Classroom Stories · Social Health

From Unbelievable to Unbelievable

In our school, we stay with the same class through the grades. I took over a third grade class three years ago. They had had a difficult few years prior to that, filled with changes and inconsistency. It appeared that my class was filled with dysfunctions! It was the most chaotic classroom I’d ever experienced.

Here are some of the things I witnessed in my classroom the first weeks of school that year:

Wrestling in the middle of class, ignoring me completely, yelling insults at one another across the room, screaming, running away, hiding in corners or under desks, lying on desks, hitting, slapping, kicking, punching, and pinching each other, arguing with me, arguing with each other, mocking, excluding, fighting over friends, and (as you can imagine) not much learning.

Unbelievable! I had my work cut out for me!

Thankfully, I knew what I had to do. Not all teachers are that lucky. I had spent years building strong class communities. I knew how to do it. I’d just never started with a class that was this far gone. As I mentioned in the last post, I could see that these were coping mechanisms; a way of reacting to the chaos and unpredictability that had been their school experience up to this point.

I knew that they needed consistent routines that didn’t waver and that they needed time to practice them until they became habit. I knew that they needed my love and understanding, but delivered through firmness and an unshakable commitment to our class agreements. I knew that once they understood my expectations, I had to hold them accountable. They had to know that I meant it when I said there was zero tolerance for hurting others. They knew they’d be sent home for the day if they so much as touched another person in anger or malice. A lot of kids went home that first month, testing out my commitment. The hitting stopped.

It was hard. I couldn’t crack a joke without them losing it completely.  I couldn’t deviate from any schedule or plan or they’d freak out. I had to be so strict. It wasn’t fun. It would have been much easier in the short run to give in every now and then, let down my guard and allow things slide once in a while, but luckily I knew better. I had to stay strong so they could trust that it was safe to let down their own guards and express their true natures.

Their stamina for listening to one another without side conversations and interruptions gradually went from less than a minute to 10 minutes, to 25 minutes. With practice, their responsiveness to my class signal for their attention went from non-existent to immediate. They began to let down their guard. By the end of the year, they were working together, working with me, and working hard for themselves.

Fast forward to fourth grade, same class: They began the year bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, happy to be together again and eager to learn. It was a so gratifying to see our hard work pay off and stick! They grew in their social and academic skills that year by leaps and bounds.

Fast forward to fifth grade, our current year, same class: The class is so connected, healthy, and engaged. Every substitute teacher marvels at their responsibility and kindness. They are admired by the students and teachers in other classes for their independence, initiative, cohesion, and respect for each other and the school. They LOVE each other and coming to school! They are doing outstanding work, consistently pushing the limits of what they can do and striving toward their personal best. They trust one another enough to be vulnerable and open; to be fully themselves. They know that each one has their quirks and oddities, and also that each one has amazing gifts that they love and admire.

It is truly an absolute joy to be with them every day.  Unbelievable!

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