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The Kids Who Make You Cry

Every teacher has them. And some even know what to do.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Your experienced colleague across the hall may not know Bobby, the kid who hides under his desk during reading hour, but she knows what to do about him. After 36 years in the classroom, teachers like Missouri's Peg Scholl have seen it all—and handled it, too. Dave Foley, a retiree from Michigan with 29 years of experience, wrote the book (literally) on discipline—with chapters that you might appreciate, like, "Using the Stay-After-Class Threat Effectively," or "Using Peer Pressure to Improve Behavior." And many others serve as trainers for NEA's I Can Do It! classroom management program for new teachers. Read on for their helpful strategies:

The Music Man

When you invite students to open their books, The Music Man shakes his head wildly. (This is not his opinion of Macbeth!) He's listening to his iPod only. "This is a confrontation that's begging to be had," says California teacher Jim Burke, author of The Teacher's Essential Guide Series: Classroom Management. "The new teacher thinks, 'Oh, I don't want to stir the waters already!' and says, 'I'll let you slide today.'"

Mistake! "The experienced teacher takes it off the table by taking it off the table right away," Burke says. "And you've got to be consistent. If it's Friday afternoon and the kids are taking a test, and the first kid done says, 'Can I listen to my iPod?' If you answer yes, it's a progressive loss of territory.... You don't have to be a jerk. Just say, 'I have to be clear. This is school policy.'" And always follow school policy. To do otherwise puts you at risk for discipline, he adds.

The Short Fuse

Even more experienced teachers are overwhelmed with growing numbers of students who just seem angrier than ever. What's the deal? There always have been kids with issues, but maybe more lack support, says veteran Vermont teacher and I Can Do It! trainer Kathy Buley. Frequently, those kids simply need to know that somebody is paying attention—and that's you.

Try to commit to two minutes at the beginning of each class to touch base with the often-angry student, Buley suggests. "Prime the pump for the day—ask 'How is the day going to go today?'" To her second-graders, Buley says, "Did you have breakfast? Was everybody nice at the bus stop?" For older kids, you could ask, "How has your day been?"

Pay attention to the things that make them unique. "When you can talk to them about the fact that they go to the skate park every weekend, you're modeling that they're not a paper cutout."

The Kid with the Hungry Dog

A majority of veteran teachers say at least 80 percent of their kids do homework, but just 37 percent of new folks say the same, according to the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. And it doesn't stop there: The vets also say they know their assignments are interesting, and they're much more likely to use them in class discussions.

"One of the things you find is, nobody likes busywork," Burke says. So, if you're one who assigns homework out of a sense of duty and collects it without comment, you won't get much. "But, if you say, 'I want you to go home and do this because we'll need it tomorrow,' then they'll do it."

Burke also asks students to jot down how much time an assignment took. They're much more likely to take on shorter work, especially if they have other responsibilities— jobs, babysitting duties, etc. One of Burke's math colleagues halved her homework problems from 10 to 5 and found that the completion rate skyrocketed.

The Attention-Starved Child

This is the child who cleaves to your body like a workout top. She circles you on the playground like an adoring moon. Hold my hand! Talk to me! Pleeease! "I have a girl this year who'll act like she doesn't know an answer—just to get my attention!" recounts Peg Scholl. "If I ask somebody else a question, she'll answer. She'll just blurt out, blurt out, blurt out."

Scholl cut the barrage with a card taped to her student's desk and instructions to mark it every time she talked out. They set a goal (without a reward) and it was met.

Interestingly, many experienced teachers don't regularly reward kids for good behavior. "When I do use rewards, they're random, unexpected, and unannounced" like, "Man, everybody got their work done! Let's play mental tic-tac-toe!" says Kate Ortiz, an Iowa middle school teacher and I Can Do It! trainer. "If you do give a reward, you have to be very specific about why you're giving it."

The Time Gobblers

If you're a secondary school teacher with a 45-minute period, you know every click counts. So, what to do with kids whose delay tactics include skipping in late, fiddling with their books, and then moseying out of their seats?

"Having lots of established procedures is key," says Kate Ortiz. "When the bell rings, everything but [class] materials must be stowed, and there's an assignment on the overhead...usually three or four review questions and it's very effective because it's graded."

Ortiz also writes every name on a clipboard and walks around, tallying misbehavior. They have 10 "self-starting points" a week and they do figure into final grades.

And, for those kids who pack up early? Dave Foley, author of the Ultimate Classroom Control Handbook, has a neat trick. With a few minutes left, close the door. Firmly. And say, "We really need to finish this lesson....I'll close the door so you won't be distracted by people passing in the halls." Aaagh! That's prime socializing time! "The core thing is, find out what they don't want to happen and make it a possibility."

Your Student, Your Friend

Ah! A trick question! They're not your friends. "A lot of young teachers want to be everybody's friend—and their kids will walk all over them!" warns Scholl. You need to create "an adult professional persona," Burke says. It may even require a new voice—one with greater presence. Basically, be an adult—although not necessarily a scary one.

"Everybody who stays in the game likes kids," says Foley. And you can use that to your advantage. If you're the good guy, who jokes with kids in the cafeteria and offers the occasional outdoor class, then the kid who ruins it is the bad guy, Foley points out. "Is teaching a popularity contest? You bet it is. Think back…was there a time you worked harder in a class because you liked the teacher? Did you behave better, too?"

This article was originally published in September 2008.

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