The Sort-of-Scientific Method

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 01 2013

Fighting Conspiracy

Day 126: Every teacher, I’d like to think, has that thing that really irrationally bothers them. For me, it’s smart pre-teen girls conspiring to dislike me. I know they’re only 11 and 12, and disliking authority is their job, but still, it wears thin. Perhaps even worse, though, is when a girl like this is convincing others to dislike me, too.

This, in short, was the start of my Friday. JT is one of my weakest students, and she gets mad, upset or just plain dramatic far too often. For the health fair, I put her with AM and AC, neither of whom like me, but both of whom are smart and on-task. I figured the risk of putting them together and creating an entire group that could conspire against me was worth giving JT some academic support.

In short, JT is doing her work, and is getting help from teammates. But my fears proved true as well. Like her groupmates, JT has started thinking she can give me more attitude. Like her groupmates, JT said hi to every teacher around me, except me. And like her groupmates, JT said she doesn’t want anything from me. She said, “You know, some people don’t like you.” Read: My friends don’t like you.

Now, this shouldn’t be a big deal. But, one, I have a thin skin. Two, I’ve been trying to help JT bring up her grades for months, so for her to start dismissing me hurts.

After some talking, JT let me know it feels like I’m unfair, that I pick on her, and that it hurts her feelings that I ask others how she is doing with her work. In fairness, I do these things. I let her know I could stop those, but if she promised to be more on-task and not get upset if I had to ask her about her progress.

JT, like her groupmates have done for months, said she doesn’t like tickets. When I asked what a meaningful reward might be, she said her team didn’t want anything from me – she would get them a reward herself. I asked her, what if she gave the reward, but it came through me. I was trying, hard, to find something she wanted that I could have her work toward. Something that would re-establish the relationship between student effort and me rewarding that effort.

We finally agreed on a pizza party. She wrote a list of nine students she wanted to participate. I said that each student needed to provide 12 tickets, or she could provide the tickets for each student. She tried to get out of tickets – my individual reward system – having any place in this arrangement, but I insisted, saying they were my way to let her and others know that I appreciated their efforts. Eventually, she relented.

Just then, the bell rang at the end of first period. As the class went by, she grabbed a handful of those friends she wanted to invite, and let them know the deal. AC, in classic fashion, stated imperiously, “And we get soda.” I didn’t respond. I did turn to RB, the fourth member of JT’s team, and said I would not be asking her any more how JT was doing, and I apologized for putting her in an uncomfortable position.

At the end of that day, JT came to see me to finish her cell project. I gave her a ticket for persistence, and let her know I was proud of her efforts, and her maturity in our earlier conversation.

I know that no matter what I do, some students won’t like me. I know that sixth grade girls will talk to their friends. And I am wary of treating students like dogs, who need treats to stay motivated and on-task. However, it would hurt too damn much to keep teaching more and more students who are disinvested in me and my class. That’s true both because it hurts my feelings, and because I worry about the effects on student achievement. I’m going to do what I can to maintain strong relationships with students, because that’s what makes me happy to come to work every morning.

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