Let’s Talk Classroom Management in At-Risk Environments

A particularly fun day!

 I’ve come across several blogs/listserv posts in the past few weeks wherein a teacher is describing an incident and following it with “I was so furious! Never in my [years of extensive teaching experience] have I witnessed such behavior!”

The described incidents are entities that would never be on my radar. In the two years alone four of my students have been arrested, charged, and placed into juvenile detention. I’ve had still more placed onto law-based probation. Countless more have been removed from my school and placed into alternative-schooling. Several of my female students could not attend a recent art show as they were suspended for granting sexual favors in the restroom, and one of my very favorite students is out on doctor-ordered pregnancy bed rest. While I’m not regularly cursed at, it does happen, and one charmer even told me to “go f*ck myself.” I’m accomplished in anticipating, ending, and mediating physical and emotional altercations. I’ve taken a punch to a face to keep a student from being hit, and in a legendary story from about eight years ago I tackled a student to the ground to keep other students safe.

I teach students aged 11-15 years.

I am reluctant to say I teach “bad kids” or in a “bad environment” because the explanations for the behaviors of some of my students is much more complex than “bad.” Many of my students display consistent and exemplary behaviors, and even the ones who make poor choices are not consistently disruptive.  In fact, very few, the outliers if you will, are consistently difficult.  But, as teachers, we all know that just one student can turn a happy classroom into a miserable place for everyone.

What I have come to realize talking to teacher friends and colleagues is that it is more likely you (and teachers in general) work in a school like mine than not.  Furthermore, if you are teacher-in-training, your first job is most likely to be in an environment like mine. And, most first-time teachers enter at  the middle school level (whether that is their preference or not).

Not my school, it feels this way sometimes!

It is not often that you hear the voices of teachers in at-risk environments speak/write about classroom management online (other than to rant), and I have a theory about it: We are over it. We are tired of being told that we aren’t doing it “right.”  About a year ago, I wrote online about the challenges I was facing in my classroom and asked for advice.  The advice given (while well-intentioned) was pedantic and condescending; it all seem to come from teachers whom have/had limited experience working in an at-risk environment.  When I described that I had already tried the methods suggested, I was told that I probably needed to work on my classroom management.

One well-meaning comment (that still makes my blood boil) stated: “You just need to set higher expectations. If you set higher expectations children will always rise to meet them.”

The work of my students

I know how to manage, I know how to set expectations. . . My kids are coming from tough places wrought with emotional and physical complexities that are not resolved by the setting of a simplistic expectation.

This job ain’t for sissies y’all.

So, when I see teachers lament and rant about a behavior (while admittedly annoying) that is not particularly harmful, I no longer offer my words or advice (in fact, I probably eye-roll a teensy, unfair, bit). I’m tired of being told that I don’t know what I’m doing by people who would be eaten alive (haha!) by my awesome, energetic, creative, and nefarious students.

But, I do have knowledge and wisdom about managing tough teaching environments and would like to share and collaborate with teachers in similar circumstances.  So, teachers in at-risk environments and teachers-in-training: Let’s talk!

At least once a week, I’m going tackle an issue/problem/behavior common in at-risk environments, discuss how I manage it, and open it up for discussion.  I certainly don’t have all the answers (sometimes I’ve convinced I don’t even know the questions), but I am willing to frankly and openly talk about the challenges we at-risk teachers face (without implying you don’t know what you’re doing).

What topics would you most like to discuss? Which topics would be most helpful to you?

9 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Classroom Management in At-Risk Environments”

  1. Although this is probably off topic I would love to read your advice on working with students with special needs in the art room, specifically students with autism, adhd and oppositional defiance. Either my lessons are not engaging enough or they excite the students too much!

  2. Ooo! Thank you! I can't wait to read your upcoming blog posts about teaching art in at-risk environments!

  3. I'm glad you're opening up this conversation. Teachers in urban environments with at-risk populations need more resources. Especially those in middle and upper levels. I'd like to see more about dealing with obscene language and disrespectful behavior, how to cope with students who may escalate from verbal to physical fights, and coping with issues like pregnancy, homelessness, hunger, and substance abuse among students. I've been thinking about classroom management in urban art rooms a lot lately, and a book needs to be published! Like “What to do when every art material imaginable can become a projectile weapon”. I'm not dealing with all these issues in my school, but I know many other art educators who are!

  4. Beautifully written, thank you for the inspiration! I am a high school art teacher at an alternative private school, and deal with many of the same issues you addressed. You took the words right out of my mouth! Happy Friday!

  5. MarieE, we should have a whole part to this series called “What to do when every art material imaginable can become a projectile weapon!!!”

  6. I know this is off-topic,but I have to ask: is it shaving cream? Or plaster? I'm guessing shaving cream, and perhaps you will be marbling? Or leaning the tables in a really fun way?

  7. I am so glad you are writing on this topic. I teach at 3 schools, and one of them has a few at risk students. I haven't quite figured out how to deal with hostile situations. I would love to hear more about how to deal with students who are violent and provoke other students.

  8. The elementary school I teach at has many students with “exemplary behaviors.” Your rough-and-tumble bunch could certainly give mine a run for their money! I remind myself each and every day that my classroom is not only a creative space for my students but often a sanctuary. With (almost) one year of teaching under my belt, I still have so much to learn about classroom management in an at-risk environment. Thank you for opening up this conversation; I have often felt there is not enough information or dialogue for those of us who experience this sort of teaching environment. I would be interested in how to successfully motivate and connect with students who feel as though they are terrible at art and everything else in life. (Who can blame them for feeling that way when that's all they hear at home?) Maybe its distrust of adults in general?

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