behavior management

Life as a Teaching Fellow: The Comic

Jessi Worde  is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at Van Buren Middle School in Albuquerque, NM

Since 2008, I've drawn comic journals for a month every summer and every February.  The excerpts included herein are from February 2011, when I was working at Wilson Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I had my own ragtag team of students called Team Austin-Boston in the Fall, rechristened Team Grizzlies in the spring when it became mixed 6th and 7th grade.  While editing scans for this blog, I tried to pull out themes in these comic excerpts.  Here are some themes:

  • Many sigh-worthy moments occurred, but so did many laugh-out-loud moments.
  • Lunch was a cute, chill time to bond with students.
  • I was discovering my secret love for teaching math.
  • Dressing business casual was an ongoing struggle for me.

One thing that maybe isn't crystal clear through these comic excerpts is: I loved these students so much it was overwhelming.  My weeks were a whirlwind of students, and on the weekends they found their way into my dreams.  Their lives were not easy, and despite the frustration I felt when inundated with bathroom requests, or my occasional inability to complete a lesson due to behavior management problems, I feel honored to have been a part of their lives for a year.  Today, my former coworker and I take one of these students out for sushi whenever he can come to town.  I'm pen pals with another.  One student called me for a refresher on the difference between “1D, 2D, and 3D” objects.  When some coworkers and I went back to eat lunch with our former students, we were dazzled to see several who had grown half a foot over the summer, some boys' whose voices had dropped to a disconcertingly mannish timbre, and many students who had sought leadership opportunities on their own in other after school programs.  I will always remember my first team, and while I may grow into a distant memory for them over the ensuing years, I hope they remember that someone in middle school thought they were brilliant.

Below are selected comics chronicling my time with them.


Six Strategies for Helping Students with Behavior Challenges

George Ganzenmuller is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, MA

Before the first day of school, my principal was discussing the school-wide behavior management strategies we were implementing for the school year. As teachers quibbled about the rules not being strict enough, he made the statement that, “90% of kids are going to follow these rules without any trouble, 9% are going to show some defiance and 1% will openly defy the rules and become major behavior problems”. He went on to clarify that we have the systems in place to help guide the 9% back to the proper path. However, we have to get creative with the 1% and sometimes, the reality is, that no matter what we do, some kids aren’t going to respond.

Over the past two years, I’ve worked with students with learning disabilities and students with social, emotional and behavioral challenges. Coincidentally, or not, right in the thick of the 1%. It’s not a job for the easily insulted or easily fatigued. I’ve been told that I need to use proactive, that I’m a skinny punk and my mother didn't feed me enough (I’m 6’2, 190lbs… that one didn’t sting too much), that I’m a horrible teacher and I've even been called a F#$%-ing  B*&%h (two days in a row, that was a rough week). But, I’ve also been told thank you, been called a favorite teacher, and have gotten heartfelt apology and thank you notes from kids.

It’s tough and you do have to get creative to get kids working hard and, more often than not, your creativity falls flat with no response. But, I have found a few successful strategies, which I’ll share now:

Give the Power Back: Last year, I had one 6th grader who had particular difficulty reading. So, in my math class, he needed help with word problems. Problem was he refused to accept my help when I went over to his desk to read the problems. He would throw a tantrum and say that he didn’t need help. I persisted for a couple days until I realized, the issue was a power struggle. He didn’t want to be dependent on me. So, I came up with a strategy - he would circle six problems to do for the day – three to do on his own and three that we would do together. We could do it in the order that he chose and he would let me know when he was ready for our problems. The turnaround was remarkable; instead of pushing back when I tried to help him, he became excited everyday for the problems that we would do together. Sometimes kids need to have a certain amount of control over what they're doing in order to buy in.

A Little Help from their Friends:  It’s November and I’m still struggling to come up with ideas to keep one of my students in class. He is a very energetic boy who loves to dance, sing, draw and interrupt the teacher. He can often be found loudly starting arguments with classmates and disrupting the learning process. Often, I unfortunately find myself forced to send him out of class for the sake of the other students’ learning. Sadly, he misses out on much needed learning time (he struggles with basic math functions in the 6th grade). I was at my wit’s end when it came to me – why not cater to his interests. We developed a system whereby if he could do three things in class (1. No negative comments 2. Try his hardest on all activities 3. Follow all instructions the first time), he can earn the right to draw a picture of The Notorious B.I.G., his favorite rapper and his favorite topic of discussion. I was shocked at how quickly he bought in. I’ve used the Biggie system twice and it has been a 2 for 2 success - a quietly engaged young man who has been able to stay in class and participate positively. Of course, this strategy won't work forever, but creatively coming up with incentives that students actually want to earn always seems to work for a little while at least.

