Challenges in Rookie Teaching: Facing Bad Behavior Head On

Eventually, it has to happen. One of your kids is going to break a rule, and you'll have no doubt in your mind that it was intentional and a direct challenge to your authority. No matter how fantastic your rules and how motivated most of your students are, one of them is going to push back to see how you react to it. After you deal with this probing, testing tendency of your students, you'll be well on your way to earning a reputation. The tougher you are on your first offenders, the less time you'll have to spend disciplining kids for the rest of the year — they'll already know exactly where your boundaries lie.

Winning the discipline war

Most rookie teachers wish that they didn't have to deal with discipline and (if they had a choice) would ignore inappropriate behavior. Confrontation causes tension, and you're trying to establish a supportive classroom atmosphere, so disciplining a student almost seems contrary to the goal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although discipline is by no means fun, it is an essential component of classroom management.

Kids in your room need to know that if they disrespect you or break a key rule, the consequences are going to be unpleasant. Therefore, you have to know how to effectively confront students when they step out of line. So, remember that even though the easy road may be to ignore bad behavior and hope things work out on their own, they never do. You're going to have to be the one to step in and take control of the situation.

Instead of viewing confrontation as something to dread, look at it as an opportunity. Keep in mind, though, that it's an opportunity you need to use wisely. Both you and the student (or group) you're chastising are going to be full of adrenaline and very keyed up as soon as you say something like, "John, your talking needs to stop right now." Will the kid get angry? Will he try to save face by being rude to you? You never really know. Many variables can play out in an infinite number of ways, so you want to be sure to approach the situation with a plan.

Adopting the three A's of confrontation

Coming up with a practical approach to student confrontation takes practice. You don't want to be a monster who is always on edge, waiting for a student to do something wrong so you can correct him, and you certainly don't want students who were disciplined in class to feel that you held a grudge after everything was said and done. However, you will want students to know that you are someone to be reckoned with if push comes to shove.

Three key practices will help you confront students when the need arises, the three A's of confrontation:

  • Anticipate behavioral problems. Always keep one ear to the ground to listen for oncoming trains. Behavioral problems rarely spring up unexpectedly and are usually the result of days or weeks of pent-up emotion. Listen to student conversations before and after class, whenever you can eavesdrop from your desk. Most students are very passive-aggressive if they don't like you, and they'll discuss their displeasure with a classmate when they know you can hear them.
    If you overhear a student say, "This assignment is really unfair," or "I don't care what she says, I'm going to the bathroom when class starts," that should raise red flags in your mind that confrontation is imminent. If you're careful about watching for the warning signs, you're less likely to be caught unprepared.
    If you suspect something, speak with that student individually, away from the rest of the class. If that's not possible, position yourself near that student's desk often during the lesson, so that you can keep an eye on him or her. Most of the time, if that student sees that you're suspicious, that's enough to stifle an in-class argument, allowing you to see that kid after class. Find out what the problem is and talk to the student honestly and openly.
  • Assert authority appropriately. When an important rule is broken, consequences must follow. However, the punishment must fit the crime. Remember that if you start out by shouting at the smallest infractions, you have nowhere to go — you can't up the ante. When you're in front of a class, try to let the students know exactly how you feel and make them respond to you rather than telling them specifically what to do. For example, rather than simply barking "Be quiet!" and turning purple in the face, instead say, "Folks, the room needs to quiet down because I'm really losing my patience with you today."
    Look at the big differences in those two approaches. The latter gives a valid warning before real confrontation occurs. It gives the students a chance to fix their own behavior before you fix it for them. Also, by explaining how you feel, you open myself up to them as a person and not simply a mindless authority figure. Furthermore, this second approach shows them some respect, because you're not automatically initiating confrontation. Before you start yelling, you're giving them a chance to avoid the entire unpleasant situation by changing their behavior.
    On some days, you'll be grumpy and tired, and on others, you'll to be chipper and full of excitement. Students need to understand that their actions must correlate with your mood; it's an important lesson in societal interaction, and you're missing the chance to make this connection with students if all you say is, "Shut up."
  • Align students as allies after the line has been crossed. Eventually, you're going to have your fill of nonsense, and your temper will flare. When this happens, don't be apologetic, and don't act as though you regret the temper flare. An angry teacher should make the classroom atmosphere darken as though clouds have moved in and blotted out the sun.
    However, after you've gotten the point across, you need to take a deep breath, back away from additional confrontation, and return to business as normal. Don't hold a grudge against students, whether an individual or an entire class. After they've witnessed the consequences of unacceptable behavior, they must be given the opportunity to behave correctly. Most kids would really rather not be on your bad side, so you must give them the opportunity to cross into the other camp and become your ally.

If you've done a good job confronting unacceptable behavior, things won't feel good right away. If the students respect you, they'll probably feel a little guilty, and the room will be quieter than usual. You may even feel bad if you were a little rough.

Too often, new teachers try to compensate for confrontation by joking around or acting apologetic. Don't make this mistake! If you were mad, you were mad. If you were sorely disappointed, the students should feel a little guilty! Let the rest of the class go by quietly, and don't speak any more on the issue. By the next day, class will be back to normal — but with one exception: The students have learned a valuable lesson about who's in charge and what you expect of them.

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