A month ago, I took over 2 maths classes which were both not in a good state: their previous teacher had been giving unsatisfactory marks the entire classes, and they were discouraged with maths and generally in a bad mood. The first class was loud and complaining loudly, the second quiet, sulky, their complaints more bitter.
Now I have given the classes away again, and I am still thinking a lot about what happened in the lessons.
In the first one, the loud one, I think I managed to achieve a small progress with a very simple trick:
We had an exam, and after I had returned it, I let the students demonstrate the solutions on the blackboard. For each part of the exam, I picked the weakest student who had still managed to solve it.
The effect was astounding: the class was totally silent listening to a weak student explaining an exercise that part of them had not been able to solve. The weak students suddenly looked taller, even those that I had not asked to solve exercises, and they all started to participate in class and volunteer for solving exercises on the blackboard. It was a huge surprise to me. Somehow it turned around the entire dynamics of the class. One of the weakest students, who I had praised for being the only one to see a second solution in one of the exam exercises, later surprised me with making up a difficult exercise for the class herself, and solving it flawlessly on the blackboard. Perhaps not unexpectedly, all of these weak students who suddenly improved had been girls, who are likely to be better at maths then they seem. What I learned from this is how hungry the students are for praise, even they look disinterested.
Of course, at the same time, I have to admit, the strongest (male) student of the class started acting up, disrupting the class by laughing loudly or making stupid comments, which is probably not surprising: he’s role as alpha student was being questioned.
With the second class, I am less happy and still thinking about what I could have done better. There was a really strange piece of dynamics going on. Whatever I tried to explain, there were two girls at the back of the class, let’s call them Rita and Sina, clamouring loudly and in very annoyed voices that they did not understand, asking stupid questions, and urging me to explain the thing again and again. Rita was especially bad, her face was angry and bitter, her questions especially repetitive.
I remained patient and tried to explain again and again, until another math teacher told me that they sometimes use this trick to slow down the class, so that less material can be covered. I was not fully convinced of this though, because the two of them looked really, really desperate and angry at me for not explaining it better. But in the end I had to tell them that I could not explain the same thing four times.
In any case, in the exam, Rita achieved the maximum score, although she was acting up during the exam, bothering others and annoying me.
Sina, on the other hand, was by a large margin the weakest student of the class. So apparently what both of them had communicated turned out to be Sina’s lack of understanding and frustration; Rita apparently had understood everything perfectly well.
Somehow, instead of managing to explain some things to Sina, Rita supported Sina in her anger and frustration, and gave her the feeling that it was not hers, but the teacher’s fault if she could not follow.
After the exam, Sina came to me teary-eyed, saying that this had been her worst mark yet, and begging to repeat the exam. I said this would be the decision of her next teacher.
I am still wondering what I should have done to break this dynamics, or what a good teacher would do next. Probably those two should stop sitting next to each other, because it is damaging Sina. I just do not understand why Rita is not able to help her even a little bit. Maybe, solving the Rita/Sina problem would put the entire class in a better mood and make them less sulky.
It is weird how much the faces of the students are still with me, even now that I know I won’t see them anymore. Especially Rita’s cold stare is still following me and I am still trying to figure out why she used this tactics. There was also a guy in the first row, who also wrote a very good exam, but had such a sad, resigned face that it is hard to forget it.