New Teacher

Culture of Communication

This is part of a series for new teachers. See the other posts here

In my letter to a student teacher the first piece of advice I shared was that sarcasm has no place in the classroom. I want to take that a bit further to discuss not only communication with students, but interactions on a broader scale.

My first encounter with the importance of language was working with 4th-6th graders at Northwestern’s Gifted summer program. I had only completed my first year teaching, but it was my 5th year working for this program. This blog is about physics teaching, and that typically means high school. If you’ve never taught 4th-6th grade: they don’t hold back. I had collected some surveys for feedback from my kids and one comment in particular stood out, “when you said “what” to me it felt like you were annoyed with me” I had a stone drop in my stomach. I knew exactly what the student was referencing. They were busy creating mousetrap cars. Summer programming often put classes in the most absurd spaces and I had 18 nine, ten and eleven year olds crammed in a conference room for 10 adults. We only had the large conference table for workspace each 8 hour day for two weeks. In the chaos of building if I heard my name I responded “what” not at all with any poor intent, but simply “what?” as I would respond to anyone. However, this student communicated to me that single word made them feel uncomfortable. With a single word I had destroyed what should be a safe space. From that moment on I made it a point to always respond to my name with “yes” or “how can I help you” or something comparable. Perhaps it seems silly, or even obvious that I should have used a different response, but in the moment it can be hard to be intentional until intention becomes habit.

How we respond and who we respond to shapes our classroom in subtle but massively impactful ways. Research has shown that boys often blurt out answers and be called upon than girls. Studies also show that when race is layered into the mix teachers will not engage or primarily engage negatively with Black and Hispanic students. None of us wants to think that we do such a thing in our classroom, but our preconceived notions, stereotypes and biases, all of which are founded in our previous experiences, shape how we interact and respond, especially when we do things without intention.

It is a common practice during an observation that the observer will ask you what you would like them to focus on during the lesson. It’s really hard to think critically and reflectively on our own practice, especially as a new teacher. Ask your observer to keep a log of who you are interacting with and what those interactions are (alternatively you can record the lesson and do this yourself). This can be done easily by giving the observer a seating chart where they can indicate positive (+) , redirection(⤾), neutral(Ø) and question(?) interactions with simple marks. When the lesson is complete you can look at the marks and analyze and interpret your data. Who received the most interaction from you? The least? The most positive attention? Negative attention? Are there any trends in terms of race and/or gender? Awareness is the first step in course-correction.

There are so many ways to ensure voices are equally heard and respected (and no, not just with cold-calling). Creating this space is part of building your classroom culture and climate. If you were to implement a single thing today to begin to create this culture it would be this norm: when a student speaks they have the right to the space to speak without interruption, and the rest of the class (and you the teacher!) has the right to listen without distraction.

I would be remiss if I skipped this opportunity to discuss conflict in the classroom. The biggest challenge regarding conflict is taking your own emotions out of the equation so you can work through the conflict with your student. You might be agitated or frustrated, you might feel indignant if the behavior is directed towards you. You might be anxious about what happens next. All of these emotions are real, and necessary and important. You can acknowledge these but then you need to move forward. This conversation deserves it’s own blog post, so for this one I will leave you with this: be curious. Have curiosity with your own response and emotions. Be curious about why your student feels the way they do right now. Consider what alternatives might be available to your gut response.

Your students have developing minds and we cannot forget that. We have a responsibility to keep our own cool so we can help our students work through their struggles while also giving them the tools to work through future conflicts independently. We also have a responsibility to ensure our classrooms are safe spaces for each and every voice to be heard and for each and every student to learn and grow.

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