First Person

What it took for me to start listening to my “difficult” students

On my first day of teaching English as a second language at a small public middle school in the South Bronx, I got lost trying to navigate the halls teeming with students of all ages.  At the time, five other schools occupied the building, and by the time I arrived at the room where I would teach my first class of sixth graders, the students were lined up and ready to start.

I shuffled through the keys to the six other classrooms I was assigned to teach in, juggling the plans and worksheets for my three other preps, and managing my own anxiety. Nyima, a student who stood separate from the others, side-eyed me. I felt as if she was asking, “Are you really my teacher?”

With only six weeks of training through the city’s Teaching Fellows program, I was asking myself the very same question.

It wasn’t until several months into the school year — after my relationship with Nyima had soured and she been suspended multiple times — that I began to recognize the role that inexperienced teachers like me could play in pushing students out of classrooms rather than finding ways to keep them in.

Clinging to control 

That first day in the hallway, I finally found the right key, let myself in, and introduced myself in both Spanish and English, assuming that I would reach every student that way. My speech patterned by deep breaths, I recognized Nyima in the back, anxious, staring with confusion as I rambled on.

She clearly did not understand Spanish, and, I later realized, was the only non-Spanish speaker in the room.

When I asked each of my students to share their names, Nyima was the only one who refused. The 21 strange new faces stared at her. We were both frozen. It was our first standoff.

Trying to implement the only classroom management skills I knew, I pushed Nyima to share.

I wanted her to recognize me as her teacher and to follow my directions.  I wanted the other students to quiet their whispers and understand my expectations. I had been told during training that my students should not be able to “opt out” because that would be “coddling” them.

She refused to participate that day. And she refused to participate for the first three weeks after that. Nyima thought that I was being unfair, and she did not want to take part in my class because of it.

Nyima’s vow of silence ended when she began defending herself against assumptions her peers made based on her hijab and her name.

I made efforts to draw her out by reiterating my expectations for participation, complimenting her on half-completed assignments, and placing brightly colored post-it notes on her desk. I attempted to find translation materials in her home language (Soninke). Most of these attempts at building a relationship resulted in Nyima sucking her teeth loudly or slamming the classroom door.

My responsibility to 67 other students across five grade levels with their own complex needs and skillsets made reaching out to Nyima in those moments particularly difficult.

Alongside the language barrier, I was not trained in how to read her Individual Education Plan, the document that outlines her learning disability and how to accommodate her needs. As a result, I was unable to offer her proper accommodations for her learning disability, such as offering extended time on assignments and reading aloud directions.

I was ineffective, stressed, and frantic. Constantly. Nyima participated less and less and became more and more tense when entering my room. Some days she would spend the majority of the period locked in the girls room. At times, that felt like a relief.

Lacking other models

During my first year teaching, I was also taking a class toward a master’s degree in the evening. Most of my classmates were also going through an alternative certification program, and most of them, like me, were middle-class, native English speakers unfamiliar with the neighborhoods where they were offered their first jobs.

We all seemed to have at least one “Nyima” — a student we characterized by lack of engagement, refusal to participate, and egregious disrespect. We spoke about how we “tried everything,” and how we had to “write them up” or “kick them out” to maintain any kind of respect in our chaotic classrooms.

To us, it looked like students like Nyima were causing the chaos in our classrooms. Our lack of training in positive behavior interventions — alternatives to asking students to leave the room, writing them referrals, and sending them to a disciplinarian office — made it very difficult for us to imagine taking a different approach to students like Nyima.

By December, Nyima’s folder was filled with dozens of half-completed worksheets and ripped loose-leaf papers.

Not surprisingly, many of Nyima’s teachers were — like me — first-year teachers who were enrolled in alternative certification programs. We filled Nyima’s personal record with a laundry list of write-ups: “derogatory” remarks to other students, constant physical altercations, “lying,” and inability to comport herself in a classroom.  Her record did not include any traces of successful strategies or interventions.

After accumulating referrals and threatening another student in the bathroom, Nyima received a superintendent’s suspension. During her time at the suspension site, she missed three weeks of the preparation for her state exam and the exit exam for ESL.

Restoring a relationship

At about the time Nyima was suspended, I started attending meetings with a group called Teachers Unite, an organization that works to dismantle punitive discipline policies in schools. Talking to teachers about their efforts to build supportive communities in their schools made me look at my classroom and my master’s classes with a new lens.

I began to see the connection between our so-called “impossible” students and our lack of experience teaching and exposure to varied pedagogical and classroom management strategies.

Working with the experienced educators in Teachers Unite, I learned new discipline models that gave me and my students the chance to communicate our needs and the ways we felt they had not been met.

I held conferences instead of writing up detentions and (when I was able to) facilitated mediations instead of calling the deans. If I listened closely during these moments, I began to hear what my students were saying: how I hadn’t been mindful, how I hadn’t recognized certain requests, and what I could do to restore our relationship moving forward.

During one of our conferences, Nyima told me that I “never heard what the other girls said” during class, that I always unfairly asked her to leave the room, and that I “never helped.” She admitted to feeling this way in some of her other classes and with her peers as well.

This is how I was able to begin transforming my practice. And while it’s an ongoing process, this year has felt like a different job.

For one thing, my relationship with Nyima is no longer defined by discipline. She frequently rushes to my classroom after school with her best friend Deana to hang out while she does make-up work. She helps me set up the desks and asks when she can take on more classroom jobs. Sometimes we get to talk about music, her desire to be a doctor, and the responsibility she has at home of caring for her four baby brothers and sisters.

I don’t think that alternatively certified teachers are necessarily fated to push students like Nyima out of the classroom. But I do think we need to be aware of the limitations of our alternative certification programs, and we need to seek additional training to help us understand the ways our own limitations can lead students to feel like they don’t belong at school.

In my case, moving outside of the Fellows program took the form of finding a new community of teachers and a new way of thinking about what it takes to meet each student’s needs. For others it may look different. However we get there, students need new teachers to take the time to find fairer, more comprehensive, and effective models to engage them.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.