Six Steps to Gain Trust and Authority

The Scenario

Have you ever planned what you think will be the best lesson of all time, the epitome of your skills and knowledge as an educator, only to walk into the room and have it completely fall apart? Should you take it personally, or worse yet, blame the students? I did.

There I was, sitting at my desk completely silent, trying to look busy by clicking away at the computer. I felt tears start to stream down my face and I wiped them quickly away with the back of my hand and tried to re-focus my mind. It was just moments earlier I had lost it on my ninth-grade class. First I had yelled and now I was crying…great…pathetic…more tears start to stream down my face.

I was a terrible teacher and these were terrible kids. I mean, I had put a week’s worth of work into this lesson. I had created a list of resources for them, an example presentation to excite and guide them, and I had poured my soul into this project. I cannot believe they didn’t care, that they wouldn’t listen to the instructions, and were goofing off per usual.

I stopped explaining the project and sharing my example with them half-way through. I had already requested several groups of students stop talking, told little Johnny to find his seat, again, and stopped to ask why Timmy thought it was alright to practice his paper free-throws during the middle of my class. I couldn’t take another interruption. Just one more tiny peep or bathroom request was going to spell disaster.

Sally, poor, poor, Sally. As I went back to finish the slides, Sally decided it would be a good time to turn and whisper to the person next to her. It was probably the smallest of the infractions which had occurred during that class. And yet, it was the last straw. I lost it.

Not only did I proceed to chastise Sally, I discovered the full potential of my diaphragm. I yelled at her and the class as a whole. I told them how much time I spent FOR THEM. How much work I had done FOR THEM. How nothing I ever seem to do, no matter how hard I try, or how out of the box I get, it never seems to be enough FOR THEM. I told them they were disrespectful, and that the last fifteen minutes had been completely ridiculous. I’m certain teachers down the hall could hear me yelling.

I looked out over the room. The students had finally gotten quiet, but they weren’t listening. It was a programmed response to zone out when a teacher, or any adult I assume, starts to freak out on them. I mustered up a calmer, lower voice and asked in my best threatening tone if they would prefer a research paper or to do this project. They grumbled in an equally low voice for the project. I passed out the requirements sheet and told them to figure it out for themselves. And then, there I was, sitting at my desk, holding back tears of frustration.

So what do you do?

I believe I had hit the disillusionment phase of first year teaching, albeit, a little late in the game. Most teachers cite October, or approximately six to eight weeks into the first year, as the phase for disillusionment. I had managed to hold out until the end of January. It took the support of a mentor teacher next door and sheer optimism to get there, but I had persisted. In retrospect, I think it made the fallout all the worse.

The lovely people of the University of California Santa Cruz New Teacher Project have identified six phases which new teachers may progress through during their first year: Anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, reflection, and ending back at anticipation for the next year. My first year seemed more likened to the five stages of grief than the phases of teacher attitudes: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In just one day, heck, one class period, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions knotting in my stomach with the twists and dips of the ride.

I was first in complete denial that my presentation or the project itself wasn’t engaging. Next there was anger, anger at myself and anger at the students because my project did not gain their attention. Then, I bargained with the students, asking them if they would like to do my amazing assignment or one more tortuous. I bargained with myself even, telling myself that I was not a terrible teacher who could not manage her classroom and was not one who could not create an engaging presentation, but that these were, in fact, just terrible students. Ultimately, depression settled in as I settled at my desk.

The phases of rejuvenation, reflection, or acceptance, whatever you want to call it, did not happen for some time. I felt like a failure and a statistic. The headline of my story would read, “Another teacher leaves the profession after year one.”

Reflection and Consequences

So, what happens when a lesson which represents the epitome of your skills and knowledge as an educator completely falls apart? Whatever you let happen. As the very wise Captain Jack Sparrow once said, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”

My first big mistake was in thinking a lesson plan I wrote could represent all my skills and knowledge as an educator. What business did I have placing such personal meaning on a lesson? One lesson could not be the whole container of my self-worth as an educator just as one class’s response should not have determined myself as a failure. While it is important to take pride in your work, it is a very different thing than being prideful.

Because my students did not place the same value on the project it hurt my ego. Once ego was involved, I made the second mistake of letting my hurt ego erupt into anger and I disciplined a student in front of the entire class. How many classroom management books and teacher training courses tell you to discuss issues privately, to discipline with dignity? Not doing so only causes the entire class to view you as tyrannical and disrespectful. Without student respect, you cannot run an effective classroom.

My final mistake was disciplining the entire class for the actions of a few students. Students who are normally well behaved and come to class to listen feel gypped. They find the teacher to be unfair, their class out of control, and the environment not conducive to learning. These students start to resent the environment and the teacher responsible for it. So I took a group of good students, the kind a teacher dreams of having, and I turned them against me. I completely lost their trust.

Six Easy Steps

To prevent the entire situation, a myriad of tactics that could have been employed.

1: Never forget you are there to help your students learn, not to be the peacock on display. You should not be seeking validation from your students

2: Have a clearly laid out classroom management plan which details consequences for students who continue to be a disruption

3:  Used proximity control throughout the lesson, moving yourself closer to individuals who are chatty

4: Give the lesson from the back of the room, guaranteeing your back won’t be to the students.

5: Have premade warning cards ready to pass out to students who are misbehaving so you can get their attention without disrupting the class.

6: Approach students who do not heed the warning and quietly ask them to go to the hall, so you can speak to them in a one-on-one situation after the instruction time is over.

That’s it. That’s all it takes to avoid a loss of authority and trust in your classroom. I know its easier said than done but if you are proactive and keep your ego out of the mix, these steps will prevent a hellish rest of the year.