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September 4, 2014 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Can this class be saved?

Hey y'all,

So I just (as in, yesterday) began a new part-time teaching job at a small college, which is great news. However, I am already encountering lots of challenges with this position. They are, in a nutshell:
1) The class meets three times a week, for 1 hr and 40 minutes. This is much longer than I have ever taught before. I'm realizing I'm going to have to plan a lot more than I have in the past.
2) The class is remedial writing at a school that is newly 4-year after historically being 2-year. My first day yesterday was ... a mixed bag. There was definitely a lot of texting until I had to yell at them a little to stop. There was even a kid who was like, "why do I have to type my homework? I don't want to" to which I responded something like, "Because you are in college now and we type things when we turn them in. Also because I am your professor and I make the rules. Such chutzpah!
3) There are also some ELL kids mixed in to this class, and they seem bright but terrified and unsure. They definitely should be in a separate class, but the school just isn't equipped for that. I have some ELL teaching experience, but this is a whole different thing.

This is only my second year as a teacher, and first to remedial-level kids. I have always grappled with anxiety and am not great at being strict and scary. I did make my policies clear yesterday and (I think) I handled yesterday's challenges fairly well, without becoming too rattled. I'm not planning to welsh on any of my rules anytime soon. I am working really hard to improve my confidence at being in front of a room of people, but I'm going to have to step it up to solidify my authority over this bunch. People say "Be confident and act like you're in charge!" but practically, I'm not always sure how to do that, especially when that's not my natural inclination. I already feel like I am working hard to be tougher than I feel but it clearly isn't enough yet. Any tips for dealing with these particular challenges and making it go a little more smoothly when I go back in there tomorrow? Save the class while I still have a chance? (I've looked through some old threads and they were helpful but would still appreciate advice for my particular situation.)

Thank you! Y'all are the best.
posted by bookgirl18 to Education (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Do not underestimate the power of kicking an unruly student out. Remember that they are paying for you to teach them. If they clearly don't want to be there, make them leave; it is literally their loss. Involve Security if needs be. I have their number on my phone at all times just in case.
posted by chainsofreedom at 8:06 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just some ideas:
--For a 1:40 class (in a single period? Whew!), definitely have a break in the middle-- possibly two breaks, depending on their attention spans. Maybe schedule a predictable sequence of activities in ~20-30-min time blocks (lecture/overview: 20min, then break, then small-group reinforcement activity: 30min, then break, then individual writing activity: 15 min. Or whatever). That'll help with the planning, as well, since you'll have a framework already set for you each day.

-- For discipline, try to extend your physical presence over as much of the classroom as possible (by pacing, moving from group to group, instructing from different places, etc.) Simply walking up to a troublesome student in the back and glaring at them can sometimes help. Don't let the periphery of the room form its own little autonomous space, separate from you.

-- Likewise, if you can get the students moving over the course of the class, it can help unsettle any little cliques or pockets of resistance. Don't ever let them pick their own small groups or partners; randomly assign those each class. Don't let them pick their own seats every single day; invent ways to reshuffle them. Etc.

-- Feel free to invoke the unstated norms of gainfully-employed adulthood, if you need backup for your rules. They type the homework because it saves other people the trouble of reading their handwriting, and employers will want them to know how to word-process. They sit quietly and don't text because nobody in a professional environment will put up with with distraction and hijinks. This is their chance to start to practice an employable demeanor, and you're there to help them with that. If they don't ultimately want jobs, why are they paying for this education?
posted by gallusgallus at 8:20 AM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Also, from a lesson-planning/time-filling standpoint, workshopping and/or homework coaching in class is a powerful teaching tool and tends (ime) to be well-received by students, assuming you can keep those troublesome few from goofing off and spoiling the atmosphere. If you have an assignment you want them to do, consider having them start it in class, where you can give feedback in real time. Maybe make the first small increment due at the end of class, for a grade, to give the whole thing some real stakes and prevent minds from wandering.
posted by gallusgallus at 8:25 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Peer critiques. Lots of peer critiques; try different formats and see what works, from having teams of them reading one person's work (or a piece you give them) to one-on-one coaching on "drafts" against a written assignment to get the feeling of helping each other get the best grade they can. You can and should still articulate the standards/rubrics for them ahead of time, but that'll help you to get yourself out of the position of sole arbiter of their work and authority over their persons (so that it's an individual power game to see what they can get away with and what you'll call them on) and get them working toward the realization that there are relatively objective standards for written work against which they should be able to judge both their own and others' success.
posted by RogerB at 8:30 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would probably check in with the "why do I have to type my homework? I don't want to" kid privately, in case he was asking because he can't afford a computer and/or has limited access to one. He could be using bravado to mask poverty, and may need help just to do the same work as his peers. Understanding that - and getting him that help (whether yours or the campus facilities coordinator's)- could take him off the list of potential class disrupters.
posted by Mchelly at 9:03 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make use of your school's support services and resources, too. Sometimes library, tutoring, and IT folks make themselves available to come in and talk to classes about what their departments offer or even provide hands-on orientations.
posted by tully_monster at 9:12 AM on September 4, 2014

You don't have to be "strict and scary". You just have to be consistent.

