Friday morning I had some of my most difficult students with me for our remediation period. Students who, I’ll be honest, I breathe a little sigh of relief when they’re absent. Don’t get me wrong– I have NOT given up on them — but some days it’s nice not to have to participate in the struggle for a little while. I’m human. I only have so much energy.

Anyway, all of that aside, today was not what I expected. The three students I’m thinking of made up a quiz they were absent for. None of them did very well on it. We talked about doing quiz corrections. I used to do remediation sessions with retakes for quizzes weekly after school that were very successful. Now that we have no late activity buses and a half-hour remediation period, that really isn’t practical. I haven’t figured a good way to replicate it, so they get to correct quizzes for half points back.

After that, there was some time left so they were socializing. As it always seems to, conversation turned to teachers. Ms A was mean because she told them to be quiet. Mr B was great but if he didn’t like you he’d just kick you out for anything. Ms C was always so rude. I asked them: “Why do you all like me and tell me I’m cool? I’m hard on you, I give you a hard time when you interrupt me, I write you up.” (Every single one of them has had multiple detentions or referrals from me for behavior.) “Yeah, but you’re not mean about it. You let us do groupwork sometimes. Ms A just wants you to listen to what she’s saying bell to bell. And she’s rude.” “You have to push your buttons to get written up. It has to be serious.”

I have been trying so hard this year to stay polite no matter what. To connect with some of these students who seem off-putting at first. To remember to love more than the easy-to-love. I wasn’t sure if it made a difference at all. I guess it has?

I have also in the last month or so been working on remembering that along with the politeness, the patience, and the belief in every kid, comes the hard core. The alpha. The expectation that they will do what you say, that unquestioning confidence in authority. Teenagers don’t respect authority that questions itself when it matters. Not that they don’t want you to be human, and sometimes vulnerable, and apologize, but there’s a time for taking no prisoners and they know if you have it in you.

 I recently found Singing Pigs. I love her blog – you should read it! Reading some of her posts helped me a lot with this. In particular, she reminded me that it’s okay to let my snarky, sarcastic self out with them at times. I talked about this with a couple of building colleagues whose classroom management I respect. They are well-liked by students, the sort of teachers who the kids say are strict, but funny and interesting. They both are not hesitant to let the snarky side out because it works. They are also both people who the kids know they can go to for help when they need it and not get turned away. This is a hard balance to walk and I feel like I’m finally starting to find my way on the tightrope.

Singing Pigs recently posted about being Alpha with teenagers. It reminded me I need to remember when to do that. This was one of the hardest things for me to learn – I am naturally a mediator, a conciliator. Not only that, but as a fresh-out-of-college 23 year-old, I was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of being an Authority Figure. Me? How could I be one? How could I enforce rules that I wasn’t even sure I agreed with?

I’ve learned that it’s another tightrope. Sometimes you can use it to your advantage–teenagers love to think they’re in on something with you. Give them a little leeway but tell them they better be good when the admins come in. Ask them not to get you in trouble.

I’m still not a natural alpha, but I have my days. Days where I’ve got It. You know what happens on those days? The ones where you come in full of determination and plans on what to do if you have problems in class? They’re good. They ask you if you’re having a bad day and you say “No, I just need you to stop talking to him and pay attention for the rest of the notes. We’ll be done in 15 minutes.” And they do it. They can feel it in you, the readiness to Bring It when the problems show and most of them respect it.

Then there’s the days when you’re exhausted, you don’t have the energy for confrontations, you just want it to be over so you can go home and get in your pjs and be in bed by 7pm. They know. They walk all over you.

This is why I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the BEST thing I could do to improve my teaching was to get enough rest. No more than 2 weeknights with less than 7 hours of sleep a week allowed. Sleeping in on Saturday until I’m fine. If I’m tired, I can’t bring it. Now, sometimes the tired is emotional — which is why I try to respect my own need for the periodic off-night. I don’t have to grade papers for two hours every night. If I want to always get things back the next day, sure, but you know what? I think my students benefit more from a teacher who’s awake enough to bring their A game than papers handed back right away. Yes, quick feedback is good, but does it matter if we get nothing of value done that day?

Wow, now I sound like I’m a genius of classroom management AND work-life balance. Nah. I just feel like I’ve made a few strides forward over the last month.

One of the pieces I’ve just started to put together is about bluntness. I’m not sure that’s the right word — basically, sometimes the best way to deal with teenagers being crazy is to name their sh**. Say things like “Did you really pour all the holes from hole-punch in her hair and think that would be okay?” Also “Since you’re a terrible shot and can’t actually make the basket with all those paper balls, you better pick them up and put them in there by the end of class.” “Next time you go sharpen your pencil, which apparently needs sharpening after every sentence you write, go around BEHIND the projector.”

It’s not about starting a confrontation in which they feel they have to save face. Those never go well. It’s about calling them out on ridiculous behavior that they KNOW is ridiculous. Showing that you know exactly what sort of nonsense they’re getting up to. Calling them out on the whispers they think you didn’t hear. Using those eyes in the back of your head. 😉

On the one hand, I feel like I should’ve figured this one out in the previous 7 years of teaching. On the other, I’m just glad that I’ve finally started to be able to know what I’m doing and use this intentionally, as a strategy.