This month’s Top 12 Global Teacher Bloggers series, hosted by CM Rubin World, posed the question “What was your most challenging classroom and how did you turn it around?”
Over the past 20 years, I have taught in a number of settings that presented different sets of challenges. As a captain and instructor with ActionQuest, I faced the challenges of working with teenagers on board a 50 foot sailboat for 21 days. My first year teaching 9th grade English in a “real” classroom, every student in one section had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). As the Director of Academic Technology at St. Michael’s Country Day School, I even taught technology classes in a computer lab that had no computers for the first few weeks of school! Now, as an instructor with EdTechTeacher, I walk into a different classroom, with a different group of students, at least once a week. Each group brings with them a new set of challenges.
To say that I have had a single most challenging classroom would be difficult because each one brings with it a unique context; and yet, when considering how to “turn it around,” a few strategies always seem to work.
Strategy #1 – Build Community
If the students (or adults) do not feel as though they are part of the learning community, then there is no common understanding on which to build trust, acceptance, and respect. From “passing the spoon” at ActionQuest, to name games at St. Michael’s, to taking the time to have every participant in my workshops introduce themselves to the group, the class needs to exist as a community so that there is a foundation on which to build solutions to challenges that may arise.
Strategy #2 – Ask Early, Ask Often
My biggest mistake during my first few years of teaching was that I did not seek out help early enough or often enough. Today, it is possible to get help not only from within your specific learning environment but also through virtual connections. I found tremendous value in having a colleague come and observe a class where I struggled. Because this person also knew the personalities and learning needs of the students, they could offer not only insights but tangible suggestions. On the other hand, virtual connections bring fresh perspective and potentially fewer preconceptions.
Strategy #3 – It’s always “very nice…”
While at ActionQuest, one of the instructors had a saying: “Very nice…” You could tell him that his hair was on fire, and he would respond with “Very nice… “ One day, as I was running around in a frenzy, he stopped me with one of the best pieces of advice that I have ever received: if you stay calm, so will everyone else. As long as I do not show frustration, exacerbation, or any other emotion to indicate that the situation may be anything other than what I am hoping to achieve, then any challenge can be mitigated.
Every day has the potential to be the most challenging; however, when a solid community exists and you elicit feedback when necessary, it’s always “Very nice…”