Updated: Feb 5, 2019
Glenn H. Rhoades
Keywords: behavior strategies, relationship-building, difficult conversations
Introduction and Context
I am now a fourth year high school English teacher at a suburban high school with 1600 students. At the time of this event, I was a second year 10th grade English teacher teaching honors and gifted students for the first time and was woefully unprepared to handle the personalities that came with this assignment. In addition to being new to the honors classroom, I had a group of boys that were the opposite of everything I expected to find: they were highly critical, aggressive, unmotivated, and purposefully derailed instruction. Conversely they were also highly charismatic, very intelligent, and popular. While most of the class was what I would now consider to be very typical (grade driven high performers) this one pocket of boys believed that through their privilege as star athletes and popularity they could do and say whatever they wanted with no consequence. They had worked many classrooms and teachers successfully together mostly due to previously low academic expectations and classwork that lacked any real world relevance. They were disenfranchised with their own education, and saw little point to the work they did in any of their classes, especially English. These were longtime, ingrained beliefs and habits that I would spend the entire year pushing back against. I desperately wanted to change the way these students experienced their education. This study will focus on one attempt that I made to try to bring harmony back to the classroom in a bid for their success.
Events, Actions, and Outcomes
For weeks, this group of boys were verbally undermining my instruction, disrupting work periods, and resisting assignments at every turn. They were doing more than simply choosing to fail: from a social perspective they were actively attempting to poison the class. Something had to be done. However my undergrad had done precious little to prepare me for student groups, navigating difficult social situations, let alone specific behavioral interventions. I was sorely outgunned and outnumbered. I knew it was time to have a difficult conversation. Catherine Soehner and Ann Darling define these types of talks as “...any conversation that produces anxiety, that worries you, or that you have put off, and in which you are certain the other person will not like what you are saying.” So I chose to take a brave stand and try something outside of the box that I had never seen a teacher attempt. I opened the room between my classroom and my neighbors, had her “watch” my class, and I pulled those five boys out into a conference in another room. In retrospect I went into this with very little planning or even reflection on my own practices. Soehner and Darling warn, “[a] difficult conversation entered without reflection can become a difficult situation…”, or in this case, it wasn’t as productive as it could have been otherwise (2015, p. 43).
The conversation (Personal Communication, November, 2016) happened as follows:
So, in your words, tell me how you think the class is going?
“Not good”, they all smiled and agreed.
Why?” I asked with concern written on my face.
We aren’t trying, said one. It’s boring, said another. I don’t care about this [referring to the class], said a third.
I tried another approach:
What do you see yourselves doing, and what do you see me doing? Do you feel like we are a team? Talk to me about that.
You pick on us. You don’t give us anything fun to do.
By this point, I was taking everything they said far too personally, and I did not work hard enough to see their point of view. Calvin Hennick, in their article published in Scholastic Teacher, advocates for starting the discussion from a “third story.” They state, “Describe the problem as an outside observer might see it” which focuses on finding an agreement instead of what the other party is doing wrong (Hennick, 2015, p. 35). Perhaps more importantly, I failed to show them that I was listening to what they had to say. I wasn’t at a place in my teaching where I realized that when students feel picked on, it is something I’m doing wrong, and that their perceptions matter. It isn’t about them being “sensitive” (even though that might also be true): what matters is that this perception must be addressed before progress can be made.
What went well
Find neutral ground to have the discussion
Address the group together
Ask questions to get the student perspective
Most importantly show them that you care - above all, make it about care
Having the initial conversation sooner
Write down what they have to say
Ask follow up questions
Summarize what they say every minute or two to show them you are listening and check to see if you understand
Apologize for what you can
Taking a “third story” perspective
Throughout the rest of the semester I saw a difference in most of that group. All five of them would pass, and for the most part they went from out of control to occasionally resistant. We continued to have those difficult conversations more frequently on smaller, more individual scales; they became a regular system of checks and balances. “[A]voiding telling people that they are not meeting expectations is unproductive. How can anyone improve his or her performance unless he or she knows that expectations are not being met?”, ask Soehner and Darling (44). The five turned in all their missing work, and I could see them try to care more themselves. I made some changes too: I gave them more time to talk while working, and tried to react less to disruptions. In turn, they let me deliver instruction without interrupting so frequently.
It doesn’t matter how revolutionary your teaching practices are, they won’t engage every learner on their own. Students need to see is that you will listen and try to help create their space in your room. That is revolutionary enough.
Hennick, C. (2015). What to Say When. Scholastic Teacher, 35-37. Retrieved January 10, 2019, from https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/home/.
Soehner, C., & Darling, A. (2018). We've All Been There: Conducting Effective Difficult Conversations. American Libraries Magazine, 42-45. Retrieved January 10, 2019, from https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/.