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As a NYC Teaching Fellow I attend graduate school simultaneously with being bombarded and overwhelmed with the daily responsibilities of teaching itself. In my first year of teaching, I had a group of students who presented extremely challenging behaviors, and I often found myself losing my self-control and becoming angry. There was one day in my first month when I began yelling, and I felt as though I never really stopped yelling thereafter for that year. (I liken that moment in September to the moment in J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” when the magistrate is swung through the air in a noose, bellowing for mercy, and he is made to know the “meaning of humanity.”)

So when one my graduate classes was a seminar on action research, it was a no-brainer for me to focus my research on the concept of self-control — both for myself and for my students. My idea was, if I could identify what methods and strategies of self-control would work for me in the face of a constant barrage of tantrums, cursing, personal insults, and other forms of misplaced aggression, then I would be able to not only model self-control for my students, but be able to explicitly teach it to them. (You can view my research here; the actual research itself isn’t very useful, but if you are interested in the concept of self-control, you might find the literature review of value.)

One of the interesting things that I have found is that the more I build and cultivate my own self-awareness regarding my self-regulation of emotion, the less that student behaviors present a challenge. In other words, when I really listen to my students and to myself and look beyond and through their behavior, I discover that what is really going on is that they are trying to teach me about what it is that they need.

Perhaps that sounds fairly self-evident to you, dear reader, but let me tell you, when one is not trained professionally in the art of therapy, it can be extremely daunting when you are faced with a classroom of students who live daily lives exposed to extreme levels of stress. To see through the surface behavior and into the child is not as easy as it seems. It might be easy if you were sitting with that child in a clinical setting, observing and analyzing them. But in a classroom, you don’t have that luxury of distance. You are confronted, nearly every single moment, with the challenge of a student who needs far more than you often yet know how to handle.

So I have become slightly more adept at being a good listener. When a student is demanding my attention, even if that demand comes in the form of an insult to me or a chair thrown across the room, I try to find a way to give it to him or her. At the beginning of this school year, I found time to sit with students and talk to them until they were calm and understood how their emotions caused them to behave. And in the process, I discovered that the very process that I walked them through was the process that I needed to walk through within myself in order to truly teach and care for them. There was no other way. Otherwise, I would have been pretending. I would have just gone through the motions. And they would have chipped off and away like an iceberg out into the sea, and they would have been lost.

In general education classrooms, teachers can mostly get away with authoritarian methods. They can beat students down until they do what they are told. In self-contained classrooms and residential treatment classrooms, however, once you have lost that trust and respect with a student by telling them — in one way or another — that your agenda is more important than what they are feeling, it’s gone. You may not ever be able to win them back.

There are times, of course, when I simply just do not know how to help a student. Some of their behaviors can be extremely challenging, and when you have a classroom full of students with divergent needs, sometimes you can’t address all of their personal crises. It’s just not possible. But those moments when I am able to help them and guide them through the storm, it’s truly a beautiful feeling.

Let me conclude this with a specific anecdote of when such a moment occurred. One of my students — we’ll call him Bob — is a pretty smart kid, but he has exceptional learning needs in addition to still acquiring the language of English, as he has been back and forth between another country and this one. He is therefore extremely far behind academically. He is well aware of his deficiency (though he would never admit to it) and will give up when faced with nearly any academic task.

I was trying to teach my students how to play a game that came with our city curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, a curriculum that is really just not suited for special education at all, let alone anyone who struggles with mathematical concepts. The game involved finding factors. I had taught all my students how to find factors by building rectangular arrays, and all students could do it successfully to varying degrees (some require manipulatives, some don’t, some know their multiplication well enough to do it in their head). But when I began trying to show them how to play the game, they all began acting out in various ways, either by saying something like “this is boring,” or “this is work, this isn’t a game!,” talking, drawing, or in Bob’s case, by pulling his chair away and sitting in a corner. So I gave up in frustration, assuming that they were not listening nor trying, and told them to continue onto another page in their math journals. Bob was obviously upset, so I called him over to my desk and sat with him.

At first, I was still upset because none of my students had even tried to perform the game. But as I talked to Bob, I learned that he felt that he was stupid and couldn’t possibly play the game.

“But, Bob, you can do it!” I protested. He disagreed. I told him to go get his slate and I went and got the manipulatives. We built rectangular arrays together, and listed factors on his slate, and he realized that he knew very well how to find factors. So we played a couple rounds of the game, and suddenly he was brimming with excitement. “Hey, this is fun!” he exclaimed. Together, we came back over to the class and Bob taught the class how to play the game.

The problem had not been that my students weren’t listening or weren’t trying. I just wasn’t teaching it well. So to them, it was another time in school that they were being made to feel stupid because they didn’t get it. The excitement from Bob was infectious. He had learned that he could do something that even all the rest of the class felt they couldn’t do! The most excited person in the room, however, was not Bob. It was me. Just as I tell my students over and over again, I learned that I can’t give up, even when I get frustrated. I just need to listen to what my students are telling me and find a better way to teach it to them.

That’s what I call a victory.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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