You have class policies. You have reasons why those policies make the most sense (you do, right?). You tell the students the policies and--this is important!--you don't attempt to appease or negotiate. So when a student whines, "Why do we have to type this assignment?" The answer is, "That's the acceptable format for papers in this class." Move on.

That is decidedly different from students asking a question about content they don't understand. The first is an attempt to move the goal lines, and you have to be the one to establish boundaries.

Okay, so you may be cringing, thinking that makes you the Mean Teacher. What if a student has a legitimate issue? Financial hardships, family problems. Aren't you allowed to empathize?

Absolutely, and I think you deal with that by including in your class policies something like: Students having difficulty completing a specific assignment on schedule should meet with the teacher outside of classroom hours to discuss the situation.

And you can then discuss it with them during office hours (or after class, etc.). This will help you immeasurably, as while most students will text or email at the drop of a hat, actually going to your office is a big enough deal that they are less likely to abuse that avenue of communication.
posted by misha at 9:57 AM on September 4, 2014

Things that I always asked students in any teaching situation is: Why are you here? Why are you taking this class? What are you hoping to get out of this class? What are your goals for this class? What grade are you willing to work for? What are your future goals (education, career, etc.)?

You can do this as a single page in-class writing assignment (best because then you have a record of what your students' goals are) and/or you can schedule a time to meet with each student one on one during office hours (for a grade, of course, to ensure that they show up) and talk to them about this. Letting students know that you see them as individuals is, I think, important.

Also: If tough and scary is not your bag, that's fine. Let your grading pen do your tough talking for you and aim instead for respect. One of my favorite college professors chose to forgo the tough/scary thing and used to insist instead on mutual respect in the classroom. She explained on day one that she was appropriately called "Professor [her last name]" and she always referred to her students as "Miss/Ms./Mrs. [last name]" and "Mr. [last name]."
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 11:28 AM on September 4, 2014

Besides the other great advice, you might want to look at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums (you'll need to create an account, they're free, many people there use pseudonyms and avoid direct references to their place of work/identifying data.)

Anyway, the forums have some great threads about classroom management, managing a range of backgrounds/skill levels, dealing with remedial writing, etc.

In terms of managing the session (I'm a librarian, so I rarely get to work with the same class on a consistent basis), I usually start with "Ok, here's what I see as the goals for today." that help people understand what I want to get done, and that gives me a chance to explain why we're doing those things. ("I want to teach you how to find things on our website, show you how to use the databases to find articles for your assignment, and then we'll have time for X and Y at the end.")

Once you've done that, it's a *lot* easier to say "Hey, can we save that for a later class where we'll focus on it?" or "Hey, that thing you're doing is getting in the way of [class focus]." and you should get more buy-in from the other students for getting back on track.
posted by modernhypatia at 11:41 AM on September 4, 2014

As a student with a learning difficulty I think I might be able to help here!

I personally think that even if you were the world's greatest teacher, remdial writing is going to be a hard sell to students; sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers and forced to study something you find hard, feel embarrassed about, resentful of and may have had a lifetime of trying to hide is likely to be torture for many of your students.

While I think the advice about standards and discipline is a good foundation a lot of your success is going to be based on the softer skills you can bring to the table in creating the right mood, atmosphere and encouraging cooperation and support between you, your students and the class more generally.

Given the situation I'd try and approach the time you spend together from your student's perspective; and tailor your approach to in light of the above, and go into this engaged with not only chalk and talk, but the aim of building relationships, boosting confidence, explaining issues, exploring problems and working with your students to unlock their potential.

While you might be frightened of your students chances are they're more frightened of you, so don't blow it and be on the defensive, but be open to them, show your interest, your humanity, your commitment and that you want to work with them individually and as a group, and they will naturally open up to you.

As a new teacher I can't stress how important it will be for you to get help, advice and support from colleagues and be open to new things and new approaches in your teaching and while I think the learning curve will likely be steep, get it right and you'll be set forever!

