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What Do You Do When You’re Having A Bad Day At School?

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I didn’t have a particularly good day at school yesterday.

A number of students are still having a hard time re-acclimating to school after the Spring Break, I didn’t show as much patience as I would have like to show, and my lessons weren’t particularly engaging.

Happily, this doesn’t happen often.  But it did prompt me to reflect a little more on why it happens when it does, what I try to do in advance to make sure that “all days are good days,” and what I do (and can do better) “in the moment” when things appear to be “going south.”

I don’t think there’s anything particularly insightful in this post, but I hope it might also prompt other people to share their thoughts, reflections and experiences in dealing with the same issues.

WHAT I DO IN ADVANCE TO TRY AND MAKE SURE THAT IT’S GOING TO BE A GOOD DAY

I obviously have an enormous amount of control about whether it’s going to be a good day in my class or not.

Yes, students are going to have bad days, and many students in our inner-city high school are facing multiple challenges in their lives that affect their attitude and behavior in the classroom.  But, in my experience, I believe I can minimize most of the potential substantive negative effects of those challenges in my class by doing the following:

Put a lot of effort into developing relationships: Yes, I know this is a “no-brainer.”  I need to share it, though,  because I believe it’s the most critical piece.  Many students have few or any relationships with adults who they believe care what happens to them.  By demonstrating interest, respect, and caring, students are more likely going to make an effort to try their best or, at minimum, will be less likely to be disruptive.

Have a positive classroom management plan in place: You can read more about the kind of classroom management strategies I use in these previous posts:

When A “Good” Class Goes “Bad” (And Back To “Good” Again!)
Maintaining A “Good” Class
More About Maintaining A “Good” Class
“Why Do You Let Others Control You?”
Have You Ever Taught A Class That “Got Out Of Control”?
What Do Pit Bulls & Cockroaches Have To Do With Learning & Teaching?

Prepare an engaging lesson: If I’ve prepared a good lesson, which includes containing interesting material, requires a fair amount of cooperative work, and doesn’t have me speaking a lot in front, then it makes it less likely I, and my students, are going to have a bad day.

Model student activities: Explaining what I want students to do is not enough — I have to model it.  It doesn’t have to take long, but whether it’s showing how I want students to work in a small group, or demonstrating how and where on a text I want them to write about a reading strategy they will be using, there’s no question that modeling minimizes confusion and increases learning (and the odds that we’re all going to have a good day).

Get enough sleep, feel rested, and be healthy: Generally, bad days happen when I’m feeling tired, run-down, or sick.  I’ve found that they’re less likely to occur if I’m regularly getting my exercise (which is playing basketball)

WHAT I DO WHEN A DAY BEGINS TO “GO SOUTH”

I am only human, after all, and some days I’m not going to fulfill all of the criteria I’ve mentioned in the previous section.  Plus, even though I have an enormous amount of control over what takes place in the classroom, I cannot control what goes on in students’ lives outside of school.  Holiday times, which is when some of the challenges facing students become particularly difficult for them,  can increase tension levels for many at the same time.  Any time of disruption in routine — whether it’s coming back from a Spring Break or if the class schedule temporarily changes to accommodate state testing — can do the same.

Here are some actions I take “in the moment”:

Look at my “Show Patience” Sign: I have a big sign in the back of the room (for my benefit) and in the front (for my students) that says “Show Patience.”  When I might begin to lose “it,”  the sign is big enough for me to catch in the corner of my eye and — sometimes — cause me to act on its message.

Slow down and be conscious of my breathing: If I begin to lose my patience, I try to become more aware of my breathing and slow it down, which generally has a calming effect.

Throw-out the lesson and play a learning game for review: If the “bad day bug” is affecting multiple students, getting them in small groups to play a game can work wonders. You can see a list of simple games I use and their instructions here.

Have a student go outside for a “time-out”: Then, after a few minutes (enough time for me, and, with luck, he/she to calm down) I’ll go out and have a conversation beginning with the question, “What can I do to help you ____________ (get focused, be less upset, etc)?”  I’ll always have a few ideas in my “backpocket” to share, as well (let him/her put their head down for a few minutes, go to the bathroom, etc.).  I’ll talk to the student the next day to get ideas of what they can do next time.  I might do this “serially” with multiple students if things are not looking so good.

Send a student to another classroom for the period or, as a last resort, the discipline office:  If a student has clearly “lost it,” his/her behavior is negatively affecting the entire class, and none of the options I’ve listed (here and in my other class management posts) have either worked or are not feasible, I’ll send a student out (with work to do) to a teacher with whom I have a reciprocal arrangement (and where the student I’m sending out doesn’t know any of the students who will be in that class).  If the student appears out-of-control, however, I’ll call for a hall monitor to them him/her away for the period.

Apologize for my part in it all: I apologize to individual students if I have showed impatience with them.  I might also apologize to the whole class for the part I have played in the class having a bad day.  Saying “I’m sorry” is a good way to “de-polarize” a situation.  This might happen near the end of a class period if nothing I’ve tried has worked.  After I briefly share my apology and the things I think I could have done differently, I usually ask students to take a few minutes to write down what they think they could have done differently, share it with a partner, and then we’ll have a short class discussion.  My starting thing off with an apology and accepting responsibility will often encourage students to reflect on their own roles.

Well, that’s all I got….  I’m looking forward to hearing from others about what has worked for them.  You can never have enough tools in your toolkit to respond to having a bad day!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

6 Comments

  1. Larry,
    The timing of this post is perfect – we just got back from Spring Break as well and a number of my students fell apart. It did not help either that I was not on top of my game. Everything that could go wrong did… and this was in a week that I needed to have my students take the Gates-MacGinitie to test out of the reading support classes that are in. I am hopeful that the positive work done all year helped the majority of the students succeed despite the week that was.

    I am going to take some to refocus (i.e., work in the garden, read for pleasure, and review/adjust my lesson plans as needed) so that I feel less tense and the coming week gets off to a good start. This is most definitely needed so that the STAR testing can go as well as it possibly can.

  2. Wow, as Mr. Lane mentioned, the timing on this post was incredible. I’m currently a student teacher with 8th grade U.S. history students and we have state testing starting this week. Because of this, we’ve spent the past week working to review all sorts of material and the students seem to get frustrated when they can’t remember all the different things we’ve talked about this year. Needless to say, this week has been a challenge both for them and for me.

    Your ideas and thoughts here couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m going to put them into practice this week! Thanks for the excellent post!

  3. Really enjoyed your honest acknowledgement that sometimes things don’t go as planned and that it is ok to admit.
    Really enjoy your posts and am a keen reader through email subsctiption. Also glad to see you on twitter. Where do you get the time !

  4. As I prepare to head back to the classroom tomorrow when our Spring Break ends, thanks for the reminders. I particularly struggle with teaching antsy boys who like to be up and moving. It’s a reminder to plan more engaging lessons to utilize their energy.

  5. I was on Yahoo and found your blog. Read a few of your other posts. Good work. I am looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Tom Stanley

  6. Hello Mr. Ferlazzo. I am a student at the University of South Alabama, and have been assigned to follow your blog for the next few weeks. I have enjoyed hearing your ideas on how to have a good day at school. I think it is very important to know how to keep the day running smoothly, and I am glad you shared this with the world!

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