At the end of the school year, I’ve asked all the teachers who have been working with me for an “exit interview” to get a sense of what has worked for them, and how I can improve my skill as a consultant.
Alan is a Physics teacher. He is twenty-six years old, newly married and quite energetic. He is earnest when we talk about teaching, but I have no doubt that he knows how to enjoy himself when he wants to.
Alan is new to this school and only has one year of teaching under his belt. In our “exit” conversation, he drops a bombshell.
“Before you and I started working together, I was seriously thinking of quitting teaching”, he says. “I was overwhelmed and frustrated. I found myself getting angry at my students, and I didn’t think it was going to get any better.”
I am flabbergasted. I knew how stressed out he seemed when I first met him. I could tell he was frustrated with his students, but I really had no idea he was in such a state of desperation.
He describes the relentless power struggles with a few students, a sense of being powerless to change the antagonism that he experienced with them, and a sense of futility of every escalating strategy. There seemed to be no way out of the struggle, and he felt he could win battles, but ultimately he would lose the war. Like many new teachers, he was exhausted and overwhelmed with the work load.
In the midst of this crisis he and I began working together. I visited his class, and could see right away the tension he had described to me. It was clear that the students and he were not working together. There were a lot of side conversations, always a sign of disrespect or disinterest, and he kept getting louder to be heard over the other voices in the room.
For him, the urgent issue was one of getting his students to do more homework. In most of his classes, he reported, only a third or fewer were actually completing the work. Increasingly, he found himself in the role of hectoring them, or threatening ever more dire consequences if they didn’t do the homework. None of that had any effect except to increase the sense of animosity in the room.
His immediate goal in our first conversation was to increase that percentage. Before talking about strategies to do that, however, I suggested that it sounded to me that his working relationship with the students was a serious source of stress. We started talking about a different way for him to think about his relationship with his students. Since force wasn’t working, something else was needed.
We talked about the possibility of simply discussing the problem with his students. It was risky of course; there was already some bad blood in the room, and there was always the chance that if he lowered his guard and spoke sincerely with them, one or more of them would use that moment to get even in some way.
He would have to walk a tightrope of maintaining his authority as a teacher while letting them know he was uncertain of how to proceed, but he wanted to try to change things, and that he wanted to hear their response. The trick would would be to keep the conversation constructive, and to give them the opportunity to tell him what they thought might work.
I told about him the approach I had developed and encouraged him to adapt as much ofit as he could to his own situation. He took the idea seriously. The next day he had an honest, soul-searching conversation with his classes. I intentionally did not sit in, since that would have changed the dynamic. He admitted that what they were doing together wasn’t working, and that he wanted to come up with a better way.
He began by telling them that he had given a lot of thought to the kind of homework he was assigning, and the way they were going over it. He wanted to try something new. Instead of going over homework in a whole class setting with him in charge of calling on people to answer the questions at the end of the chapter, he would have them discuss the homework in small study groups. If a student had summarized the reading in their journals, they would get a stamp. (I gave him a few to get started from the collection I had accumulated over the years.) The stamp from now on would mean that the student had done the work necessary to participate in the discussion.
If most people in a group did the reading and took notes, they would meet at the lab tables in the back of the room and go over the questions together. Those who hadn’t done the work would sit in and take notes. They were still expected to do the necessary work, but they wouldn’t get the stamp. Since they weren’t ready to participate and teach and learn from their study group, the homework simply wasn’t as valuable.
If only one or two students in a group did the work, they would go in back and form ad hoc study groups. Alan would create a separate study group of all the people who hadn’t completed it and go over it with them. They too could still do the reading and take notes later, but of course they wouldn’t get a stamp on their work.
He also came up with the idea of giving a short quiz at the end of that discussion that checked up on how well they understood the reading. Now discussing it together had an immediate effect on their grades.
The result was startling. The number of students completing the work jumped in the first week, and the students who didn’t do it were aware that the others were having a better time than they were and were clearly learning more and doing better on the quizzes.
After several weeks had gone by, I visited one of his classes on a day when homework was due. The change in the room was palpable. Alan had to stop the class while they were working in groups to point out how much better they were doing, and how effective the change had been. They clearly a sense of pride in their collective accomplishment. When we met after the class, he was very happy and excited. He said it felt as though a great weight had been lifted.
Within a month, most students were doing homework regularly, and the atmosphere in the room was dramatically improved. Most importantly, the students saw Alan as someone who wanted them to be successful, and no longer just another person telling them what to do.
"I strongly believe that I learned more in this class than I did in any other science class throughout my high school career. I was able to learn the material for what it actually was, rather than just memorizing the information to be able to spit it back out simply to get an A on a test. I also didn’t think I was ever fully aware of how much I was truly learning until the first semester exam rolled around. After discussing the test with other fellow physics students who had other teachers, they were stressed about how little they felt they knew on the test. I, on the other hand, felt much more prepared for the test and although my grade might not have been absolutely perfect, I felt confident while taking the test."
—Ella K., student