. I created a money system in my class. The students could earn certain increments of money for answering questions, winning a game, being respectful to their peers, kindness, citizenship and so on. They could also lose money for behavior. At the end of the month I went out and bought snacks and pencils and we had a class auction would they could bid on items to purchase with their money. At the end of my first auction students were trying so hard to earn money so they could purchase things. At the end of the year I have one big auction where I ask parents to donate items. I have had things such as itunes gift cards to movie tickets. It has worked wonders. Hope this helps.

  • Elaine says:

    Matt – I love your honesty. We just graduated a class of 8th grade students and I heard so many of my great teachers sharing similar frustrations. I wish I knew the answer, but truth is we struggled for 3 years with some of these students. The only thing I know is we never gave up. Maybe we get this once in a while just to keep us fresh and motivated to improve.

    I enjoy reading your blog and have recently ordered your book as one my staff will be able to self select as a PD tool for next year. Keep being real…

  • Keishla Ceaser-Jones says:

    I had a class like this one year. I had to do reset. A do-over. I had an honest and open conversation with them about the class. I asked them what they thought about it. They didn’t like it either. We worked on owning our parts in the situation. So in November, we started the school year over. I focused on expectations and not rules. I firmly believe that expectations are given to be met, rules are set to be broken or adhered to. Expectations take a more positive approach. It’s never too late to start over. These kids may have never seen that before. Show them how.

  • L. Lobert says:

    As a preservice teacher, articles like theses are gold. I find classroom management the most intimidating thing about my future teaching career. The blog was intertesting, but the comments are where I learned. Thank you.

  • Alexis Zaccariello says:

    I agree with your idea of starting with relationships. Start with the biggest personalities. A quick student questionnaire about their interests etc… Can give you a quick in.

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