I had been teaching only about two months when Jay, one of my third graders, walked over to my desk. He was a round-faced, happy child, with an inquisitive mind. He asked, “Is this your first year of teaching?”
Unwilling to admit that I was completely green, I replied, “Not really; last year I taught a class with another teacher.” “Well,” he concluded, “you’re on your own now, aren’t you?”
And indeed, most teachers are because in many schools there is little time created for serious communication among teachers on techniques of instruction, handling of discipline problems, or evaluating solutions to common problems. Once assigned a class, you find yourself “on your own,” standing behind a closed door in front of thirty or so restless students, expected to maintain a calm, authoritative demeanor, keep your class under control and to deliver interesting lessons.
Meanwhile, standardized testing continues to replace hands-on learning in the arts, shop, home economics, physical education as well as eliminating civics and languages in many schools, leading to less instructional content in regular subjects and hours of boring test preparation. It’s enough to make educators feel like screaming before they even set foot in their classrooms.
This can be a trying time, particularly for a new teacher who, although armed with various vague educational precepts such as, “You must provide for the individual needs of your pupils,” lacks the practical knowledge, strategies and time to put them into practice.
As situations arise that teachers cannot deal with, tensions that began in the first days of school can intensify and create a serious barrier between students and teachers. They can find themselves floundering and, although well-meaning, can take out frustrations on the children by shouting and doling out punishments. They may try to frighten unruly students into behaving as they search their mind, course books and notes on how to deal with disruptive students who refuse to do their work, or how to help the passive ones who don’t seem to be learning anything.
The pressure of dealing day after day with so many students and so many problems, often with too little help from administrators or overworked support staff, can reduce us at times to some pretty poor behavior or even to tears. It can make us feel like beating the kids out the door at 3 p.m.
I made many mistakes in the classroom, but as the months and years progressed, I discovered positive methods which helped create mutual feelings of respect not only between me and my pupils but among my pupils as well.
These methods were developed over a 44-year teaching career in a broad range of teaching environments: elementary school classroom teacher; literacy instructor to teenagers and adults in basic education programs including the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men; and as Professor at Rutgers/Newark University preparing students to be powerful teachers committed to social justice.
I was a researcher, writer and lecturer at the Council on Interracial Books for Children conducting workshops on racism, sexism and historical distortions in children’s books; led workshops such as “Using Social Issues to Teach Reading and Writing” and “Creating an Atmosphere of Multicultural Respect and Support in the Adult Basic Education Classroom;” led classes for parents on how to instill a love of reading in their young children.
I wrote articles, book reviews and lesson plans based on my teaching experiences and research that appeared in magazines, books and curricula.
An Overview of purpose and goals
This book does not dwell on external rewards. It does not speak in generalities, leaving you to wonder why certain strategies work and others fail. This book is specific, based on actual classroom experience. It shows many ways that a cooperative, supportive, nurturing environment can grow when the teacher enlists the help of the students. It offers a philosophy of education, combining my classroom experiences with those of other teachers to show how it is possible to avoid many discipline problems, and how to handle conflicts in ways that will enable all to win.
You will learn how it is possible to have the entire class involved in resolving interpersonal problems and building classroom unity through class meetings where the issues are presented and solutions proposed by students, not just by the teacher. I describe how teachers can get students on their side. After all, thirty heads are better than one, and students usually care more for what their peers think of them than about the opinions of their teachers.
You will read about how crucial it is to have high expectations and standards for each student, and to expect the highest quality behavior and academic work, not settle for the least.
These solutions are aimed at fostering good relations among students, developing self-confidence, and proposing positive non-violent alternatives to conflict. In short, the goal of this approach is best expressed by the question: “How can we help each other to do our best?”
Creating this kind of classroom environment takes TIME and PATIENCE. It is more difficult at first than laying down authoritarian rules which neatly define the classroom environment and the students themselves as subservient to the teacher’s preferences. But if we can overcome this strong tendency to deal with problems in a dictatorial manner, and begin to perceive students as fellow human beings with a basic need for love and respect for their ideas, the time and patience required to achieve this change in attitude will usually result in a more harmonious and better learning environment.
The solutions offered are not necessarily meant to be copied, but to stimulate your creativity when facing difficulties. When you come across stories where students are much younger or older than yours, and you believe the strategies cannot be adapted to your grade level, skip them, but be assured that you will find other stories and approaches that are more relevant. This information can help prevent burnout, enable you to enjoy your work more, and to teach more effectively. It also is my hope that this book can be of use to administrators, staff developers, professors in college and university departments as a helpful resource.