The word of the day is “Boorish,” projected on the whiteboard. I’m at Locke High School in Watts, watching Kristin Damo stand at the door greeting each student personally. Two girls in glittery sweatshirts arrive early, telling her they’ve missed her because she’s been out for two days at meetings.
“I’ve missed you, too,” says Kristin. The girls sit right away and get to work, heads down, copying the word and attempting to guess the definition from a sentence on the board; this is a teaching technique called a “Do Now” so that students get into a serious frame of mind from the moment they walk in.
While the girls work, Kristin exchanges an elaborate handshake including up-highs, down-lows and fingers fluttering with Anthony*, a tall, skinny kid whose uniform khakis are sagging, belted below his rear end. “Everyone get working quickly so I can give you points,” she tells everyone, though some kids get right to work and others do not. One boy throws a paper airplane, which swirls through the air. Another kid, seeing a list of names on the board for group work, erases some of the names on the list with his sleeve and replaces them with people he likes better.
Kristin turns into the classroom, ignoring the paper airplane. “Larissa, nice work. Jazmin, thank you for getting started. Nice work, Simon,” she calls out to the kids who are working. Anthony is now wandering around the classroom. “Anthony,” she says. “I’d like to give you points for the Do Now.”
On the wall are two lists. One is a list of things they need to do in order to get two participation points per day, which includes paying attention, being on task and completing work. The other list is of the behaviors that will cause them to lose participation points. Throughout the class, Kristin takes notes on her clipboard, tracking each kid. I want to point out, for people who have not taught in situations with large numbers of students who have behavior issues, that systems like this are time-consuming to administer; you have to continually maintain and input your list. When you have 200 students, the load escalates rapidly. Due to low enrollment at Locke, Kristin’s load is smaller, but still, it’s time-consuming.
When I first started teaching, I was taken back by systems like this, but like Kristin, I quickly found them extremely useful for managing classes in which there were multiple kids who talked out of turn or refused to do work; defiant kids are often hypersensitive, and a point system makes it clear you are not personally attacking them.
But Anthony is not motivated by the system at this moment. “I feel sick,” he tells Kristin, still wandering.
“Put your head down,” she suggests. He continues to wander even after she’s closed the door. What impresses me is how calmly Kristin works with the kids who are off-task, gently reminding them of the point system but if they outright defy her, as Anthony does intermittently, she ignores it and reminds him again in a few minutes. Kristin is not allowed to throw kids out of class or send them to the dean’s office for defiance, leaving her few options if kids are flat-out ignoring her instructions; she can send them to another teacher or she can keep them in class, which she prefers to do.
Anthony in fact settles down after a bit and the mood in the class is remains pleasant. Kristin reminds them that tomorrow will be a half-day due to a faculty meeting. “Wow,” says Simon, a kid in a buttoned-up gray sweater, big glasses and diamond earrings. “We haven’t had one of those since the day of the school carnival. Remember that?”
A bunch of kids jump in, reminiscing. “Somebody hit the dean on the head with a bottle of water,” says one boy. “They let us out half an hour early.”
“That was great,” Simon agrees.
Kristin quietly gets them back on track, pointing out that someone has changed the names of people in groups but reminding them that she has a master list. There is some grumbling, but after a couple of minutes, the kids reassemble into their groups, arranged so that each has one high-performing student, one low-performing student, and the rest somewhere in the middle.
This technique can work, as it does with several groups in the room. The high-performing kids interpret the reading, explaining to the struggling kids, and everyone works together to complete a worksheet with questions for a presentation. Sometimes the technique bombs, as it does with Simon’s group. Teamed with chubby Javier, who has not done the reading, Simon puts his head on the desk in frustration when Javier announces that he has read no books in his life other than Green Eggs and Ham and Captain Underpants. Larissa, the other group member, ignores both of them, doing the worksheet quietly on her own.
“And you’re gonna be an adult?” Simon asks Javier, appalled. He informs Javier that he personally does all his work because he plans to get a PhD in psychology. “Give him an F!” Simon begs Kristin.
Kristin stands over them. “Javier, if both of your group members are telling you that they don’t want to work with you, what does that mean?” But Javier just shrugs and won’t make eye contact. Finally, Kristin tells Simon and Larissa to finish the work together, assuring Simon that Javier will lose points today.
Again, I want to stress how incredible it is to me that Kristin remains focused on individual, specific compliments for good work. The class moves forward, no tempers are lost and at the end, groups make presentations while everyone in the class takes notes. “You guys are awesome,” Simon says with complete sincerity to a group that has made a solid, if extremely quiet, presentation. I can see, just for an instant, the psychologist that he will some day become.
There is a myth in the public mind, and, I think, in the current trend for “teacher accountability,” that if a teacher is good enough, every student in the room will be engaged and working hard. But the truth is, there are some kids who are not ready to be engaged or on-task no matter how good the teacher is, and these kids are profoundly demoralizing not only to the teacher but to the other kids in the room. To pretend that students like Anthony and Javier act out or check out because a teacher is not good enough is unfair not only to the teacher but also to those students. Seeing Kristin handle this situation so skillfully is incredibly helpful to me because it gives me a picture of a positive way to deal with defiant students—and in fact, Kristin has told me that this is her least challenging group. In another class of hers, there were four boys who refused to do any work, wandered around during class and finally sat at computers on the side googling the richest people in the world. (“Look up Bill Gates,” one boy kept urging them.)
I’d like to ask, as we talk about accountability, that we stop pretending that this particular subset of kids will instantly become motivated if teachers just work harder or use “best practices” techniques. There are no “best practices” for kids who are consistently defiant, only “discipline matrixes” that end in suspension or expulsion. These kids are thrown out of magnets and private schools. They often wash out of charter schools—or in some cases, are thrown out. They often drop out of local schools, but until they do, they are currently concentrated there in much greater numbers because there is no place else for them to go. I say this not to stigmatize these kids, but to point out that until we acknowledge their presence and try to understand the complex factors that have led to their behavior, we’ll never be able to help them. Until we acknowledge that their presence is part of why teachers have such a high burnout rate and stop blaming teachers for their behavior, we’ll never be able to retain good teachers for long. A great teacher can keep behavior problems from escalating. She can’t stop them from existing. And no one yet knows how to reach these kids.
Until we figure that out, the next time I face a challenging class, I’m taking my inspiration from Kristin. Stay calm. Carry a clipboard. And, like Simon, try to compliment something awesome.
*As always, all names of students have been changed.