Stress Balls: It may sound silly, but easily angered students really benefit from having something as simple as a stress ball to take their anger out on (squeeze, not throw – very important distinction) when they’re frustrated.

Individual Rewards: My students earn ‘value stars’ when they exhibit the values that Citizen Schoolsaims to teach them (Respect, Courage, Tenacity, Pride, Teamwork) and each time they earn a star I mark it on our visual tracker. At the end of two weeks, the student with the most stars earns an individual award.

Group Rewards: In addition to working for stars for themselves, each time a student earns a star our team (class) gets a point. When we reach 100 points we earn a class party.

Personal Connection: Perhaps the most important and effective way to help children with behavior challenges develop the skills they need to succeed in the classroom is to cultivate a personal connection with them and show them that you truly care about them. Ask them about their hobbies, interests, weekends, families and anything else you can think of. Many times, students with emotional and social challenges are receiving negative messages from the adults in their lives and even having one adult who believes in them can help them muster up the willpower to try their hardest in school.

What strategies can you share for serving students with behavior challenges?

Can Managing Student Moods Create a Positive Learning Environment?

George Ganzenmuller - Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Edwards Middle School Charlestown, MA

In my second year as a teaching fellow in a special education classroom, I’ve learned a few things about behavior management. One particularly effective strategy I've learned is what I call ‘mood management’. If I can keep the general mood of the classroom positive and focused, then we can have a great day of learning. However, if the class mood slips out of my control into the realms of anger, gloom or (hopefully never) anarchy, then we might as well forget about whatever learning objectives were on the plate for that day. Mood management is a subtle art and, as I’m a self-taught, second-year mood management scholar, I’m not quite at the black-belt level yet.

My class consists of 8 students. All of them are wonderful individuals in their own ways, who have so much to contribute to our classroom. However, there is a level of volatility in our ranks that is unmatched in the rest of the school. What seems like a peaceful, engaging group activity can quickly devolve into a pencil thrown across the room in frustration.

One thing that I try to teach my students, in addition to Math, English, College ReadinessApprenticeships and Teamwork, is how to control their emotions, rather than letting their emotions control them. There is no set curriculum for this concept, no statewide assessment, and, quite honestly, no reliable way to measure results. But, I’m convinced that is an absolutely pivotal skill, one that my students need to succeed in their lives. No business is going to hire an employee who throws their chair on the ground when a decision doesn’t go their way.

Truth is, I have no idea what it’s like to be my students. I didn't grow up with a learning disability or with the hardships of poverty. I’m fully aware that their lives are going to be exponentially more difficult than mine has been. But, I believe that if I can help them to focus on the positive and find ways to channel their frustrations, they’ll be better equipped to deal with the unquestionable challenges that will come their way.

One strategy I’ve started using comes from Dr. Martin Seligman’s work on Positive Psychology. In helping my students cultivate positive mindsets, I’ve saved a chunk of time at the end of each class for them to write down on a sheet of paper one thing that ‘went well’ for them that day. It could be that they got a good grade on a quiz, that the boy they like smiled at them, that they scored a goal in gym class, anything. They don’t have to show me what they wrote. They don’t even have to keep it. As long as they find something that went well.

This past week, one of my students, we’ll call him Johnny, was in a particularly aggravated mood and was passionately telling me how he hated school, hated the teachers and hated my class. I took him aside and we had an emotional chat. We talked about positive thinking, controlling our emotions and most of all dealing with our frustration in an appropriate way. He didn’t calm down right away and in fact when he took his seat a few tears rolled down his cheek. We continued class and little by little I saw him come back to life. Johnny began talking more and more and eventually was energetically leading class discussions and rousing his teammates to participate.

At the end of the day, I had them write the ‘What Went Well’ sheets. After writing, most of the students put them in their notebooks, some threw them away. But, Johnny, on his way out the door, handed me his ‘What Went Well’ sheet and said, ‘look at it’.  As Johnny left, I read his sheet. It said “What went well for me today: I was in a bad mood, but Mr. G talked to me and I changed”.

It was a little gesture, but the fact that he wanted me to know that I had helped him meant a lot. I know there will be days when he and other students are frustrated (they’ll be vocal about it), but at least they know that, ultimately, we’re on the same side – I’m here for them and together we’ll progress.

I think you know what my ‘What Went Well’ was for that day.

What role do you think teachers play in students' moods? Share your thoughts in the comments section!