As you might imagine, teaching students in an alternative school, juvenile court school, or inner city school can be challenging. I have more than 8 years of experience working in these classrooms and have learned quite a bit about how to get students to work for me and not against me. As much as students in a regular classroom can take over the emotions and can cause chaos, student’s who have almost no buy-in to school and spend most of their time with no adult supervision outside of school have an ability that other students don’t. Teachers must use different strategies to connect and manage these classrooms.
One thing we must realize about many of these students is that they have been kicked out of class so often that sometimes they begin to prefer it to staying in class. They have lost hope for teachers to give them another chance. Also, if they get kicked out then nothing is expected from them and nothing has to change. They are more comfortable getting into trouble than they are of pushing through and finishing something that is difficult. My suggestions for changing this cycle aren’t always going to result in an inspirational movie ending, but having strategies to get through one lesson or day at a time can be helpful.
Classroom management strategy #1:
- Get the leader on your side
Teenagers all want love, acceptance, and the feeling of belonging. One of my students who was one of the hardest of gang members (is now on the most wanted list in San Diego and is certainly off in Mexico somewhere) had the best personality when he was in a good mood. He loved to write and was a skilled writer compared to the rest of the class. When he was present and participating the whole class followed his lead. When he decided to rebel and take over the class, the rest would follow. So I learned that to get the whole classes attention and focus, all my energy would be to figure out how to get Gerardo in a good mood. So I spent time to figure out what he liked to work on, what he was good at, and learned to communicate with him effectively. Did I ignore the rest of the students? No. Did I do it in a way that was obvious to him or the rest of the class? No, he had no idea that I was the one doing the manipulating. All I realized was that if HE listened, the whole class would, so I focused on learning how to get him to listen. Generally, if you find out the leader, in a class of gang members, the rest will follow whatever they do, so narrow your focus to the leader.
There were times where I pulled Gerardo out of class to negotiate with him. I would say, “Hey Gerardo, you know and I know that the other students follow your lead. We really need to get through this lesson and it would help me out if you would be the leader that you are and just push through so we can be done. Would you help me out?”
This conversation has a strategy.
- I gave him a compliment: I told him that he is the leader and all the other students follow him.
- I told him what needs to be done.
- And finally I asked him for help.
9 out of 10 times, Gerardo struts back into class, sits down, tells the other students to “shut up” and we get through it without any more hiccups.
Classroom management strategy #2:
- Whisper to the student that is causing problems and give them a way out.
ANYTIME you need to address a specific student, this is a strategy to try. (Remember that different strategies work on different kids. If I know a student is loud and brash I will use a different strategy than with a quiet student.) You will find variations that work but this is mine:
- If a student is causing problems blatantly, walk by without looking at them and tap on their desk or a variation of this. The idea is to get them to know that you are onto them. Try to be inconspicuous.
- If you must say something just keep it simple, “Gerardo, can I talk to you for a second?” You can either whisper it to them, gesture to them, or say it lightly by the door. Open the door and walk through and wait outside for them with the door propped open with your shoe. (remember: many of these students love confrontation and they are probably better at it than you. Don’t do it even though you want to.)
- If they come out immediately, they will most likely say something to puff up their pride as they walk out, just ignore them and don’t address what they said at all.
If they say seated and don’t come outside, peek in and say, “Hey, Gerardo, please, I need to talk to you for a minute.” or gesture again.
If they refuse to move, you have wasted precious class time and it is time to speed up the process. Walk over to their desk and get closer to them and say, “I need you to come outside or we will have to come up with another solution.” They might say, Mrs. Moody, I am doing my work at any point during this process. Say, Okay, but if it happens again, we will need to talk.
Classroom management strategy #3:
- Learn with them.
Give students opportunities to teach you something. Be interested in their lifestyle, their culture or history that they care about. When I first began to work in the Juvenile court schools, the students would always talk about Scarface and the movie American Me. I hated to admit that I had never seen either of them, but I did. I let them tell me about the movies and then I took the time over one weekend and watched them. It helped me to learn about their worldview and their goals.
I went even further, printed out some articles about Scarface and created an expository writing unit plan. (Note that I did not bring the movie in or even encourage those who hadn’t seen it to watch it. I even got approval from my principal to bring this topic into the classroom.) We discussed the themes of the movie, I taught them skills on how to read an article and pull out interesting quotes, and then we wrote a 3 paragraph essay on the article.
Using students’ interest to create lessons is the number 1 thing to do to create a class that is engaged and easy to manage. After that unit, I was able to get them to buy in better to the following, more English-content driven lessons since I proved to them that I cared about their interests.