There are difficult classes and then there are really difficult classes. A difficult class is one where things don't always go as planned. Students may get a little loud. They don't do their homework consistently. Sometimes they are distracted and bored or off task. A difficult class won't cause you to toss and turn all night long. There is usually a reasonable fix--a tweak here or there solution
On the other hand, the really difficult class is exhausting, time-consuming, and stressful. It's the class where you are so busy trying to contain the chaos that you have difficulty just checking attendance. It's the one that makes you want to explore other careers. It's the one that you mentally replay over and over on the way home from school. If you have one of these really difficult classes this year, you are not alone.
You are also not without resources. You can deal successfully with this type of class. I should know. I have had enough really difficult classes in the course of my long career to develop some expertise in dealing with them. Here's what works for me:
- Own the problem. If you accept responsibility for what happens in your class, then you can start making efforts to improve the situation. Blaming students or anyone else only wastes time that could be spent creating productive solutions. Thinking of this as a solvable set of problems can move you forward.
- Identify the trouble-causing issues in the class. Is the noise level too loud? Is there a problem with students being off task? Is the start of class the problem? Transitions? The end of class? Not enough materials? No social skills? There is rarely just one reason for a class to be really difficult.
- Make it easy for students to behave well. Look hard at the procedures, policies, rules, and expectations that you have for this class. Do your students know exactly what is expected of them? When you are trying to manage a really difficult class, you must explicitly spell out the information that they need to know.
- Be ruthlessly consistent. If you say it, enforce it. Think through what you expect from your students, tell them what you want, and then mean what you say.
- Be patient. If you work steadily at chipping away at rude or unproductive behaviors, sooner or later things will change. Dealing with a really difficult class will take time.
- Attack the problem from as many sides as you can. Involve parents and administrators, reward good behavior, have negative consequences for bad behavior, allow for short attention spans...there is no one single approach that will solve the problems in a really difficult class.
- Work on the relationship you have with your students. Smile at your class. If you were videotaped while teaching, would your body language reveal positive or negative feelings about your students?
- Keep the expectations for your class high. Students live up to the expectations of the adults in their lives, so let them know that you expect a lot from them.
- From the first class meeting onward, establish that you control the class. Demonstrate that you will oversee the behavior in your classroom for the good of all students.
- Work on the noise level every day until your students learn to govern themselves. Teach students which volumes are acceptable and which are not. Establish signals to help students learn to control the noise.
- Stay on your feet and monitor. Students who know that you are watching over them will hesitate before misbehaving.
- It seems simplistic, but tell your students that you expect them to do their work well and that you will help them learn to do it. Be clear that you are on their side.
- Offer incentives other than grades. Students who have never received a good grade may not be motivated by grades. Offer small, frequent, rewards instead, such as stickers, computer time, or bookmarks.
- Praise good behavior as often as you can. Difficult students do not always know when they are behaving well. When you praise your class for good behavior, you are encouraging all of your students to repeat the behavior.
- Don’t allow students to argue with you. Be polite, but clear that you are the person responsible for the well-being of all students in the class.
- Acknowledge the rights of individuals in your class. Showing students that you are fair will ease many sensitive situations.
- Students who do not believe they can succeed have no reason to try. Teachers who achieve success with difficult classes turn the negative energy in a class into a positive force by persistently communicating their faith in their students’ ability to achieve.