This is how I felt after student teaching yesterday. My cooperating teacher was out, so the students were left with me and a substitute teacher. This was not a surprise or anything. She always tells me when she’ll be out way ahead of time. I “took over” the class a few weeks ago, so I was completely prepared and ready for class. Plus, we were finishing up our group presentations on essential feminists, so what could go wrong?
Well, a bunch of stuff.
My cooperating teacher comes to class with a laptop and iPad that connect to each other and to a ceiling projector. Since she was unavailable, I brought my own laptop with student videos downloaded. I feel pretty competent when it comes to computers and the class started off okay. We did a quick write on a quote by Virginia Woolf: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” The students wrote and then shared some of their answers. This is my favorite part because I get to hear their ideas and how they view the world they’re in right now, and the world from long ago. Some of the things that come out of their mouths are shockingly awesome; some others are just shocking. Either way, they seem to get engaged and like discussing their opinions. They also like arguing with each other and joking around. It’s super fun and I love it.
When we started the presentations, I realized that maybe I am not so competent with technology in this particular classroom. The audio wasn’t working, so the first group couldn’t play the video that I downloaded for them beforehand. I had no idea how to fix the audio and was unprepared for this type of situation. Two students came over to help me and we plugged in cords, unplugged cords, tried to use a microphone and place it next to the computer speaker, messed around with some more cords, and eventually gave up. But it was too late. I had lost them. During the audio struggle, they started talking and messing around. They teased each other, talked about their weekend plans, who knows what else they were talking about. As I tried to get their attention back, one student yelled out,
“Ms. M—, do you have a problem being assertive?”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“You know—is that a problem for you? Being assertive.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I felt like someone had stabbed me in the gut. The pain was physical, but I don’t think it showed on my face. Plus, the lights were off.
“Ask me after class,” I responded. I have no idea what I meant by that.
We pushed on through the presentations. Somehow the audio started to work again. In total, we were supposed to finish 8 presentations. We finished 3. They talked and joked around during presentations. They took out their phones. They reapplied their makeup. My cooperating teacher has a points system in her class for participation and overall behavior in the classroom. I started taking away points. 20 points here. 10 points there. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was so uncomfortable for me to ask someone to take out their points card and draw a line through the numbers written at the top of the page. I hate rules like these.
So I asked them at the end of class, “How old are most of you? 17? 18?” I wasn’t being condescending, but genuinely asking them.
They were 17, 18, one girl is 19.
“_______ asked me if I have a problem being assertive in the classroom. I don’t. I don’t have a problem being assertive, but I just didn’t expect things to be like this. When we come in here, I expect there to be mutual respect. You respect me, I respect you, we all respect each other. I think all of you are so smart and unique and capable. I tell my classmates all the time how lucky I feel to be here and work with all of you. But we can’t do anything if we can’t listen to each other. There’s no way. We just won’t be able to move forward. So that means I need your help.”
I asked them to take out a piece of paper and write down one thing they can work on and one thing that they think I need to work on. I put on my shield of confidence at the end as they left.
The truth is, I felt defeated. Part of the problem is that they don’t see any student teacher as a real teacher. One of the students told me before he left, “It’s not your fault, but it’s how everyone thinks. You won’t be here next semester and they think you aren’t really in charge because you’re still in school. It’s not fair, but that’s how they are.”
I read some of their responses:
“I think you could’ve done better if you yelled at us.”
“You’re doing fine.”
“Find some way to make the work more entertaining for us.”
“I think that you can be a little more aggressive. I don’t want you to be because you personally are very nice and a great person, but people don’t really listen … Give your instructions and it’s up to them if they want to do it.”
“Try to understand what we have to deal with if you were in our position.”
There was a range of, “You don’t need to do anything,” and “You need to give us fun activities,” and “You need to be more strict,” AND, “You need to be easy on us.” The feedback was interesting and a lot of them said they need to be more respectful of each other.
Honestly, I DO have a problem being assertive in the classroom. I have this idea that my classroom will be an open space where students can feel free to discuss all sorts of issues and then we will get down to writing. I’ll write with them and they’ll push themselves to become better and better writers. I hate punishments. I hate raising my voice. I hate making everyone raise their hands in order to quiet them down. I just want to create an environment that is safe for everyone to learn, but we can’t learn if we don’t treat each other with kindness and respect. So for now, I’m struggling a bit. I shed maybe two or three tears, but then I put this in my “learning experience” folder and shared it with some of my classmates. I think when I have my own classroom and students see me as a “real” teacher, these types of situations might go differently. For now, I need to practice a balance of assertiveness, creativity, and enthusiasm. How can I get them (at least a few of them) to jump on the bandwagon?