The Achievement Gap and Middle School Math

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 12 2012


At the high school my students will attend in two-years if (by an act of god) they pass 7th and 8th grade, there are currently three seniors who have just earned full ride scholarships to Ivy League schools for being extremely high-achieving first-generation college students (one of these students has passed 18 AP classes, for example). Two of these students actually attended the middle school where I teach, and one has a brother who is currently at the school.

Thinking these would be ideal role-models for my kids, I invited these seniors to come in and speak to my students to tell them about the college search process, academics in high school, and the decisions that they had been making on a daily basis back in middle school that helped set them on the path they are on (for example: doing homework, not cursing out the teacher, etc.).

My cluster of teachers brought all of our (~100) students into a room so everyone could get to hear from the visitors. I tried, unsuccessfully, for a few seconds to get the kids to quiet down so that I could introduce the guests. One of the other teachers in my cluster then said something along the lines of “stop talking now” and everyone instantly stopped talking and everyone turned their heads towards the front of the room.

In all previous situations I have been in during my life, I have counted on my kindness, my well-thought-through beliefs and actions, and my genuine/transparent good intentions to earn the respect of others. Looking back, I’ve never needed anything besides these.

I am told that the reason my students ignore many of the things I say, disrupt class, say mean things to me and to each other, etc. is because I don’t punish them quickly enough when they do these things. It feels extremely unnatural for me to distribute consequences to people for not following my directions. I had never been in a position to have to do anything like that ever before. First of all, I’ve never needed to give direct orders to anyone, and even if I did, people would always be in a situation to just leave, instead, whereas my students are stuck with me for a whole year.

Teach For America’s model of teaching is based on the idea that, at its core, transformational teaching is actually based in some sort of leadership. This emerges not only in how teachers are taught to teach but also as a parameter that is considered as part of the application process. “Demonstrated past leadership” and the “ability to motivate and lead others” are apparently some things they look for in applicants. I have no idea how they assess this. However, my guess is that is that in 99% of what they look at (correctly) as leadership, those who are leading do not have a captive audience that must be punished if the words and actions of some “leader” do not immediately compel them to action.

In most situations, leadership involves developing an inspiring and plausible vision for the future with a path to get there. If, for whatever reason, someone doesn’t like something about this, they can usually just leave and do something else. Sure, the most effective leaders offer a worldview that is so compelling that many people can start to identify with it in a positive way very quickly, however there will always be some holdouts who have not (yet!) been won over. It is neither necessary nor productive to “punish” these holdouts, but this is what is required of teachers in order to maintain some amount of order in the classroom.

Success at the first type of leadership does not necessarily imply success in the second type of “leadership.”

My lack of success at rallying my students around a shared vision for our classroom and for their future (or at least earning their respect)  seems to be a problem with my leadership ability, however you wish to define it. In the past, my ability to earn the respect of others in formal or informal settings has always seemed to emerge from things I mentioned above: kindness, good thinking about things, and good intentions. That is insufficient here.

Certainly,  it is important for there to be immediate external consequences when someone makes a decision that is detrimental others such as their classmates, or that harms their future self (if they are young enough for society to consider this an acceptable reason to earn a consequence).

It is just not clear to me why it is assumed that success at the first type of leadership (without a captive audience) makes it more likely that someone will be more successful at the second kind (with a captive audience). I don’t think these are the same.

I consider myself pretty good at the first kind, but the second kind is very unnatural for me. My experience (and my resume) would mark me as being a very successful leader (and not just in terms of “positional” leadership). However, I have absolutely no experience with the second kind, and I suppose it is therefore not too surprising that it is something that I am not that good at yet since I am starting entirely from scratch in this area.

One Response

  1. Lisa

    Classroom management success is not based in punishment, it is based in the relationship. That does not mean you are the students’ friend; it means that you demonstrate, over and over again, that you care about their success and you have a larger vision for their future than they are capable of at their age. When students recognize that you are presenting them with useful information in the service of advancing their wellness and fitness for life after school, they will behave better. If you try coming down on them with “firmness” that feels punitive, you will fail to capture them.

    Research is clear that punishment can be a way to immediately stop an undesired behavior, but it’s not the way better behavior is cultivated. To do that, you need to say 5 positive things to every 1 negative thing you say in class, from a position of authority (e.g., not winging compliments from behind the desk where you have huddled against incoming spitballs). In the context of a largely positive relationship, punishment is temporary and corrective and doesn’t undermine a student’s self-concept.

    Getting to the point of natural authority and strong relationships where positive classroom management can take root and flourish? Ah, that’s the rub, isn’t it :) Take a look at the Good Behavior Game and see if that gives you some ideas.

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Closing the achievement gap with middle school math

Metro Atlanta
Middle School

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