Part of the TFA pre-institute work involves writing responses to required readings. I’m sharing them here as a way to shed some light on my first steps into teaching.
This first response involves reflecting on the teaching approaches of Aurora Lora, a corps member who taught in an elementary school in Huston—and considering what about her approach seems challenging, surprising, manageable. Ms. Lora’s Story is effectively a new journalism-style novella about her four years at Blair Elementary, wherein each chapter is organized around a central theme, but cycles several times through anecdotes and incidents involving one particular student from each of her four years.
Behavioral issues rob two of Ms. Lora’s students of significant amounts of learning time. For those students, and for others who are well-behaved, she crafts differentiated instructional materials that allow them to maximize the amount of time they have in the school year, address areas of need for each student, and generally capture their academic attention. While Ms. Lora employs a host of effective teaching strategies in the stories that describe her four years at Blair Elementary, I found both her responses to behavioral problems and her individualized instructional approaches particularly striking because they dovetailed nicely and represented techniques that I am sure will require substantial practice before I’m comfortable with either.
Ms. Lora’s two particularly challenging students during her years at Blair are Tanya and Douglas. Tanya learns quickly and is ahead of her classmates, but disrupts classes and after-school tutorials by announcing aloud the conclusion of lesson before their completion and by erupting in to occasional fits of anger wherein she accuses Ms. Lora of hating her. She is “a volatile amalgam of intelligence and impatience.”
Douglas, on the other hand, has been held back multiple times and doesn’t let his classmates forget that he is older and bigger than the rest of them. He struggles constantly with his class work, and his frustrations boil over into outbursts and occasional violence. The resulting suspensions and lost time in class only compound his learning difficulties.
Ms. Lora develops a set of solutions that help Tanya remain focused in many circumstances, including designing additional work for her to do that is above grade level, a fact that Tanya holds as a point of pride. But managing Douglas’s disruptive, moody, and sometimes violent behavior is a constant challenge. Her first steps involve identifying the signs of an impending outburst and moving quickly to distract and diffuse him before he gets carried away. She also works out a system of calming activities Douglas is allowed to pursue on his own, such as listening to class just outside the door but away from other students and taking unsolicited bathroom breaks to grab a few moments alone. Eventually, her approaches get even more creative—as when she reminds Douglas during one of his angry fits that he has decided to block the classroom door by lying down next to a rat hole. The methods also get more involved—she eventually forges a deal wherein he is not allowed to play in basketball team games unless he maintains good behavior.
Upon first reflection, the ability to deploy both agile and strategic responses to student behavior problems seems a difficult skill to master and apply on a daily basis. On the other hand, it seems that learning a proven toolkit of responses to disruptive student behavior and then practicing them carefully will facilitate a set of productive instincts. As well, the Ms. Lora’s narrative suggests that collecting data—evening simple daily record keeping—can assist teachers in eliminating ineffective strategies and honing approaches that help unsettled students remain focused and able to learn. Some of that record keeping is part of widely used management strategies, like the color-coded, clothes-pin-powered behavior charts on the walls of all the Blair classrooms.
While each student may respond differently to various classroom management strategies, differentiated instruction is an even more complex necessity. After teaching Tanya in summer school, Ms. Lora tells her on the first day of the new school year that she didn’t think the summer work was challenging enough. Playing to Tanya’s self-confidence, Ms. Lora says that she has prepared fifth and even sixth grade work for her to tackle. “So sometimes I’m going to give you different assignments from the rest of the class so that you are really learning as much as you can,” she says. Likewise, in order to help another student, Roberto, go from having virtually no functional writing ability in English to passing the grade-level writing exam, she sends thick packets of extra homework in his backpack with instructions for his parents on how to check it.
Differentiated instruction like this is something I can readily identify as a necessary strategy, but I don’t feel well equipped at the moment to realize it. Given the time and energy to design all this extra work, where does the inspiration and content come from? It seems vitally important to maintain a constant vigilance for new material to share with students and to implement a flexible system for organizing, generating, and recycling all those ideas, writing prompts, and worksheets. At the very least, I know I’ll be ready to handle the cataloging portion, as I’ve spent the better part of the last four years experimenting with system after system for sorting, managing, and retrieving policy reports, blog posts, and scientific articles. Gathering and filing ideas for worksheets should come easily enough.
In addition to mastering the daily work of managing a classroom of students and producing reams of original activities, Ms. Lora went on to revive the dormant Spelling Bee at Blair. This was a feat that genuinely surprised me, though part of the surprise is wrapped up in the suspense of reading about Tanya’s meteoric rise to the Huston Regional Spelling Bee. Though Ms. Lora is in her second year when she takes on the mission, the school already let the tradition languish and despite her energetic first attempt, the first attempt is a flop. Undaunted, she comes back during her third year and builds momentum for a sensational Bee that culminates in a packed cafeteria of ecstatic onlookers.
As amazed as I am by Ms. Lora’s results, I could see myself attempting something equally quixotic, as I have worked with motivated children in enrichment programs outside the classroom before and seen the significant boost it can provide in terms of confidence and academic advantages. Moreover, it’s undeniably fun to help students indulge their intellectual drive—whether through spelling bees, debate teams, chess clubs, or drama productions.