How Your Teens Can Help You Create Class ExpectationsJul 27, 2021
Picture this: it’s the first day of school. You put on your best teacher outfit and feel refreshed and ready to start the year. Your classroom is *nearly* complete, and you feel set up and ready for the new year.
Your students arrive and the first few weeks go great! They follow class expectations and seem to be comprehending materials and enjoying lessons. As temperatures begin to get cooler, you sweat a little less walking from your car to school… Life is good!
Until it isn’t. Students start acting up--aka, talking out of turn, the class clown begins riling all the students up, and some students are beginning to turn in work incomplete. The honeymoon phase is OVER. You try your tried and true techniques for gaining student attention and they are to no avail. You even “threaten” to send a few kids to the office (or maybe you did this) but you still see your expectations not being met. What gives?
Teenagers are in an ever tricky spot of development. Teenagers are still children in so many ways mentally, and yet they are physically becoming adults. All of this, plus navigating a landmine of emotions and hormones, and you got one mess of a transition. I honestly would not trade anything to go back to middle school. These were some of the toughest memories for me. I remember this as the time I began feeling very anxious, I lacked self-confidence, and began doubting myself at everything. I felt like I was the ONLY person in the world feeling this way, and thus felt so left out of everything.
Herein lies the problem and one of the things we have to keep in mind when working with adolescents. Their feelings and emotions are SO strong, and many of them feel that they are the ONLY one feeling that way. Sure, now as adults we know and understand that these feelings, growing pains and emotions are not unique to us. While our experiences may be unique and shape who we are, many, MANY other adults experienced the same emotions we did while growing up.
If you listen enough, everyone has a story to tell. The catch is that these stories can break our hearts if we listen closely enough. We may understand this as adults, but many teenagers do not yet.
Teenagers, especially young teenagers, are meant to CHALLENGE thoughts, feelings, the status quo. This is NORMAL. This is what is expected from them developmentally. We teachers have to stop acting aghast and angry when teenagers do exactly what they are supposed to do. We need to change our expectations and meet students where they are at.
By now I think you are beginning to grasp the point. What works at the beginning of the year, or what works for elementary students (or even older students!) may not work for young adolescent students. Why? A combination of hormones, development, and emotions. You might be asking yourself now, “how the heck do I do that?” There are a few ways we can achieve this.
Each of these ways I am about to explain can primarily be broken down to these simple concepts: giving students more autonomy/self-expression opportunities, and increasing opportunities for understanding and empathy (between teachers and students alike). By creating classroom expectations with your adolescents at the beginning of the year, and creating opportunities to revisit and recreate these expectations, you are not only giving your students autonomy and self-expression, but allowing them the opportunity to connect with you and others in your class to create a safe and supportive environment that they feel they can thrive in.
Now, before I delve into this process, you may be asking yourself, “Why doesn’t she just stick to her traditional rules? Why doesn’t she follow through with more consequences, stricter classroom management, etc.?” These are all reasonable questions, given the environment and expectations we have, ourselves, as teachers. However, I will turn around and ask you this: Why do schools and educators rely so heavily on punitive measures for ensuring ‘appropriate’ behavior? More and more schools are adopting Restorative Justice models in their schools, which are defined as “models [that] provide schools with the opportunity to improve school culture by addressing disciplinary standards and creating a forum for peaceful resolution of conflict and misbehavior. These models seek to determine the impact of the incident and establish a mutual, prescriptive agreement for resolving and repairing the harm caused by the wrongdoing (Pavelka, 2011).”
Restorative Justice is not new in the education community, but many schools are beginning to adopt it and use it as a ‘disciplinary’ model. While many proponents of Restorative Justice wish to see it used more frequently in schools, they also caution against using it as anything resembling a “school wide positive behavior system” (aka, a disciplinary model). This caution comes from the concern that Restorative Justice (RJ) may morph into a system that will eventually resemble more punitive approaches that are already in place in schools. However, as educators, we can begin to implement aspects of RJ into our classrooms now, and the below strategy of having students help to create expectations is one of these components ofRJ that teachers can integrate into their classrooms now.
1. Start the first day of class off by creating expectations together.
Think of yourself less of the “boss” and more of the “facilitator” on this day. After you introduce yourself and maybe a quick 5 minute ice-breaker game, I would have students sit in a circle. Have students facing the whiteboard or smartboard. Sit down WITH them, and begin by saying that in this classroom, we are ALL equals. While you may be the teacher, we will ALL treat each other with respect so that this space is a safe space (and yes, that means you might have to apologize if YOU mess up, too). This is the first and only expectation I would make as the teacher.
After this, I would begin asking students what type of expectations they would like to see in the classroom. If you have a big enough white board, you can have students write on the board and then you can help them go through the expectations/words and create expectations together. If you don’t have a big space, or would rather keep that clear so that YOU can streamline the classroom expectations, use Nearpod or another type of online platform where your students can write suggestions in real time for classroom expectations. Nearpod is awesome because you can have students writing suggestions for everyone to see. I like to project mine up on the smartboard and talk about the different suggestions students create.
2. Managing the Suggestions
Now you might be thinking “I KNOW I will have a student who will just take this opportunity to write something ridiculous.” And I know, I have been there. Here is where we take a moment to humble ourselves, and get creative on how to manage this. First, we can always add a filter on our Nearpod Board so that WE moderate the suggestions coming into us, and can filter out any that are clearly there for laughs. HOWEVER, I highly suggest that you still acknowledge this student’s contributions. Even if they wrote a silly suggestion, you can always say, “I really appreciate your sense of humor Brad, but I would love to see what real ideas you may have for this class’s expectations. I just know you have a great idea!” Acknowledging this student’s contribution while also directing them to come up with a ‘serious’ expectation can be empowering for the student.
I also caution you to not throw out all of the ‘silly’ suggestions. During one marking period, a student suggested they have ‘two minutes’ of joke telling/talking in the classroom. My students LOVED this idea, and I allowed it so long as we stuck to the two minute mark as they decided in their expectations. Students loved the ability to joke around, (while being safe and kind, as one of our other expectations stated) and if we ever got off track with our expectation of this, we would have a “revisit” for five minutes at the end of class to discuss how we should get back on track with this expectation. For example, if students began to try and increase this time to 3 or 4 minutes, we sat in a circle and discussed how this was breaking the expectation, and discussed what type of harm this might create (disrupting other students, being off task and not focused on something that needed focusing, etc.)
3. Explain the Difference between Help and Harm
As silly as this differentiation might seem, explain to students that classroom expectations should be helping us. Helping the teacher do their job, helping the students to learn, and helping everyone to feel safe. Explain that when harm is done, these helping things cannot occur. Harm is whenever someone does not feel safe or cannot complete their task (teacher instructing, students learning, etc.). However, explain that when a student (or teacher!) does harm, it may not be intentional, and the class will work together to figure out how to repair the harm. The class can come together to discuss how harm was done (for instance, when my students were going over their allotted 2 minute joke telling time), and then brainstorm ideas as to how to repair this harm (my students suggested that joke telling time should be skipped for a day so that everyone could catch up on any work they may have not been able to complete).
By creating rules with this Restorative Justice framework, it empowers our adolescents in taking their time into their own hands. They begin to empathize with others, and realize that their actions can affect others within the classroom. They also feel a sense of importance when being able to create the expectations for their classroom. After all, these students will most likely be in this classroom for the whole year. Shouldn’t this space feel just as much theirs as it is yours?