Monday, August 16, 2010

Learning About My New Students?

August is coming to a close and soon school will begin here in New York.  A new year means new students, new parents, new personalities, new challenges, new everything.  Each year, at this time, I am faced with a decision - should I talk with former teachers about my new students or should I form my own opinions first? There are pros and cons to each choice.  

Maybe I will meet with former teachers and learn something about a student that will turn me off.  Now I have a preconceived notion about a child before ever meeting that child.  I had a situation like that last year.  A particularly challenging student was placed in my class.  His teacher spoke to me at length about his behavior.  By the time our conversation was done, I did not want this child in my class.  Why go through the hassle?  But, of course, I don't pick and choose.  He came into the room.  I had a difficult time seeing past the behaviors that had been described to me to really see this child.  He turned out to be funny and charming.  And his behaviors were manageable.  But it took a long time for me to see that.  

Maybe I will meet with former teachers and learn something about a student that just isn't correct.  I remember one very bright child I had a few years ago.  His former teacher found him arrogant and rude.  I found him to be the most considerate student I have ever taught.  Where did she see arrogance?  He was smarter than she.  He was smarter than me, too.  So he questioned everything.  I found this exciting.  She found it rude.  

I often find that I feel differently about students than other teachers.  Students who cause trouble are my specialty.  I find them to be a challenge and usually end up favoring them as I get to know them and find out why they cause trouble.  (Shhh.  Don't tell anyone I have favorites.)  But when I talk to former teachers about these students, I hear only negatives.

But sometimes a teacher has been successful dealing with a particular student and his/her struggles.  It then benefits me to speak with him/her.  A simple conversation telling me that "Susie" needs frequent breaks to avoid meltdowns can save me tons of aggravation.

Sometimes teachers have good advice for working with certain parents.  Telling me that Mrs. X has a different last name than her child and insists on us using it is important.  Letting me know that Mr. Y will call every day if I don't send home an email letting him know about his child saves me endless hours on the phone.  And being sure that I understand that a translator is needed when meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Z, helps me get on the right track to a good partnership.

So the problem I have each year is this.  How do you know when you should talk about a child and when you shouldn't?  Sometimes that choice is easy.  I refuse to talk to the teachers who only tell me negative things about the children.  There have to be some good things to say about each one.  But sometimes the decision is more difficult.  How do I know why a former teacher had difficulty with a student?  Maybe it was because his methods of dealing with said student were different than mine would be.  Maybe I will be more successful simply because I try something new.

What to do?  What to do?  Responsive Classroom says to learn about the students.  But I think I will stick with my usual plan....get to know the students on my own.  Be respectful to all of them.  Think the best.  Then when I have struggles, I can go to the former teacher with very specific questions instead of a general, "Tell me about Johnny."

How do you handle this decision?

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Francisca D Herrera said...

Great post! One of the things I have realized in my short time teaching is that first impressions go both ways. If a first impression to students is of a cautious, judgmental, or untrustworthy teacher, they will respond behaviorally. It seems only fair that teachers and students get to know each other and develop a more relevant opinion of each other without pre-conceived notions. Of course, when there is an unusual or special circumstance, it is useful to gather information that would best help the student.

I agree with what your instincts are telling you. Good luck this fall!

Unknown said...

I share your dilemma but have recently (2 years ago) decided to go the route of hearing it all. I always always ALWAYS consider the source (and it sounds like you do to and should give yourself more credit for being able to discern or read between the lines of what the negative teachers say) and learn so much from even the negative teachers. Sometimes even more because it gives me a glimpse of what happened the previous year. If I know the commentary/advise is from a "negative" teacher, I take it with a grain of salt and understand that on the first day of school, when that kiddo comes walking through my classroom door, that they may need some extra TLC because of a poor relationship with a teacher from the previous year. Bottom line, I form my own opinions, but use all the input, just in different ways.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing. I could have written this myself. We share so many ideas on this topic.

I'm entering my third year teaching, and only the first year did I get the opportunity to speak to the previous teacher, who was kind of old school and about 35 years my senior. There I was, excited to be starting and not wanting to offend anyone. So when she pulled me over to tell me about the class, I sat with her to listen, telling myself beforehand and throughout: "This is one person's perspective. I will make up my own mind."

She proceeded to tell me all about which kids were being abused, which kids were dancers, which kids slack off if not monitored, etc. (She conveniently left out the case of my stutterer and the chaotic disorganization of another boy). There was some important information, but there also a lot of editorializing.

I thanked her for telling me these things, and as an assertion of my territory and values, told her I will continue to make my own judgements.

Later in the year, I found a hot pink piece of stapled paper folded in three in one of my file cabinets. I opened it and saw many negative comments about my little darlings. My reaction to most? PFFT!

My point is this: yes, there are some things you would do well to hear from the previous teacher: medical issues, family issues, etc.

But those teachers who feel the need to badmouth something about every kid? I have no time for them. I defend my kids fiercely, and now, going on my third year, people have learned what not to say to me. I bring the belief into my classroom that I know my kids better than anyone in the building and am their number one supporter - so why should I let anyone talk to me about them in a negative way?

This attitude has enabled me to "turn around" some notorious behavior issues. That's only because I give them, not my colleagues, the benefit of the doubt.

