Watch Your Attitude: Your Students Are Counting on You
As we deal with the new variants, head back to school and face another uncertain school year, our attitudes are going to shape the experiences of our students.
By Amber Chandler
If you tensed up a little reading the words “watch your attitude,” then you may have heard that phrase, followed by your full name, probably somewhere between the ages of 12 and 18. If you are like me, it may or may not have been because of eye rolls, deep huffing breaths or, embarrassingly, stomps up stairs. It’s human nature to express ourselves, sure, but I think adults underestimate the impact our “attitudes” have on our own children and students. As we deal with the new variants, head back to school and face another uncertain school year, our attitudes are going to shape the experiences of our students. Why not make a concerted, intentional effort to be the one place where your students can let their guard down and take a break from the attitudes that are everywhere? Here are three rules that I’m implementing for myself this fall (I’m making these “rules” because I need to learn them, practice them and hold myself accountable to them. This is different, and more important, than an “I’ll do my best.”):
Our students are savvy. They know what is happening in the world around them, and they do not need platitudes, promises or toxic positivity. While I am sure I will slip into my “teacher talk” platitudes on occasion, I’m going to make every effort NOT to offer simple answers to complex questions. I’m not going to make promises, because as you know, we are largely powerless to resist the decisions that are made by our school districts and communities. Importantly, I’m also not going to project a Suzy Sunshine positivity that will alienate me from my students who are struggling (and all of them are struggling).
We need to watch our attitudes that dismiss the experience of our students
My 13-year-old son said something recently that hit me squarely upside my planned positivity. He was having a bad day, as 13-year-olds do, and I chirped my “look on the bright side” response. He asked, “Did you actually think that would work?” In the next second, he pulled his headphones up and literally tuned me out. I realized, finally, that my continual canned comments were pushing away a struggling kiddo. Since then, I’ve tried to stop what was really just a habit. Did I really believe what I was saying, or was I hoping to magically make his problems better by a single sentence? As parents and teachers, we can’t oversimplify the issues that confound students in a regular year, and we are going on year three of our students’ lives being extremely complicated. We need to watch our attitudes that dismiss the experiences of our students.
Both of my books are about my “flexible” classroom. That has always meant that I accept late work, everything has the potential to be revised, and I have rubbery rules, in that I stretch when students need more time or space to process things (even how to be on time, remember their supplies or use appropriate language). Flexible has always meant that I understand there is not a “one size fits all” educational model and that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help kiddos be successful in English language arts and life. It means that in my classroom, there’s no one way to be successful, and students are encouraged to be themselves and know that they will be treated with respect.
Students need to see me respond to situations with an attitude of flexibility, not just rigidly stick to a model I've created for them.
When outsiders think my classroom is too “loose,” they have no idea how structured it all has to be to give students that tremendous amount of flexibility. It takes SO MUCH PLANNING. For example, if I’m going to give a test but allow students to be assessed in a variety of ways, I have to have options for them, as well as rubrics to assess them, as well as other options if they choose to “revise” their work. It isn’t less work to be flexible. It is way more. I had a veteran teacher call my classroom “the party room” because of the flexible seating. Clearly, he had no idea how many layers of expectations and reminders it takes for a room of eighth-graders to sit on yoga balls and couches, work at standing desks, and have a learning environment that works for everyone. Each station in my room has expectations, and students learn how to have flexibility.
The problem is, underneath my “flexible classroom” is a ton of control, organization, and planning. This fall, when—inevitably—plans change, I’ll have to be flexible. I have to know that the administrators who change assembly times probably have a reason. I have to know that transmission rates are likely to impact everything. I have to know that I will likely need to adjust my best-laid plans—the ones that make everything in my class seem so fluid and full of choice. Students need to see me respond to situations with an attitude of flexibility, not just rigidly stick to a model I’ve created for them.
By far, this is the one that I will struggle with. As the president of my district’s teachers’ union, I had a very public and heated encounter at a school board meeting regarding “synchronous teaching”—the ludicrous idea that teachers can teach students sitting in front of them and those at home at the same time. Luckily, I was able to stave off this so-called method of teaching for my district, and I am confident that my heated encounter was worth it. However, I have not been able to stop all educational decisions that are detrimental to students, nor will I ever be. As some have pointed out to me, “This is a pandemic. No choice is ideal.”
When something comes my way that I don’t agree with educationally—and I’m sure it will—I’ve got to mind my attitude. I don’t fear going head to head with anyone about what is educationally sound (or, as I described synchronous teaching, “educational malpractice”). However, when a battle is lost or a decision is outside my realm of influence, I absolutely must be potential-minded. I’m pretty sure I made up this phrase, so let me explain. I’ll forewarn you though, it is dangerously close to toxic positivity, so distinctions must be made.
They need all of us to watch our attitudes because they are counting on us.
When I am forced to do something that I don’t want to do, I need to watch my attitude. I can’t, as I explained earlier, be unrealistic, but for the sake of my students, I need to be potential-minded. I need to find the potential for learning in all experiences. If we are virtual, we will find every single cool thing that Google can do to make it more fun. If we, God forbid, do synchronous teaching, I will find the potential inside the problem. We will find a way to make learning engaging, important and worth it. If I have to give standardized tests, I will use the data (if valid) to help my students understand their strengths. If we must do something, I will find the potential in it. I fully believe that the only potential in some circumstances is going to be about subverting the problem and using it to forge authentic relationships with students and families, but I’ll take that if that is where the potential lies.
If you were like me, you might have been lulled into thinking that this fall was going to be “back to normal” or that the pandemic had passed. I’ve faced the reality that I had to tell myself whatever I needed to just to survive June. However, I’m going to reclaim my attitude about this fall because my students need me to. They need all of us to watch our attitudes because they are counting on us.
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