By Raven Morris
“Ms. Mathis! I’m coming back!” exclaimed Jordan, one of my former students, when I bumped into him at Trader Joe’s. I paused to consider the gravity of the moment. For Jordan, middle school life was a constant challenge. He spent a lot of time in and out of the classroom, visiting the office and being in in-school-suspension (ISS). I watched Jordan and knew he needed to know that he was still loved despite losing his footing. Every time I saw him or had a chance to talk to him, I reinforced this. I could see in his eyes that he was exhausted from the constant pressure to get things right, and I told him, “I know it’s tough right now, but hang in there. Things might get worse before they get easier, but you can do this.”
While Jordan was in my class, I worked with him to balance his social and academic priorities by giving him opportunities to work with his peers and openly acknowledging when he made appropriate choices. This didn’t mean that I didn’t pay attention to his academic success — he is an intelligent student — but I wanted to make sure he knew how to navigate the middle school classroom environment while keeping his identity intact. In this way, hearing that Jordan was coming back made all the difference.
Jordan is not the only one. Absenteeism is a problem in Texas and across the nation. In Texas, exclusionary discipline disproportionately affects students of color, and the disciplinary infractions that result in exclusionary discipline are highly subjective, from using offensive language to disruptions to the classroom environment. This leaves much of a student’s educational, emotional, and mental status up to their teacher’s perception of them and the teacher’s interpretation of their behaviors.
When I was studying to become a teacher, I often heard the refrain “don’t smile until Thanksgiving” as the right approach to classroom management. The idea is that if a teacher presents a rigid front, students would respect and even fear them and their classroom from the onset. I knew early on that this approach would not work for me. Instead, I focus on earning my students’ trust. If I do that, I know that respect will follow. Over the years, I learned that this means being warm, showing compassion, setting boundaries, admitting my mistakes, and smiling, all on the first day of school. In addition, I enter the first day with a plan for managing challenging behaviors in a manner that maintains that trust and keeps students in the classroom so that even when students like Jordan have setbacks, they do not experience chronic absence from school, which jeopardizes their future. I approach classroom management with the mindset of helping students like Jordan build the skills to be successful in school.
Here is how I manage challenging behaviors in my classroom:
- I focus on the motive, not the behavior. Children are expert communicators with strong needs for a sense of belonging and control. For middle schoolers who are still developing peer relationships, they will often communicate these needs by taking on the role of a class clown to win the approval of their peers or ignoring classroom norms to elicit a specific emotional response from their teacher. Keeping the motive in mind helps me to keep a level head when addressing the behavior and offer tips to the student for managing their emotions in the classroom. This might include asking them to take a deep breath, temporarily moving their seat, asking them to tell me their plan for being successful, or having them take a lap in the hallway to get a brief change in scenery.
- I provide support. Support is the act of getting students in touch with the resources they need. Sometimes this is a disciplinary action, phone call home, or private conference, but it is always a reassurance that I care. For Jordan, this meant taking him into the hallway, setting a goal that he could accomplish within the class period, and providing positive reinforcement when he accomplished the goal. When he would complete a section of his worksheet, turn in a warm-up, or refrain from distracting behaviors during a specific interval of time, I would give him a piece of candy and offer public praise.
- I follow through and follow up. If my most challenging student continues to make undesirable choices, I follow through with the appropriate consequence. The moment I notice the student choosing to make a correction, I publicly celebrate them, thank them, and encourage them to continue on the right path.
- I smile. If I make a mistake in class, I acknowledge it with a smile. If my students say something funny, I laugh at it. The power of a genuine smile from an authority figure is invaluable and I leverage it in the most positive way. Here is an example: On the first day of school, I was going through roll call and mispronounced several names. I told my students to keep track of the number of mistakes I made that day and that for every mistake I made, they could make a million. In one class, I accidentally misread the bell schedule, to which one student replied, “That’s six million!” I smiled at him and said, “That’s right, you can make six million mistakes!”
Developing trust in classrooms is an effective tool for combating absenteeism and ensuring our students are in school, learning. The trust I built with Jordan means that I can still have healthy interactions with him, allowing him to continue developing the skills to be successful in school. Students like Jordan are not always set up to successfully manage the school environment, but by building trusting relationships, they at least know that someone in the building is always looking out for their best interests.
Raven Morris is a 6th-grade reading language arts teacher at Southard Middle School in Princeton, Texas, and a 2023–2024 Teach Plus Texas Senior Policy Fellow.