Having been in the Colombian classroom in my brand new, fully real position as teacher for a grand total of two weeks now, I’m ready to give some pretty sound advice on the responsibility.
Teenagers aren’t super into the serious side of life. Whatever experience they do have with it, they don’t enjoy. So step one is to let yourself laugh. As often as possible. Exploding supernova high fives will always do the trick. Really bad acting or physical comedy usually goes over well. Mimicking your students when they are acting up in class will not only embarrass and quiet the rabble-rouser, but will cause outbursts of uncontrollable laughter from their classmates. When in doubt, do something embarrassing for you. You know, trip over a table, let your voice crack, accidently fling a marker across the room or test out your really bad Spanish accent on them. If you can’t teach them something new, at least make them laugh. Life isn’t as serious as we make it and the classroom shouldn’t be either.
Rule #2: Friends make better teachers.
This is an important one. You’re a whole human being, not just a teacher. The kids want to – no, crave to know this. Remind them that you’re one of them, just another being struggling along in this race we call life. Be vulnerable and tell them you got into that bike accident or that you’re nervous about that date you scored on Saturday. Tell them that your Spanish practice is going horribly and you need some help. You’ll not only relate to their journey with learning English, but you’ll learn some sweet Spanish phrases for future use. Lead subtly into asking them about their own lives. What’s the dating web look like in 11th grade? Worse than a Grey’s Anatomy plotline, I can guarantee that. What’s the dish on their classmates? You might find something out that can inform the fun-factor in your lesson planning. So, so-and-so has a weakness for that new Imagine Dragons song, huh? Guess what, kids! Music activity today! Never miss an opportunity to encourage expression. Who loves drawing? Ask them to make a poster for the next class. Who loves to sing? Karaoke. Who loves to write? It just so happens, that you have an in on a cool website that publishes poetry. Who loves history? Maybe it’s time you learned about it! In the end, just remember that they’re people, like you, craving acknowledgement; full of their own experiences and an entire complexity of emotions, trying to figure out where they fit in in this world. So take off your blazer, go grab that frisbee and join the circle. Save your free time for that hang sesh. It’ll be worth it.
Rule #3: When the teacher voice doesn’t work, remember how scary silence is.
Alright, so maybe you gave off the impression that you’re a little lax because you’re chill with the kids. Shouting over the mayhem is not going to tame the herds of rowdy teenagers. Provided you followed Rule #1 and Rule #2, however, you’ve got something else in your arsenal of management. No matter how much they might appear not to care about what you think, the kids think you’re cool and they want you to think they’re cool. So when they’re acting up and nothing you say seems to be making a difference, post up a good lean on the whiteboard and wear your best bored face. Let them know you don’t find them even a little amusing. Remember when you were little and you screwed up? When your parents pulled out the “I’m not mad, just disappointed” trick? It’s like that. When they realize that you’re mad at them, but that you aren’t going to acknowledge their disruptive behavior with attention, an inherent sense of unease will wash over them. Ashamed faces will still and an uncomfortable quiet will pass from one student to the next. All of this from a simple look and stance. It’s almost magical. When you’ve regained control of the classroom, remind them that you can still all have fun, as long as it’s beneficial for everyone involved – including you.
Rule #4: Have a fallback plan.
When it becomes obvious that you’re initial action plan sucks – change the plan. You’ve planned what you thought was the coolest, most interesting, most interactive class ever. Then you tried it in the classroom. Before you lies a sea of bored faces that are ready to switch to mayhem at a moment’s notice. Present a challenge. Your reading activity bombed, so turn it into a “prove yourself” activity. Whichever group finishes their comprehension questions first gets a mystery prize next class. Goading their competitive side is a “never-fail” solution. Bribes are even better. You wanted them to sing along to a song, but the activity ends in the sort of looks of disbelief and refusal that only the teenage face can pull off. Which half of the room can sing louder? Teenagers love an excuse to be unrestrictedly loud. Whatever it is, have an epic-factor at the ready. And if you find yourself without a good enough epic-factor, remember that you have plenty more classes to prove yourself. They won’t remember the one that bombed… forever.
Every time I enter the classroom is a brand new experiment and an opportunity for me to learn. What I’ve found so far is that you can’t fail if you care. If you believe your students are capable, then they are. If you believe that the material you’re teaching is helpful, then it is. If you believe that you are influencing an amazing new generation of people, then you are. If my students leave my classroom with nothing but a desire to discover more about themselves and express it, I’ve won. And so far, I think I’m winning.