Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mixed signals in the classroom

How many times have I thought that a student who was angry at me was being insubordinate?  If I'm being honest, many times.  Whether or not I have chosen to engage or ignore that child has varied through the years, but without a doubt, I've been guilty of mixing signals and not pursuing why some students have been frustrated, overwhelmed, or sad in class.

The below video of a white female Spanish teacher losing patience with her African American students makes me cringe for many reasons, aside from her American accent.   I would like to think that I would never talk down to my students, compare their lack of achievement to the successes of my other classes, and suggest that they are unable or unwilling to learn, as this young woman does.  If I'm being brutally honest, I have given similar speeches to my classes, particularly when I was new to the field.  The condescending tone of disappointment in this teacher's voice irks me because it rings true for my younger self as as new educator. Her attempt to stay with the curriculum, but the clear panic/aggravation in her voice is all too familiar.  When her supervisor steps in to "help", the scene worsens. After a couple of minutes of watching this video, I had to look into myself introspectively and think if I have had or could avoid similar moments like these.  The answer to both is yes.  Yes, I have not been at my best as a teacher on every day with every student, but yes, I have worked and will continue to work to get better.

In Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators, Nakkula and Toshalis center the first chapter around an internal battle between seasoned teacher Danielle Peterson and her student, Antwon Saladin.  The authors demonstrate that aside from the subject content, classic learning about student/teacher roles is taking place each time Antwon brushes Ms. Peterson off and Ms. Peterson views Antwon as a trouble maker who is "choosing to fail."  In the chapter one scenario, Antwon is tremendously worried about failing the graduation exam and is struggling with his peer group.   Nakkula and Toshalis urge educators to delve into the troubling student behavior when they write, "Think, for example, how differently Antwon and Ms. Peterson's relationship would be unfolding were Ms. Peterson to become more transparent about her motivations, interpretations, and even her fears and expectations, depending, of course, on how such information was shared." The authors suggest that teachers are coauthors and co-constructors in all of our adolescent students' lives.  We must understand our impact on our students in their development, just as our students influence our own teaching and learning.

A wise friend of mine who retired once told me that when students are acting out, ninety-nine percent of the time, it has nothing to do with me.   Still, it is hard to face angry students without feeling defensive and hurt.   Nakkula and Toshalis implore teachers to take action and accept their co-responsibility in authoring the classic learning that takes place in my classroom.  They remind educators to scrutinize the intrinsic messages students are receiving through our actions and interactions with them.  A message that resonated with me toward the end of the first chapter is as follows:  "Ms. Peterson is teaching much more than literature-she is coauthoring Antwon's self-understanding and co-constructing the meaning he makes of his relationship with her."  If Ms. Peterson continues to ignore Antwon's cries for help, he will likely fall out of his peer group and potentially fail out of school.  I strongly feel that it is up to Ms. Peterson to take the next step in salvaging what is left of her relationship with Antwon.   I hope that the young teacher in the above video has viewed it; has scrutinized it; and has looked introspectively to find better ways of inspiring students and promoting learning in her classroom.


  1. This is a very honest and reflective post, Amy."It is very hard to face angry students without feeling defensive and hurt..." that is a truth that I think we can all identify with, especially as hard working teachers trying to do the best job we can possibly do every day. Teaching is a very personal job, and it's hard not to take things personally (if that makes any sense?). The students affect us in a very personal way and we affect them in a very personal way as well. We bend and shape each other, and it's important to be aware of that ongoing process. I think you (and Nakkula) are right about Ms. Peterson, she does need to re-evaluate and realize the ways in which she is shaping Antwon's life. However, I think that Nakkula goes a step too far in saying that Antwon's fate is up to Ms. Peterson and Ms. Peterson alone...that seems to be a step too far in my opinion.

  2. Amy,
    I agree with you! Antwons' chances of dropping out of school will increase if he does not have better relationships in school with his teachers. If not Ms Peterson, maybe another teacher will step in. This is crucial for the success of all students. Like you I was also disgusted by the behavior of both teachers in the video. Unfortunately, I was not surprised. Those students were clearly not engaged and both teachers blamed it on the students. I was enraged by the supervisor when she made the comment about how hard their teacher worked each night preparing for class and how they didn't appreciate that. Really?!! Both women were so condescending to the students. Also the teacher seemed bored. She did not seem very excited to be in the classroom and teach her students. I found this very sad.

  3. Hi Amy,

    While reading your blog entry I could not help but think about my children. I like the teacher in the video have had moments of utter frustration when my children (really my daughter) decides to misbehave. I know that she knows better, yet she makes conscious decisions to whine and fuss over menial things like not using either one of two identical forks! Whew, (that one may still be raw - not really). The point that I am trying to make is that we as adults who have been around the block a few times forget what it was like being on that journey. I can reflect on the fork incident and recognize that she just wanted some attention and some control at the end of a long day of being told what to do, where to be, what not to touch, etc. While I didn’t have a blowout on my daughter I do see (and have also experienced - as a student and teacher) the loss of control of my emotions. We are human after all.

    I do not advocate losing our minds on your students. However, knowing that it has, does, and will probably happen again sometime I will advocate using those moments to have important conversations with our students. To show them that we are fallible and to teach them how to own the imperfections that make us who we are.