Overwhelmed Student Teacher

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I am in a school where screaming at all students is the norm. I have a kindergarten assignment and students are humiliated and degraded in efforts to control their behavior. I was able to show some positive discipline techniques to the teacher the first week by modeling and the students had several teachers from their classes call or come into comment on what a great two days they had. However, at the end of the first week, the teacher took off and I had total control of the class. None of my usual stuff worked and there was total chaos. The kids know only green for go and scream (red) or anger for stop. There is no in between. I have done long term substitute teaching taking over k-6 for months at a time and never encountered this degree of chaos. Finally, another kindergarten teacher who was listening from the hall came in and screamed and defaced their characters and sent them into tears and then of course they were intimidated into behaving. I have 6 more weeks in this classroom. How can I control this class who understands the boundary as an anger explosion? I have to get control because I will have them a full 2.5 weeks on my own. I bought several books and they will be wonderful when I set up my own classroom, but do not apply in a pre-set up environment. I refuse to damage these little personalities any further. This is ridiculous but the whole school operates this way. You can see a teacher walking with a teary-eyed student being stopped by another teacher to ask what they did wrong and then being severely reprimanded by this teacher a second time-geez. Please help. My biggest problem is that my supervisor agrees with the intimidation and screaming.

Dear Overwhelmed:

You describe a VERY challenging situation. You will not be able to change the school. You will not be able to change the other teachers. But you are working with a kindergarten! These kids are very flexible and eager to learn new skills. It is true that they are very unskilled right now, but that doesn't mean that they have to stay that way. You can do amazing things even in the space of 3 to 4 days. First, you already know that you cannot tell them what to do or MAKE them do anything....but you can engage them in solving problems. When you invite them to help you solve a problem they will get the sense that they are contributing. This helps them feel better...and from the place of feeling better, they will also do better. I cannot tell you exactly the best way to go about doing this...you know your kids and your school and your position, but here are some suggestions. 
1. Share with the kids what you see. (Without judgment). For example you might say things like: Did you know that I have taught at several different schools and this one seems different. I wonder if you might guess how it is different. (Make a long list on the board of all the answers. Don't censor or say right or wrong. It will give you an idea of how they see their school.) After they are done, you might say, there is another thing too, it is that it seems like there is a lot of chaos and you don't get as much time for having fun or for learning. You might see if they can relate to that. Ask them to think about it. And see if they can notice when you might be thinking there is chaos. They could make a signal, like putting their hand flat on the top of their head. (And you can do the same thing)....reminding them that the job for the day is just noticing, and getting ideas about how to solve the problem without doing much different. Getting them to stop and think. 

2. After a day of just noticing, you might ask them if they might come up with some ideas that might make the classroom more respectful/less chaotic (which would mean more time for fun and learning). This might take the form of the kids choosing 4 or 5 rules that they could try for a week, or it might take the form of choosing an action to take when chaos is noted. (Don't make the mistake of deciding on a consequence or punishment for chaos, this will just feed their old view. If they suggest that, let them know that you have faith that they can do better without feeling bad first....if they have some real options.) One of the fun things to do would be to break into song anytime there is too much chaos, and to see how quickly everyone can stop what they are doing and join in. This helps kids understand that there are more choices than just good and bad, that behavior can be changed without a big stick or a threat....that it is just a matter of doing something else, changing focus. You might be singing a LOT the first day...and comment that you are hoarse...but that you had more fun, and that everyone learned a lot. 
3. You might (after step one and two) initiate a discussion about how we all like to be significant (have worth) and we like to belong. How do we behave to get those feelings? Why do some behaviors that are a problem to others give the student of being significant and belonging. (This discussion requires an understanding of the mistaken goals of behavior which you can read about in Positive Discipline in the Classroom or Positive Discipline). Don't lecture, just learn from the kids and ask leading questions. 
4. Try refocusing your energy. Your job is not to control these kids (you cannot do that). Your job is to set limits with kindness and firmness (at the same time). Your job is to get them so engaged in being part of the group and learning that there is no need for mischief (which is a mistaken way of getting belonging and significance). If you aim for control, you will lose. 
5. Take care of yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat well, visit with friends and exercise. What happens in this classroom is not a statement about you. When you look for a permanent job, you now know how VERY important the culture of the school will be in your enjoyment of what you do. 
Best wishes, 
Jody McVittie, M.D. Certified Positive Discipline Associate. 

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