You're the boss, applesauce. And you'll learn what you need to know about your kids. Get essential details from previous teachers, but don't take their opinions.

Lisa Parisi said...

One of the things I find most interesting is that some of my readers are assuming I am a new teacher since I ask this question. I actually have been teaching for over 25 years. And still, as I come into the year, knowing that I have some difficult children, knowing that the stakes are high for plowing through curriculum quickly, I wonder if knowing would be better than not knowing. Still not sure.

Lee Kolbert said...

Excellent post, Lisa. I tend to only get the negative about the students and the parents and sometimes it's not because of the students but because of some other "disturbance" in the classroom that could well have been caused by inflexibility or too much flexibility on the part of the teacher, or lack of communication, or what-have-you. I tend to go talk to the previous teachers after I notice there might be an issue to see how they handled it.

Good luck with teaching! You'll love it. (Ha, just kidding!) - Although this is different because my incident was antagonistic; reminds me of a parent last year who asked me if that was my first year teaching (she didn't like me). (Note: I've been teaching 25 years.) I was kind in my response, but I really wanted to ask her if it was her first year parenting. :)

Unknown said...

After 21 years of teaching, I believe you should be positive about all students when you meet them. It would be difficult to do so if you have received information from someone else before hand (even if you can dismiss it as one person's opinion, it is still at the back of the mind.) I am in a very small rural school. I stay out of the places where teachers gossip. My only knowledge of students are whose name is called often to the office. I don't seem to have the problem with my high school students that other teachers do. Mostly I am willing to compromise - some things are just not worth escalating. I can bring them back around when not everything is a battle. I also have a different class structure than most.

Elle Ryan said...

Hi Lisa,

Like you I have been teaching for a long time (20 years) and I also have encounted the same difficulties at times. I have learnt to be discerning with the information I receive - everyone handles situations differently. Like you I have teachers tell me that the student has behaviour problems, learning probs etc and I have found them to be intelligent and very funny! One year I was in a position where the previous teacher did not pass on information- a boy from that class entered my room and I found him to be one of the most funniest children I have ever taught (year3). His parents spoke with me half way throught the year and said they couldn't believe how well he was going and how he loved learning. I asked them what they meant as I found him so bright. They said the year previous he had been on special programs and was unmotivated. I was glad I had not been given that information and 'treated' him as if he had no extra needs!

Good luck - it sounds like you are doing the right thing - with the right attitude!

Lisa Parisi said...

LOL. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall if you had asked the parent that question.

I too stay away from the gossip areas. I find they are way too negative. It is true that many times my teaching style is the key to grabbing that disruptive child. So I really like to figure it out myself.

Good for you. I remember a conference I had one year with a parent of a 2nd grader (7 year old). I started by saying how much I loved him, how kind he was, how hard working. She interrupted me to tell me who's mom she was. She thought I was talking about the wrong child. It broke my heart to know that by age 7 this child already had a reputation. He went on to be an Eagle Scout in high school and is taking care of the world. Imagine if I had listened to the talk.

Jenny said...

I try not to find out anything before the first week of school is over. It is, as you say, much too easy to walk away with impressions that color the rest of the year. After the first week I will often chat with teachers some for ideas though. At that point I've built pretty solid impressions and I'm ready to learn more about the previous year. (I'm really lucky though to work with a fabulous group of teachers and it would be rare for one to be truly negative about a kid.)

Mike Harrison said...

Hi Lisa,

It seems to me the key concept is this:

Whether a newer or more experienced teacher, don't assume anything. Why not speak to other teachers who have been in the classroom with these soon-to-be-yours students? But take it with a pinch of salt. Obviously, you're an experienced teacher, so perhaps you'll do this fairly easily, not filling your head with preconceived ideas about your students.

I think Matt's comments regarding finding out about particular issues (ongoing behavioural problems, medical conditions, diagnosed or suspected learning difficulties) make sense. Having some information before you meet them can be beneficial. However, keep in mind who told you what about the students, and above all else, trust your own judgement. Pretty soon you'll know the ins and outs to do with your class.

For the record, I'm entering my 4th year of teaching EFL/ESOL this September, and I've always found it a help to be able to ask teachers who have worked longer at my college about particular students.



Unknown said...

Hello everyone and welcome to a new school year.
A time for teachers and students to start new. This year will be better than ever. More learning, more fun, better organization, more reading, more patience . . . I have been teaching for 20+ years and every September I looked forward to "new to me" students and the chance to be a more capable, understanding, and involved teacher than the year before.
I do not want my students to judge me based upon my past performances, bad days, good days, family troubles, staff conflicts . . . . My students deserve the same privilege. Do not look speak to last year's teacher and do not investigate a student's file until the need arises. Give your students the same privilege that you ask for.

Ms. B'well said...

Interesting views. Each year/semester, I meet my students with the phrase "Come just as you are". This allows me to enjoy getting to know them as they enjoy getting to know me.

They will have preconceived notions about teachers, and naturally I will have preconceived notions about students in general. These preconceived notions will however not lead either of us to pre-judge the other because they are not based on what someone else said, but merely on general ideas.

Allowing them to come as they are also fosters a more open, safe and trusting learning environment.