August 10 will mark the SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY of Classroom as Microcosm. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this blog saved my career. At the moment I began it, I was ready to quit teaching, but writing about my experiences and discussing them with you has been instrumental in restoring my teaching energy and joy. Thank you!
In celebration, and in preparation for the upcoming school year, I’m returning to the “most shared” posts from the last seven years, posts that, for better or for worse, readers felt compelled to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues. I will be re-publishing one a day for the next ten work days, culminating with the #1 most shared post of CaM’s brief history.
Today’s reprised post describes one moment when this blog may have saved me from throwing in the towel. “Bad Class? Define ‘Bad‘” was written in 2010. I had just finished a semester with one of the most infuriating classes I’d ever had, and was trying to decide: did the fact that they drove me crazy mean things had not gone well? Or did it just mean that I disliked being out of control?
I’d do things very differently if I met this class today. I’d love to discuss my change of heart with you, so in the comments, please tell me what you think: what would you do with a class like this?
If a class is loud, irritating and occasionally rude, does that mean it’s a bad class? If I come away from every meeting with them wishing it were the last, does that mean things aren’t going well? Or are my feelings irrelevant, if the students are actually learning something?
This semester, one class gave me more than the usual level of grief. They were a Preparation for College English class; Prep courses are designed for second-language students with such weak skills that they can’t be admitted to a 101 course. In addition to having poor language skills, students in Prep classes often struggle with motivation and other academic difficulties.
We met from 4 to 6 in the afternoon, the worst possible time for any class in my opinion, but particularly for a remedial class. The students were were both tired and wound up; when I walked into the room each day, the air felt flat and dead on the surface, but with a simmering underneath. Once class began, every students seemed to have a phone out at all times, and I couldn’t figure out how to deal: should I throw the whole lot of them out? Start taking phones away? My indecision meant I did nothing.
One student, Ahmad, not only refused to focus but was determined to disrupt others’ focus as well. Many students were happy to join in with his shenanigans, from steering the class discussion wildly off course to trading jovial insults to making silly noises. The atmosphere was frenetic and a bit hysterical, and it was difficult to work our way through material because so much time was wasted trying to keep the noise under control and telling them to stop doing this and start doing that.
However, I found myself in a conundrum.
I was tempted to tell the main troublemaker to leave and to clamp down on the foolish behaviour, but there was another side to the problem: most people in the class seemed to be learning. When we went through grammar explanations and exercises, they fell over each other asking questions and challenging the rules I gave them. They rarely did their homework, but when we did in-class seatwork, they completed it diligently (if noisily) and volunteered answers. And generally speaking, their grades on tests and essays were fine, except for a handful who just weren’t showing up for class.
The students also seemed to be having a pretty good time. When we played games, they threw themselves into them with such abandon that we had to take long pauses to calm them down. And, aside from one or two very shy people who seemed slightly uncomfortable but wryly entertained by all the goings-on, most of the people in the class seemed to genuinely grow to like each other, mostly because of their shared amusement over Ahmad’s inappropriate behaviour (I heard frequent fond murmurs of “Stupid guy!,” as though he were a kitten who kept falling off the couch.)
So what, really, did I want to happen?
I wanted a productive classroom atmosphere, one in which students could learn to the best of their abilities. But was I sure I didn’t already have that? It was true that this environment might not be optimal for all students, but is any classroom situation optimal for everybody? Was my concern really about what was best for the students, or was my concern about my ego, my desire to be a “good teacher” who commands unconditional respect and who can control every aspect of what goes on in her classroom?
When speaking to my office mate, I sometimes drew comparisons between this class and my other section of the same course. The other section met earlier in the day; there were more girls than boys in the class, which I believe changed the tone; and there were a number of strong, sweet personalities, students who gave off a positive and focused energy. There were never any behavior issues. Most of them did their homework. They never talked when I was talking. The most cell phone abuse I saw was an occasional quick text message under a desk.
But grammar lessons often passed in dull silence, and when we played games, they never really got off the ground. What’s more, their grades were not as good as those of the other class. Maybe they were weaker to begin with, and so felt a greater need to focus, but maybe the other class’s high energy was actually helping them absorb, process and engage more.
I tried a number of tactics with my crazy class. For a while, I had them sit silently for a minute before class started, and this sometimes helped. Near the end of the term, after a particularly intolerable lesson, I gave them a stern talking-to, and that helped. For one class period. But our last class together was as annoying to me as all the rest, and I never resolved in my own mind whether I should have done things differently.
All those who showed up regularly ended up passing the course, so it’s not like they didn’t learn anything.
Was the atmosphere disruptive to them and their learning, or was it only disruptive to me?
Tomorrow: the most controversial post I have ever written, complete with some pretty nasty comments.
Image by Miguel Ugalde