Reclaiming respect

May 1, 2019 -- Living City

Reclaiming respect
A high school teacher supports a colleague in managing his classroom

I am a high school math teacher at an urban public charter school in Boston. Whatever image just came to your mind with the words “urban public school” is close enough to accurately picture my daily milieu and its challenges.

I had noticed one of our English teachers was struggling to establish a routine in his classroom that allowed students to begin their work promptly. He had a particularly challenging group of students, and at a certain point, almost every day, he had to bring his entire class back out into the hallway to have them line up and try entering again.

Even though he already had a co-teacher in this class, that wasn’t enough to get the classroom norm that they wanted.

This was not a brand-new teacher, so I felt like my desire to support him, and to put love into practice had to come from a place of humility.

One day, as I talked to the teacher, I asked him if he had a sense of what the problem was. He replied that he did not. I listened as he described his daily frustration. Eventually, I asked if it would help if I came into the class for the first 5 to 10 minutes every day just to be another adult presence. He agreed that it was worth a try, although neither of us knew exactly how it would work.

We have a reward system at school where we give points to students when we catch them doing things well. It might seem insignificant, but even on that first day, students quickly picked up on it. I was standing at the front of the room, smiling and gesturing for silence (finger to lips), and giving them a thumbs up when they complied. Once in the classroom, I’d write their name on the board if they got right to work. Not everyone did it. But many more did than usual.  More students than usual stayed on task.

For the first few weeks, I assigned the points every day, but at a certain point, I realized that it would give their teacher much more credibility if he assigned points. So, I created a classroom group in our online portal that would make it easier for him to log in the points himself.

I was doing all this to benefit the students and their progress in this English class, but I also wanted this teacher to regain the confidence that he could execute his lessons from a place of respect and honor. My goal was to look like I had become the teacher’s aide for their very excellent English teacher.

The students saw me treat their teacher with respect, and in turn saw their teacher treating them with respect, because he was logging reward points for good behavior. I stayed in my colleague’s class every day for more than a month. Then, I came every other day. Then, less.

Finally, the teacher asked his co-teacher to do my job. When students thanked me, I was always careful to remind them that their teacher had a lot to offer them. I was happy they had taken back responsibility in their classroom so that they could learn from him.

- Julie James, Massachusetts


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