May 2023 | In My Element
Embracing a Challenging Opportunity
By Ranie Abia
|Figure 1. The author in his chemistry classroom.|
After teaching in the Philippines for 10 years, I moved to the United States in 2019 and started teaching chemistry in Orlando, Florida at an inner city, Title I high school. While I have found considerable differences between teaching chemistry in the Philippines and in the U.S., overall, these combined experiences have helped me to grow as an educator, and have also increased my joy for teaching chemistry.
I initially wanted to teach in the U.S. because of the advanced science programs I had heard about. Since the Philippines’ educational system is historically patterned after the American system, I expected the experience I gained from teaching here would help me improve on the lagging performance of my students when I eventually returned to my home country.
Raised in the Philippines, I bring a positive attitude toward working with diverse people of different dialects, regional backgrounds, and beliefs. With an open mind, I was very excited to share my passion and energy in teaching and to work alongside American teachers who share similar commitments to sustaining science educational quality and improving science teaching practices.
An unexpected challenge
In my first year, my greatest challenge, unexpectedly, was dealing with student behavior. I couldn’t silence them, and they wouldn’t listen while I taught, so they didn’t understand the lessons. I found myself having confrontations with students, many because they would never complete assignments. I didn’t understand them, and I felt like they didn’t understand me either. I came into this new teaching role with a decade of experience, but that experience clearly wasn’t translating into effective interactions with my new students.
Discussing student behavioral issues with my fellow teachers didn’t appeal to me, since I didn’t want my colleagues to think that I couldn’t manage my own classroom or that I didn’t know how to teach. Embracing my open-mindedness, I challenged myself to fix this problem — and, if I couldn’t fix it within two months, I would leave.
Learning and adjusting
I needed to understand the root of the problem. So I arranged with the instructional coach at my school to observe other classes to see the differences between my teaching style and that of other teachers. During these observations, I noticed that there weren’t substantial differences in our teaching styles. However, it was clear that my experience was not unique, and I was not alone in my struggle to manage student behavior. With this new perspective, I felt like I needed to restart like a first-year teacher, letting go of comparisons of past students and systems. It was time to accept the challenge and adjust in order to be successful in my new teaching environment.
Improving my understanding
In order to move forward, I needed to learn more about my new school. Our student population is comprised of many different cultures, backgrounds, and languages, and I learned that many of my students are from economically disadvantaged families. Some students spend their time outside of school helping to support their families, and others do not have parents physically present to take care of them. Their time in school is their opportunity to interact with their peers.
Additionally, I found that intellectual and behavioral abilities were remarkably diverse among students. So, as I reflected, it was hard to expect that one approach to teaching and classroom management would work for every student.
I started getting involved in a district-wide program for new teachers called “Great Beginnings.” The program helped me to focus on topics that were directly related to my concerns about student behavior, including cultural responsiveness, de-escalating potential conflicts, and differentiation in teaching. I found tools and strategies from the program were beneficial and transferable to my classroom.
|Figure 2. The author and students learning about different cultures through the lens of cuisine.|
With my focus on improving the behavioral problems in my classroom, I realized that I needed to be able to relate to my students more effectively in order to see progress. It seemed that in some cases, behavior issues stemmed from cultural and language differences, since I often needed to ask students to clarify what they meant by certain statements and comments to ensure I wasn’t misunderstanding them.
To name one example, I am not used to hearing ‘phrasal verbs’ in English such as “blow up” and “whip up” that are used in regular conversation. There are so many ways a word may be used or said in English. In addition, there is a very big difference in how English is spoken in normal conversation, and how it is used in an academic setting, or in writing.
As a non-native English speaker, I was not completely familiar with how words are used in every context, so I started to encourage the students to participate in open conversation whenever we would finish our lessons early. This also helped students who were not yet fluent in English to practice their language skills. I paired them off with bilingual students, so they could switch between languages when they work in pairs or groups. Through this effort, I gained clarity not only on their expressions and intended meaning in English, but also learned from my students many words in Spanish that I’d been unfamiliar with. It was an effective way to get to know each other, and ultimately helped improve student behavior.
Improving my awareness of the wide spectrum of students’ background and cultures helped me to focus on the cause of their misbehavior, and how these factors come into play. As I learned, addressing misbehavior is not an overnight fix, so it helps to take time to intentionally create a welcoming space where respect, opinion, and self-expression matter.
For example, I found that the simple gesture of greeting students before they entered the classroom really made them feel welcome. Building a relationship with every student without any preconceived notion of how they would behave helped me establish a genuine connection. It became clear to me that trust, care, and connection were all significant in building an authentic learning community in my American classroom.
Throughout my teaching experiences, I’ve learned how each student has a unique personality and needs, and that some students require more attention and focus than others. To help get to know the students who need more attention, I utilize a strategy known as “2 x 10.” This method has been practiced for a long time in the education field, and I believe that it is also highly effective in building relationships among students and parents.
Using the 2 x 10, I first have a 2-minute conversation with a concerned student and parent for 10 consecutive school days. I’ve found that starting a conversation with a simple greeting like, “Hello, how is your day?” is as an easy way to build an immediate connection. I’ve also noticed the importance of initiating these connections as soon as I notice signs of emerging challenges in students. Communicating and building connections with the parent is just as important as the connections we build with our students. Parents can often help bridge the learning gaps and reveal sources of behavior challenges — all which are helpful in learning how to best lead the student to success.
In life, our performance is naturally affected by what is happening around us, including our moods and personal relationships. Just as we are affected, so are our students impacted by the environment around them at home, their families/caregivers, and friends. Students who are facing unsettling situations outside of the classroom can sometimes react in ways that make matters worse. Examples include students not completing assignments, having negative attitudes, shutting down from the world around them, having physical altercations, not being engaged in the classroom (e.g. sleeping), and many other possible reactions.
By having a conversation and building a connection with the student and/or parent after I observe negative behaviors, we can more collaborate with each other more effectively and help prevent academic failure. It can start with a phone call, and sharing an observation such as, “I notice that Michael has been not completing the work,” or “I notice that Sara is very irritable lately.” I often follow this by explaining my reason for the call: “I’m calling to hopefully find out if she’s going through anything I may need to be aware of so I can provide the best support.” Unfortunately, there are parents who are not even aware of what their child is actually going through. There are also some parents who don’t seem to know what to do to motivate their child, or are too overwhelmed.
Opening up with parents by asking them how I can best support their child’s progress goes a long way — especially if the teacher, parent, and student then work together to create an academic intervention plan. When parents get involved in the decision making, they may also find it easier to help monitor the student’s accomplishments and progress — and most importantly, share in the responsibility for how their child is becoming successful. If the parent and teacher are aligned on the intervention plan, it’s more likely that the student will feel that the classroom is an extension of their larger support system.
|Figure 3. Students collaborating on displaying their work.|
Dealing with and improving student behavior was not an easy or quick fix. After my two-month challenge to myself, I didn’t leave, and I didn’t stop. I’ve realized that this is a challenge that is continuous and requires my attention and energy every day. I am constantly learning in this regard, keeping myself motivated and inspired by new strategies and techniques. It is a great advantage to work at a school where there is a sense that understanding each student can be as important as the content being taught. This perspective has strengthened me as an educator and helped me succeed in a teaching environment that is very different from where I came from.
I still have so many things to learn and experience, and I’m continuing to grow as an educator. My goals help me to keep focused and loyal to my calling.