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Your Pseudo-Struggles and the Effect on Your Students

This post is written by member Chris Margolin.

It’s Monday morning, and I’m wondering if the teachers with whom I work are standing outside their doors and greeting students as they meander into the classroom. Are they shaking students’ hands? Are they asking about the music in their headphones? Are they asking about what they read, or saw, or discovered, or questioned over the weekend?

It can be difficult to stand up from behind our desks and venture the fifteen feet to the doorway. We are tired. We are grumpy. We don’t always want to be there on a Monday morning. Hell, we don’t always want to be there on any day that ends with day. But that doesn’t mean our students should suffer because of our pseudo-struggles, or even our very real struggles. That doesn’t mean we can’t greet students like it’s the best part of our day, because it could possibly be the best part of theirs.

The other day I watched a brand new teacher step into the threshold and give a high-five or fist bump to every student who walked through the door. He said each student’s name; he made positive comments. He made sure they felt noticed and that they knew he wanted them there. I realize that newer teachers are just coming from a program where they were taught that this is one of the most important facets of education, so why is it that so many veteran teachers forget this simple task?

Students are the lifeblood of a classroom. If they don’t feel like we notice them, they might not focus, or care, or work, or – more important – inquire. Too many teachers focus too much on the lesson plan in front of them, or which students they don’t want to see that day, or the annoyance of the kids talking in the back of the room. It’s not easy for teachers to recognize that they themselves might be the issue.

That being said, teachers have issues as well. Health, or family struggles, or lack of sleep, or whatever the case may be, these are no different from the students’ issues. Sometimes we just want to put our heads on the table and hope the day moves quickly, but that’s rarely the reality. Students respond well to their teachers who are not feeling well. They empathize with not wanting to be in the classroom. There were days when I came into my classroom with a migraine, or sick as a dog, and simply put a note on the board that read, “Margolin is not feeling well, so today is a work day.” I may not have been teaching, but for the most part my students understood what they needed to do, and I could be left alone to quietly conference with students, or work on grades, or help where needed. We can’t run away from our class to hide in an office, but we can prepare our students to be able to work independently. We are always in front of our students, and we have to be productive; however, that doesn’t mean we can’t work with our students in a less teacher-centered way.

My wife reminds me on a regular basis that what we say must be productive, kind, and move the conversation – or action – forward in a positive manner. That’s not to say that we can’t question one another or disagree, but it means that we need to do so in a way that maintains engagement and genuine interaction. So, when considering your students’ responses, what is it about that assignment that isn’t interesting? Why don’t some students want to listen? What is it about the way you’re approaching the information that is leaving that student uninspired? Is it outdated? Is it worthwhile? And, conversely, for those students who are listening, why is it relevant? How can you use those students to engage those who aren’t as interested?

If you’re a teacher who offers a bit of sustained silent reading, don’t require your students to bring in a library book. Instead, have them bring in anything that interests them – as long as it’s appropriate, of course – and dive into that material. Remind them that their interests matter. If they are eager for information on building a car, than allow them to read an auto manufacturing guide. Interested in sports? Maybe they bring in an issue of Sports Illustrated. Really invested in their Twitter feed? Have them find three articles to read. For whatever material they bring to the classroom, have them write a summary, a claim, interesting quotes, or anything that keeps their brain working beyond the page in front of them. Have students who want to share about their reading for the day? Allow them the opportunity to do so; they may inspire other students to pick up similar materials. It might lead to conversations. Maybe it can even lead into what you’re working on that day. Maybe your entire day is spent having students discuss their passions. Maybe that’s the lesson. If you’re stressed about the Common Core, you now have room to address speaking and listening standards, as well as several opportunities to focus on both reading informational text and reading literacy standards. Either way, you’ve increased the interest level in your classroom.

It’s okay to build relationships with students. It is absolutely okay to share your interests with them, and talk with them about what you are reading, or thinking, or excited about. It’s okay to spend a class period just talking with your students – as it pertains to your content area – about what’s going on in the world. If there’s no interest or engagement in a topic, then why is it even in the classroom? There is no purpose to teaching something that isn’t productive, or that doesn’t push the conversation forward. There’s no point to being in a classroom if your intention is something other than creating the best students, people, and self possible. If that’s not your goal, then maybe you’ve overinvested in that curriculum. Maybe it’s time to listen a bit more to those directly in front of you. Maybe it’s time to step outside the classroom door and greet every opportunity to enhance the student experience. Maybe it’s just time to remember why you started teaching in the first place.

 Chris Margolin is the Vancouver Public Schools’ curriculum specialist for Secondary English Language Arts, Advanced Placement, College in the High Schools, and Running Start. He spent 12 years as a high school English teacher, working not only with students but also as a member of the district curriculum design team, developing the district’s Creative Writing course. He currently resides in Vancouver, Washington, with his wife and daughter.