Hitting Reset

What if you could start the school year over again? What would you change?
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Editor's note: This blog was originally published on January 7, 2015. The suggestions it offers were adapted from a resource originally produced by Teach for America.

January is when most folks set out to quit smoking, save money and recommit to any number of worthwhile goals.

But for teachers, January is smack-dab in the middle of the same old (school) year. If you’re a teacher, chances are you think of August, not January, as the time for a fresh start. The thought of getting 30 youngsters to turn over a new leaf now—after nearly 20 habit-forming weeks—gives whole new meaning to the word resolution.

But what if you could start the school year over again? What would you change about your classroom? What’s stopping you from making those changes now?

During this time of year many teachers, especially early-career teachers, feel as if negative behaviors and patterns have settled in and become “the way it is” in their classes. These challenges interfere with student learning and undermine your ability to create a nurturing and inclusive classroom environment. Whether it’s constant and disruptive talking, low participation, lateness, meanness, bullying, cheating or inappropriate use of technology (you fill in the blank), these problems can make even the most creative and hardworking teacher feel exhausted, inept and ashamed.

You don’t need to feel that way. More importantly, your students are capable of more. Consider these steps, and resolve to a two-week turnaround of a negative pattern you see in your classroom:

  1. Commit to change. Sure, first impressions matter, but that doesn’t mean there’s no chance for reinvention—even if it’s the middle of the year. What is the price of not changing? Ignoring the big problems simply means you’ll continue to revisit the same issues daily. Believe in your students, and be strategic about changing your practice so that they can accomplish more in the second half of the school year.
  2. Name the problem. Identify the biggest behavior problem you are facing in your classes. Analyze the factors that are causing the problem, and reflect on your role.
    • What is the behavior I would like my students to stop? Why do I consider this behavior a problem?
    • When does this behavior happen? Who is involved? What is the student perspective?
    • Do students know my expectations? Did I give clear directions? What kind of feedback have I given students who were not following directions?
    • What are my own beliefs and assumptions about this problem? Have they changed?
    • Do I model the behavior I want to see? What are my expectations for myself, and have I been consistent in following through on them?
    • Do I trend toward positive reinforcement or negative reprimand? Do I highlight good behavior?
    • Have I invested as much as I could in building strong relationships with my students?
  3. Seek support. Analyzing the problem and coming up with solutions are hard. It’s important to ask for help and seek the support you need from those around you. What are the resources available to you? Who are the people in your school who handle these challenges well? Have you taken advantage of them? If not, why not?
  4. Teach expectations. While it may seem obvious, it’s important that classroom management and curriculum and instruction not be thought of as separate domains. You can teach, and reteach, behavior in the same focused and engaging way you have learned to teach multiplication. And you can involve students in that learning in the same culturally responsive way you do in other lessons. While they can be useful, relying merely on reactive interventions—talks and lectures, rewards and prizes, detention and loss of privileges—is often not enough. Plan and practice how you will authentically teach your expectations.
  5. Give your plan time to stick. Learning and unlearning behaviors take time. Once you adopt a new system, rule or practice, you and your students will need time to adjust and get the hang of things. Because they may have seen it happen in other classrooms, some students may expect you to give up on your efforts to make change, especially if they resist. Don’t make that mistake. Allow opportunities to explain, model and practice new systems. Give it at least two weeks.

Responsive and reflective teaching means that you are relentless in your efforts to make school welcoming and productive for all students. If behavior management or classroom culture issues are getting in the way of that, then addressing those issues must be a priority.

So, what will you do to turn around your classroom this new year?
Chiariello is an educational consultant who specializes in culturally responsive standards-based education.

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