Sunday, April 8, 2012

Evaluating my own behaviour

Megan is an Australian teacher who has worked in Spain, Vietnam, at the Australian International School in Saigon, and in Japan. At  Sydney East Hills Boys Technology High School she learned about and applied her knowledge of Choice Theory . She has a Masters in Teaching in English and TESOL and can also teach Music. This is the first of two articles that Megan has written about her experiences in teaching.

I had a Year 8 (fourteen year old) all boys English class.  It was 98% Lebanese NESB ( Non English Speaking Background) students, living in the Western suburbs of Sydney and attending an all-boys school.  It was a public school in a lower socio-economic area.  

 This class had been streamed into classes based on their ability and the class was the ‘bottom’ group.  It was group of 22 students, none of them wanted to learn; considered themselves ‘stupid’ and they were disruptive almost constantly. Rarely did any of the students complete any set task, and rarely was any lesson plan successfully implemented due to the behavioural difficulties.
For example one student was constantly calling out, ‘I am the fat little lebbo!’ while exhibiting a massive Cheshire cat grin (Abdul)  Another sat at the back displaying catatonic behaviour, never doing anything except doodling and avoiding his work, very successfully (Peter)
The rest of the students played jokes, distracting each other from doing any work, talked incessantly, threw chairs out the windows, hit, kicked and generally annoyed one another. They would all lose their tempers within a few seconds if they felt threatened in any small way and appear to have little control over their own behaviour. Most have been diagnosed with ADHD and each student demands your CONSTANT attention throughout every single moment of every lesson.

The students appeared to be having great fun in class. ALL the teachers who taught this class were on the verge of a breakdown. Some teachers considered leaving teaching due to the difficulty of this class.
After my Glasser training, I decided to try to do something different. First, I started thinking about myself. I realised on the way to the lesson one day that I HATED all of them. I hated them because I could not control the class, and therefore, I could not satisfy my own need to feel a sense of power and control over my work and for this reason, I felt like I wanted to strangle some of them at times, especially when they were all having so much fun and I was utterly miserable.

I thought about this some more. I realised eventually, that I was bringing negative feelings into every class and I felt tense and angry before I even arrived and discovered that I was blaming them for my lack of ability to teach them. I tried to be in control, but I would often resort to yelling at them, punishing them, sending them outside, to the principal’s office and threatening and bribing them in order to try to control them. I was not in control at all.
Then, I realised that I was expecting them to change their behaviour when I couldn’t even manage to change my own behaviour. I wanted to feel good, but couldn’t.
Next, I thought about the students. I read all of their personal files and got to know them a little bit more. Reading their files was sobering. All of them were from broken homes with quite serious family problems, some had alcoholic parents, some had parents in prison and some had been sent to see psychiatrists and were on medication to control their behaviour. They were only 14 years old. I cried a lot for those boys in the filing room that day.
 After I finished, I thought for a long time about them. I tried to imagine what their daily lives must be like. Most of them were probably shouted at by their parents, probably told that they were useless and stupid and they probably felt unwanted and knew that their lives were doomed at the beginning. No one cared about them. They were nobodies and they all knew it.
Furthermore, when they arrived at school, probably from the moment they arrived, every single teacher probably disliked them as much, if not more than their parents, and so… I asked myself "How could any of these students have any of their five basic needs for love and belonging, power, freedom and fun and survival?"  In the end, I realised that every single student was desperate to feel loved and was literally demanding my attention every second of the class. 

When I thought about the way I responded to their demands for attention, I realised that I responded in several ways:

 I tried to distance myself from them.   I tried ignoring them I tried controlling them, but this didn’t work for long because they were having too much fun trying to rile me and make me lose my temper – this got them a LOT of attention.   I NEVER ONCE connected with them, I certainly did not love them and I certainly did not respect them.  I absolutely did not create a peaceful environment for them and I brought all my negative feelings into the class with me and watched the clock desperately wanting every lesson to end.  I reacted to their demands for attention by reacting to their negative behaviour – ie they got attention when they acted badly.

So after I looked at my own behviour very carefully and the attitude I had towards my class and how I was behaving in my lessons, I did something different. 
Finally this was my plan.

I selected Animal Farm by George Orwell as our text to study. Everyone in the faculty thought I was insane and objected violently saying that the class wouldn’t understand it. I suggested that they would, if it was presented properly. Since they all probably understood the idea of injustice, I proposed that they would understand the political ideas and that they would love the animals. I was showing them respect even though I wasn’t in the classroom.  I stood up for them publicly. Anyway, I decided that I would stand up and fight for this issue and somehow managed to succeed.

Next, I told the class that it was a difficult text but that I thought that they were smart and that if they listened, they would really enjoy the book, and that they would be able to prove to other people that they were really smart and they would get to feel good about themselves. (demonstrating encouraging, trusting and respecting behaviour, believing in them)

I prepared my lessons with a lot of love and care, really trying to try to explain the concepts in ways that were interesting, funny, using things that they would relate to using comics and funny drawings as well,  (supporting and accepting/liking them) and differentiating my materials. 

I made the work as easy as possibly by making it in simple chunks and giving clear instructions (supporting, trusting, respecting). 

I told them that I would help them if they did not understand. I told them that I would be there for them (supporting, listening, encouraging).

THEN, every lesson I made a point of thinking loving and kind thoughts about each student and about the class. Trust me, this was not easy at first, but I started by thinking about one positive thing about each student. Then I went to class.

Every lesson, I made my actions slow, calm and took care never to raise my voice. I gave clear instructions, and then, I went to each student and said things like  "Do you understand the task, John?" "Would you like some help with this question?"   "Which question seems easy to you, let’s do this one first then. I’ll show you ok. Then you can do the next one yourself?" "Are you having trouble getting started? Here, let me give you the first word."

Questions like " Are you focused on your work Abdul?" yeilded an answer, ahhh then laughter. Then I’d say "Never mind, let’s focus now then, which question are you doing then?"
I spent the whole lesson giving each student attention. If they completed anything, I would tell them well done for the effort. Then, ask them if they wanted to know a better word for next time, and then show them how to write it better.

If they asked a question, I would always answer it and when they did things wrong, I would ask them if that was the best way to behave in class? They usually said no, but I never lost my temper and never yelled at them.

I hoped they would feel that I liked every one of them, and told them that they had control over their actions. I encouraged  good behaviour  publicly.

A few times, I had to talk with students privately but this was done in a low key fashion. At these times, I negotiated better ways to behave in class in a calm, positive way that gave the student other ideas and choices. I showed them that I cared and that they mattered. 

They understood the concepts without any problems and they LOVED the idea of the animals representing different kinds of people and political ideas!

By the end of the year, ALL students had improved their results, even Abdul. The most surprising result was from Peter who had, according to my assistant teacher, NEVER produced one piece of work for any teacher. Peter started to write for me. My assistant was astonished. In the final exam, Peter wrote a compelling essay on the political corruption in Animal Farm and came first in the whole year group, moving from last place in the year group, to first place. He went to the top class.

I felt humbled and inspired by this experience in so many ways.  It wasn't easy and I had to think and I had to be aware and awake, but it was easier than continuing in the other direction and in the end, we all had our basic needs met.