As far as practical advice is concerned, The one thing to be aware of at this stage of your relationship and in this sort of environment too is the amount of embarrassment your students will likely have, so while group work and review is a good idea you'll need to lay the groundwork first, so build in activities to get to know you, your students and each other and build positive rapport before you try any sort of group work or pubic critique.

The other issue as a student with a learning issue I'd tend to find myself pretty lost in a class that lasted that long. Is there any chance of maybe making the structure of the session clearer to your students, explaining the overall outcome of the session, and the individual chunks of the session, including any breaks etc so that I knew what I was supposed to be doing, what was coming next, and when the next break or change would be a big thing for me.

I hope you don't read this as patronizing or take this as any sort of implied criticism. I think you're amazing for doing this and going to be great! I'm happy to chat via message or email too, if that's helpful, so if you could use a springboard let me know!
posted by Middlemarch at 11:46 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

You've got some great advice here.

I often teach a beginning/remedial writing course that's 1 hr and 30 minutes. What's helpful for me in planning is to think of that class as three distinct 'blocks.' So, I might begin by teaching a concept for the first half hour, then shifting towards group practice/activity for the second half hour, and then for the remaining time have them present their ideas to get class feedback. With this much time, I definitely use class as an opportunity to workshop and practice. If they have to write a paper, then we go to the library sometimes and learn how to use the resources there. We do a lot of peer-editing.

My class works in groups at least once a week, and I switch those groups around often so that you don't have people just working with their friends or being disruptive. I second the advice above about actively monitoring everyone and walking around. You want to be a constant presence in the classroom.

I also agree that it's fine to ask someone to step out if they aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing. I explain it like this: we are all here to learn, and when someone is disrupting their own learning or someone else's, they need to leave so that the learning can continue. If you come to class without the assigned paper draft and we are workshopping that day, then I will ask you to leave because you cannot do the work we are here to do. If you're on your phone, I'll ask you to put it away once, and after that I will (politely and non-confrontationally) ask you to leave. It's not about being Mean Teacher. It's about establishing an environment where everyone can learn.

My teaching style is not particularly authoritarian. I am not one of those teachers who never smiles, and I totally understand what you mean about people urging you to be in charge and you feeling like that's difficult. I think it's helpful to think about teachers you have had who have styles you can emulate. I am always going to be friendly and laugh sometimes in class, so it's not helpful for me to try to act like teachers I've had who are really stern and never smile. I have learned, though, that it's okay for your teaching to be a reflection of your personality. You can be in control of the classroom and still be yourself-- you don't have to pretend to be some strict robot to run your class.

A few books that have really helped me in teaching writing and in adjusting to a college classroom. I don't know if these will help your situation, but I've loved them: On Course (James M. Lang), What the Best College Teachers Do (Ken Bain), and Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Joseph M. Williams).

Good luck to you! You can do this, and the fact that you're asking this question shows you care about your students, which is one of the most important things. The other stuff just comes with practice. :)
posted by incountrysleep at 11:47 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is the type of college class I teach, and your population is similar to mine. It's definitely different from teaching higher-level classes (I've done both), but I really, really enjoy it.

First of all, I think you're on the right track. You said you've made your expectations clear and you intend to stick to them--that's what's important.

I have high expectations for my students, but one additional thing I do is explain WHY I have those expectations. Usually it boils down to: you will be expected to possess certain skills or attributes in your future studies or career, and these expectations and assignments will help you develop those skills.

I find it helps if I explain the underlying purpose behind each particular assignment. I get a lot less "why do we have to do this" when I remember to explain the "why" ahead of time. I've come to incorporate these explanations as a matter of course, and it really, really seems to make a difference. I think lots of students view pretty much every class they take as a hoop to jump through, because they can't make the connection between what they're required to do and what they might need it for in future--it requires a level of sophistication most haven't developed yet. It's not like you're teaching future welders how to operate a blowtorch--the importance of THAT would be self-evident. So you're going to have to work a little harder to show them those connections. The thing is, it's completely obvious to YOU why you are asking them to do the assignment, but that's because you had that purpose in mind when you developed the assignment.

For example, one requirement of the course is writing an in-class essay. I explain that by learning how to write an in-class essay, they're preparing themselves to organize their thoughts quickly and write well under pressure. Those skills will be required in future classes and in many of their careers. Or when I'm teaching them how to use MLA style, I explain that by formatting their assignments this way, they're letting me know they are able to follow directions and attend to details. They might never have to format anything in MLA ever again, but they will have developed the skill of paying attention to details and following instructions, which will be important in any future classes they take or jobs they do.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:38 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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