You gotta do what you gotta do
Why is it that when you actually want students to talk, they won’t?
I can’t tell you how many times this year I’ve posed a question or idea to my high school students only to be met with anywhere from ten to twenty students staring back at me in silence.
And then they sink into their desks… and disappear under the Formica veneer.
And I’m not the only high school teacher to notice this. Other teachers in the private Facebook groups I follow have recently discussed this silent phenomenon among groups of students in their own classes. (Is it Covid-19? Do they text so much that they’re uncomfortable talking? Who knows.)
Trust me. I’m getting to the self-care part of this post.
Regardless, to a teacher new to high school like me (this is my second year teaching juniors and seniors), a student’s desire to be seemingly invisible can be mistaken for boredom and disinterest. And yes, some are bored. You can’t please everyone.
However, in general, I believe most high school students are not bored. In fact, I believe they want to be in school; some just don’t want to show it. That’s because if they show it, they might be called on.
And that would be bad, because then they might stand out, be different, or appear that they don’t have all the answers.
When I think back to my own high school years — forty years ago, mind you — I remember feeling this way at times. And because it was that long ago, I tend to believe this is not a Covid-19 or texting/social media phenomenon as much as it’s just teenagers being teenagers.
I also remember a teacher whom I now realize was probably experiencing this same issue: Ms. Sams. She was my freshman and sophomore English teacher and everyday at the beginning of third hour, she would bewilder me with her enthusiasm.
As the final bell rang, Ms. Sams would close the door and march across the room to her desk, chanting, “Okay, let’s go! Let’s go! Lots to do! Let’s hop to it!” I remember the “Ms. Sams strut” would happen nearly everyday. She wasn’t loud or obnoxious about it either.
In fact, it was almost as if her “show” was mainly for her own enjoyment.
At the time, I remember thinking, “Wow, she’s so energetic. That’s so weird.” And frankly, it was a little quirky, a little odd. She was so in her zone, I thought.
But now, as a high school teacher myself, I totally get what Ms. Sams was up to.
She was just doing what she had to do to generate some positive energy amidst a group of silent, unresponsive, mostly insecure high schoolers.
So now, many years later, I’m diving into my own Ms. Sams-inspired zone under the name of “teacher self-care.”
And yes, I’ve got my bases covered to meet students halfway. I’m doing my best to provide relevant projects and assignments. I also make sure my students feel secure and confident in my classroom and able to freely speak their minds.
After all, I understand how introverts or quiet students may not be tuned into my need for excitement in the classroom. As educator Christina Torres writes in this Education Week article, teachers should not mistake silence for apathy. She adds that other factors may be at play in why students don’t contribute, such as family strife, mental health needs, or cultural norms.
But here’s the thing: I can’t wait on my students to talk. Whatever the reason for their silence, I need some pep.
It’s time for me to look after me. Y’know, emulate Ms. Sams, show a little oddball enthusiasm, and — in the words of Dory from Finding Nemo — just keep swimming.
So without further ado, here are the six slightly odd self-care things I do to energize my day with high schoolers:
Simple enough, right? At the beginning of most classes, I do my best impression of Ms. Sams. After closing the door, I walk across the room, and clap a few times on the way to my desk to take roll. I add an “Okay! Let’s go! Lots to do today!” just to get things rolling.
Then as I scan through my lesson plan, I’ll sometimes do a series of five claps in a pattern something like this: clap-clap (pause) clap-clap-clap. It’s kinda catchy. And by that, I mean that it catches the attention of one or two students who raise their eyebrows and shake their heads as if to say There she goes again.
And often, all that clapping will even lead to (you guessed it) the occasional…
All that clapping makes me feel energetic. And we’ve made it to the beginning of another class, so why not acknowledge the moment?! In my senior British Literature class, there’s nothing like a little:
Faustus! (clap clap)
Faustus! (clap clap)
Faustus! (clap clap)
Now, mind you, I don’t yell. (Or wear a cheer skirt, thank goodness.) But I do speak these cheery things out loud. In high school, and especially in a class full of silent seniors, you gotta do what you gotta do. And you know what? Cheering does help because occasionally someone sitting out there in their desk will acknowledge my enthusiasm with a return clap or a quiet “Woo-hoo!” and that is literally music to my ears.
3. Say the breakfast menu loudly in an Italian accent.
At our school, students eat breakfast in their first hour class. This is a change our district made a few years ago to encourage kids to fuel up for the day. Every morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance, Gloria from the kitchen enters the room and says, for example, “Pancakes and sausage!” And that’s when I follow up with “Pancakes-uh and Sausage-uh!” in my best (or worst, actually) appropriation of one of the world’s most beautiful languages.
And yep, this one’s all for me. No one says anything. They’re socializing, catching up on the previous night’s activities, or digging through their backpacks. No one is really even paying attention, thank goodness. It’s just me reminding myself to have fun amidst the business of “school.”
I religiously (okay, addictively) apply hand aromatherapeutic moisturizer. I keep a box of masculine and feminine “flavors” on my desk that students are welcome to use. It’s a simple, fragrance-filled pick-me-up whenever I need it, which is about four to fives times a day. My favorite scent lately has been Twisted Pepper Mint from Bath & Body Works.
5. Freshen up the room.
Speaking of peppermint, I also sprinkle one or two drops of peppermint oil into a glowing oil diffuser in my classroom. Peppermint is a natural pick-me-up. It also helps with focus, clears one’s mind, “and is extremely uplifting,” according to New York City aromatherapist Amy Galper. As a result, my classroom smells clean and fresh. When students enter my room, they often comment on how good it smells and this makes me smile. It’s the little things, right?!
6. Play some jazz.
I’ve always liked to play instrumental jazz quietly (as in really, really quietly) in my classroom. Recently, my son recommended the perfect Spotify playlist: Jazz in the Background. The music is what I like to call “invisible.” It can play without being disruptive. In fact, nearly every song on the list is perfect. I skip only one or two saxophone-heavy songs if I can conveniently get to my computer to do so. But for the most part, this list is the ideal one to add some spirit to a slow-moving, quiet classroom, while adding a nice chill vibe at the same time.
And those are the six slightly odd steps in my self-care routine. What do you practice to make your teaching job more rewarding? Got any quirks that only your students know about? Feel free to share by leaving a comment!
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