Theory and Practice among the “Regs”

This is a reflection on several classes I substituted in for my cooperating teacher while at Beurling Academy. It was written for my Classroom Practices class at McGill. The text includes expletives.

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The exchange starts out between two students—let’s say their names are Dan and Natalie.

“Why you looking at me?”

“I’m not lookin’ at you, you lookin’ at me! Why you gotta do that?”

They quickly involve the teacher. “Miss, Dan won’t shut up. He’s interrupting my learning. I’m coming here to learn my math…”

Dan, interrupting: “What? You’re the one being loud. Miss, she’s such a bitch!”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I was sitting here and he was there looking at me funny.”

Other students chime in: “Guys, shut up!”, “I think you like her, that’s why you keep talking about her all the time,” “Miss, will you just kick them both out?”

This is not the actual dialogue of one isolated exchange, but rather the general tenor of one of my cooperating teacher’s classes. Rather than one such exchange there are many, each class, and often many at a time, with Dan and Natalie’s bickering across the room joined by Thomas and Akshay’s appearance in class 15 minutes after the bell, Nicola’s inability to sit quietly, Cal’s homophobic outbursts and a pervasive sense of apathy.

The class I describe is a Grade 10 “regular” math class in the cultural, social and technical (CST) option—a low math stream in a fairly heavily streamed school. The school has an IB option, an immersion option, and a “regular” option, though I use quotes since this effectively means those left behind. While CST math is supposed to be just another valid option for graduation, its position as the only Grade 10 math class which does not qualify one for science at the CEGEP level means it is the de facto option for those who just need math to matriculate. Needless to say, the students’ low level of understanding often exacerbates—and in their mind excuses—their behavioural difficulties.

I observe but do not teach this class regularly; however, I have substituted for my cooperating teacher on several occasions. This class has most challenged my perceptions of classroom management, and I hope to elucidate my thoughts—admittedly very much in progress—in these pages. But as much as this represents the story of my interactions with the Math CST class, it also reflects my developing theoretical understanding of, efforts to succeed at and frustration with classroom management, and in particular the theories of Fred Jones (as cited in Charles & Senter, 2011, pg. 120-137).

I first taught the CST math class over two days when my cooperating teacher was away for Rosh Hashanah. The first class was a disaster. My cooperating teacher had planned a worksheet for the students to complete at their seats, which they wasted no time ignoring. I was drawn into one of the worse yelling matches between Natalie and Dan, engaged in a massive power struggle with Nicola which resulted in me asking the supply teacher to walk her to the office, and generally unable to convince more than three students to do any work. The next day I returned the class to its usual routine—check homework, correct homework, take notes—figuring that returning them to the day-to-day practices they were used to would help return structure and discipline to the class. This did not eliminate the passivity, time-wasting and constant power struggles between myself and the class, but did give me the upper hand, and at the end of class I congratulated myself for getting through some of the lesson’s content.

In reflection, I see neither class in a positive light, and I saw in myself many of the negative characteristics Jones lists of ineffective teachers (Charles, 2011). As I struggled to enforce the rules my cooperating teacher has used from the beginning of the year—the seating plan, for example—I found myself nagging the students. As Jones predicts, this did not produce results and wasted learning time with each little interaction. My instruction was almost completely centred on myself (what Jones would term just “teacher input”) rather than on a back and forth with the students (“teacher input -> student output”). While this helped me maintain the routine of the class, it allowed the students to stop paying attention without consequence.

After one more train wreck of a class while substituting on Yom Kippur, I had a few weeks to observe my cooperating teacher and plan my approach to resolve the shortcomings I identified in the previous classes. The class was not improving under my cooperating teacher, so I approached my next substitution experience with a mixture of resolve, excitement and dread.

My class plan was based on a part of Jones’ concept of say-see-do teaching (Charles, 2011): alternating teacher input and student output. I would go through the homework fairly quickly, soliciting student input for each part and following up with probing questions: “How did you get that answer? Why is the function not a direct variation?” I would then introduce a group activity with hands-on engagement. The class was on the reciprocal function y=a/x, so I would give each small group a bag of beads and ask them to divide the beads up equally among one person, then two people, then three and so on, completing a table such as this one (in this case, a=26):

# People 1 2 3 4 5
# Beads per person 26 13

We would then collectively graph the resulting function on the board, noting how it was differently shaped than the linear and constant functions they had been studying. I would wrap up with some brief notes for the class to copy, ensuring I used a similar but slightly different example to illustrate the concept. With the support of a new supply teacher, I decided to relax my insistence on following all my cooperating teacher’s rules and focus on keeping the class going—an attempt at Jones’ concept of meaning business, rather than nagging. I did not include any incentives for good behaviour, as Jones would suggest, as I felt this was too much a departure from my cooperating teacher’s usual structure.

Unsurprisingly, I faced several challenges to my new approach; however, it paid off as well. Akshay and Thomas were late as usual, but instead of keeping the door closed and interrupting my class by letting them in and lecturing them about being on time, I kept the door open and simply continued my class when they entered, which they did with much less disruption than usual. Nicola and Thomas decided not to sit in their assigned seats, which I let slide; when Natalie brought this up I responded that as long as they were acceptably attentive, I would overlook the seating issue. This also caused much less disruption than when students tried to change seats in my first three classes. The group activity engaged Nicola enough that she abandoned her usual attempts to subvert the class, and while there was some pushback from students (including my favourite line, “Sir, you better not tell [the cooperating teacher] about this—she wouldn’t like us counting beads,”) the activity as a whole was a successful introduction to the topic and engaged most of the class.

However, there was still much room for improvement. Seen through the lens of Jones (Charles, 2011), the students continued to have very little incentive to engage responsibly with the class, and as a result wasted time and were aimless. While I tried to avoid nagging and as a result avoided much conflict, I left several issues unaddressed—including Cal calling another student gay—which left me very uncomfortable. I realized after the class that I had not properly implemented any backup systems for students who continue to violate class norms.

In reflection, I recognize that my position at the intersection of student teacher and substitute gives me very little authority or room to manoeuvre with the Math CST class; perhaps implementing Jones’ methods (Charles, 2011) consistently from Day 1 might be more effective than my experience. However, even my few experiences teaching the class have left me with a sense that something needs to be addressed that is deeper than Jones’ theories speak to: the persistent sense of apathy which makes teaching the class even in the best conditions an uphill battle. A recent reading of William Glasser (as cited in Charles & Senter, 2011, pg. 138-155) spoke well to this feeling: the students are unmotivated as the content is irrelevant to their lives, largely abstract and thus uninteresting, and introduced in a context of teacher coercion. My response to this apathy was to reinforce my status as a “boss teacher”—one who dictates procedures and orders students to work—and even following Jones’ methods I retained the coercive teacher stance and made the material only barely more interesting.

While I had some limited success with Jones’ methods, I ultimately agree with Glasser (Charles, 2011) that the current educational methods are failing many of our students, and this manifests itself in classrooms much like my CST class. I can’t say I know how to make high school mathematics interesting, relevant, fun, and still rigorous enough to help students pass the mandatory provincial exam; but I know that if that does not happen, Dan and Natalie will continue to fight, Thomas and Akshay will never see the value of arriving on time, and teaching the class will continue to be a losing battle against the inertial force of student apathy.

Works Cited

Charles, C. M., & Senter, G. W. (2011). Building classroom discipline. Boston: Pearson.