Aretha said Respect

When you observe a Cook Island class, there is an obvious difference in classroom management than what I’m used to in North America. The CI teachers are very direct with students. As I heard one teacher explain it, “you have to sit on them.”

James, our country coordinator, has also explained that for many parents, the attitude is that children should be seen but not heard.

Today Caleb wasn’t at school and we had set it up so that I’d introduce shooting video to his Grade 9 class. Joy of joys, I got 23 Grade 9s all to myself. Back in Saskatoon, Grade 10 is probably the most difficult grade to teach in high school. However, Titikaveka is a 7 to 12 school, so the Grade 9s aren’t the rookies they’d be in a 9 to 12 high school. They are old hands at being a pain in sensitive places.

I’d previously taught the same material to Grade 11 students and that went very well.

I had the 9s for a double period: 55 minutes, lunch, then another 55 minutes. During the first 55 minutes, I introduced them to the major concepts in videography.

So far, I’ve observed in a Cook Island classroom that the teachers ask general questions of the class and some of the kids will respond with an answer. I do things differently, including lots of checks for understanding. I ask the question, then select a student for an answer whether or not they have a hand up.

If they don’t know the answer I’ll get another student to help them, then ask the first student again. I’ll often ask someone else, “do you agree with that answer” or “can you explain it in different words” (I’d be more specific than that) and so on.

Cook Islands students are very unused to this kind of questioning and it makes them uncomfortable.

Back to the 9s. Only about a third of the class were focusing on the topic. Another third were tuned out. And the final third were more interested in talking to their friends or other such activity.

My response was to control it a bit, but to let the consequences work themselves out. They had an exercise to do and they needed to apply the concepts I was teaching. We would then show their work to the whole class and talk about what they did right and wrong. At which point, I would be fairly strong in showing the error of their ways. In theory, they would then focus on the assignment and basic concepts in their next exercises.

It was time for lunch. I suspect that the break gave them time to gear up for more deviousness.

After lunch, they dawdled forever getting to class once the drum (not bell) had sounded. Not a good start. I eventually got them all in the classroom, I reviewed the assignment and divided them up into groups of three. Immediately there was a problem. There were supposed to be 21 students. I only had 15. I was told that six students had already left the classroom!

It was, “let’s take advantage of the weird North American teacher” time. I sent the rest out to work on their assignment. I was then determined to find my miscreants. The principal was on the balcony and I explained the situation to her. She intimidated some students into giving up the names and then called the six bad girls over to the classroom. I went into my speech about how they had shown major disrespect to a guest at their school. I asked them what they should say, and they apologized. I sent them on their way to get the assignment done.

I asked the Principal what she thought of my discipline technique. She wasn’t impressed. She said that these kids needed a strong hand. She noted that some beginning expat teachers had been in tears because of the behaviour of the students and their inability to take a strong stand.

I went to check on my groups, and many of them were obviously doing nothing. I asked them to show me their work so far, and they had accomplished little.

Once they were back in the classroom, we showed the video they had shot. Not one of the seven groups had even begun to complete the assignment. Some of them had shot nothing. There were all sorts of excuses.

I felt I needed to redeem my classroom management skills. My attitude was both disappointment mixed with anger. I amped up my voice and mannerisms.I used “the look.” Anyone who’s gone to school in North America knows “the look”. The “look” means that all bovine excrement will cease hence forth or that a world of hurt would descend upon the offender.

My Grade 9s may not have experienced “the look” before, but they got it fairly quickly.

I framed what I was going to say. I told them that I was from North America and that I was used to a more casual style. I also informed them that even though I was low key, there was still the same line between what was and was not acceptable. I then escalated and told them that, although they didn’t mean to, they were showing a lot of disrespect to me and that I felt I didn’t deserve that attitude as a guest in their school.

At this point, of course, one of the girls was talking to her neighbour. I singled her out and asked her if she meant to show me disrespect. Nope. I continued, and of course there was another girl talking to a friend. Same message. It just took these two incidents and they were good as lambs. Since we had 10 minutes left before the bell, I let them use the computers. Again, they were quiet and well behaved. Before they left, I told them I expected the same behaviour the next day.

In some ways, it was too easy. My buddy Tyrone was in the computer lab doing his own work and had seen my performance. He was impressed. When we talked I learned that being singled out was very uncomfortable for a Cook Island student.

I have them another period tomorrow. I expect that the attitudes I developed will have dissipated and I’ll have to do some reinforcing.

But, it was a ton of fun. I have still got those old teacher skills. I can still keep bums in desks and make them pay attention.

If I was to work with these students in the long term, I would try to get them to a place where we could be more free and easy with each other but still get down to work when it was time. I would want them to respect me as another human being, but also appreciate how much I knew about the subject and how much I cared about them as individuals.

If you build a relationship with a student, classroom management becomes a whole different thing. If a student is out of line, you don’t discipline them. Instead you ask them what’s going on, how they were feeling. You find out important information that has nothing to do with their respect for you.

This isn’t easy to do with anything over 20 students, but boy is it great when it happens.

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