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What it took for me to start listening to my “difficult” students

On my first day of teaching English as a second language at a small public middle school in the South Bronx, I got lost trying to navigate the halls teeming with students of all ages.  At the time, five other schools occupied the building, and by the time I arrived at the room where I would teach my first class of sixth graders, the students were lined up and ready to start.

I shuffled through the keys to the six other classrooms I was assigned to teach in, juggling the plans and worksheets for my three other preps, and managing my own anxiety. Nyima, a student who stood separate from the others, side-eyed me. I felt as if she was asking, “Are you really my teacher?”

With only six weeks of training through the city’s Teaching Fellows program, I was asking myself the very same question.

It wasn’t until several months into the school year — after my relationship with Nyima had soured and she been suspended multiple times — that I began to recognize the role that inexperienced teachers like me could play in pushing students out of classrooms rather than finding ways to keep them in.

Clinging to control 

That first day in the hallway, I finally found the right key, let myself in, and introduced myself in both Spanish and English, assuming that I would reach every student that way. My speech patterned by deep breaths, I recognized Nyima in the back, anxious, staring with confusion as I rambled on.

She clearly did not understand Spanish, and, I later realized, was the only non-Spanish speaker in the room.

When I asked each of my students to share their names, Nyima was the only one who refused. The 21 strange new faces stared at her. We were both frozen. It was our first standoff.

Trying to implement the only classroom management skills I knew, I pushed Nyima to share.

I wanted her to recognize me as her teacher and to follow my directions.  I wanted the other students to quiet their whispers and understand my expectations. I had been told during training that my students should not be able to “opt out” because that would be “coddling” them.

She refused to participate that day. And she refused to participate for the first three weeks after that. Nyima thought that I was being unfair, and she did not want to take part in my class because of it.

Nyima’s vow of silence ended when she began defending herself against assumptions her peers made based on her hijab and her name.

I made efforts to draw her out by reiterating my expectations for participation, complimenting her on half-completed assignments, and placing brightly colored post-it notes on her desk. I attempted to find translation materials in her home language (Soninke). Most of these attempts at building a relationship resulted in Nyima sucking her teeth loudly or slamming the classroom door.

My responsibility to 67 other students across five grade levels with their own complex needs and skillsets made reaching out to Nyima in those moments particularly difficult.

Alongside the language barrier, I was not trained in how to read her Individual Education Plan, the document that outlines her learning disability and how to accommodate her needs. As a result, I was unable to offer her proper accommodations for her learning disability, such as offering extended time on assignments and reading aloud directions.

I was ineffective, stressed, and frantic. Constantly. Nyima participated less and less and became more and more tense when entering my room. Some days she would spend the majority of the period locked in the girls room. At times, that felt like a relief.

Lacking other models

During my first year teaching, I was also taking a class toward a master’s degree in the evening. Most of my classmates were also going through an alternative certification program, and most of them, like me, were middle-class, native English speakers unfamiliar with the neighborhoods where they were offered their first jobs.

We all seemed to have at least one “Nyima” — a student we characterized by lack of engagement, refusal to participate, and egregious disrespect. We spoke about how we “tried everything,” and how we had to “write them up” or “kick them out” to maintain any kind of respect in our chaotic classrooms.

To us, it looked like students like Nyima were causing the chaos in our classrooms. Our lack of training in positive behavior interventions — alternatives to asking students to leave the room, writing them referrals, and sending them to a disciplinarian office — made it very difficult for us to imagine taking a different approach to students like Nyima.

By December, Nyima’s folder was filled with dozens of half-completed worksheets and ripped loose-leaf papers.

Not surprisingly, many of Nyima’s teachers were — like me — first-year teachers who were enrolled in alternative certification programs. We filled Nyima’s personal record with a laundry list of write-ups: “derogatory” remarks to other students, constant physical altercations, “lying,” and inability to comport herself in a classroom.  Her record did not include any traces of successful strategies or interventions.

After accumulating referrals and threatening another student in the bathroom, Nyima received a superintendent’s suspension. During her time at the suspension site, she missed three weeks of the preparation for her state exam and the exit exam for ESL.

Restoring a relationship

At about the time Nyima was suspended, I started attending meetings with a group called Teachers Unite, an organization that works to dismantle punitive discipline policies in schools. Talking to teachers about their efforts to build supportive communities in their schools made me look at my classroom and my master’s classes with a new lens.

I began to see the connection between our so-called “impossible” students and our lack of experience teaching and exposure to varied pedagogical and classroom management strategies.

Working with the experienced educators in Teachers Unite, I learned new discipline models that gave me and my students the chance to communicate our needs and the ways we felt they had not been met.

I held conferences instead of writing up detentions and (when I was able to) facilitated mediations instead of calling the deans. If I listened closely during these moments, I began to hear what my students were saying: how I hadn’t been mindful, how I hadn’t recognized certain requests, and what I could do to restore our relationship moving forward.

During one of our conferences, Nyima told me that I “never heard what the other girls said” during class, that I always unfairly asked her to leave the room, and that I “never helped.” She admitted to feeling this way in some of her other classes and with her peers as well.

This is how I was able to begin transforming my practice. And while it’s an ongoing process, this year has felt like a different job.

For one thing, my relationship with Nyima is no longer defined by discipline. She frequently rushes to my classroom after school with her best friend Deana to hang out while she does make-up work. She helps me set up the desks and asks when she can take on more classroom jobs. Sometimes we get to talk about music, her desire to be a doctor, and the responsibility she has at home of caring for her four baby brothers and sisters.

I don’t think that alternatively certified teachers are necessarily fated to push students like Nyima out of the classroom. But I do think we need to be aware of the limitations of our alternative certification programs, and we need to seek additional training to help us understand the ways our own limitations can lead students to feel like they don’t belong at school.

In my case, moving outside of the Fellows program took the form of finding a new community of teachers and a new way of thinking about what it takes to meet each student’s needs. For others it may look different. However we get there, students need new teachers to take the time to find fairer, more comprehensive, and effective models to engage them.

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.