Goldfish and Clean Slates

A student emailed me over the weekend. He’s a beginning teacher working in a local middle school and his students are challenging him. After several run-ins with a few students, he emailed me for some advice on how to work with middle school kids and how to be an authority figure in the classroom. If you don’t work in teacher education, you may be surprised to learn that many new teachers struggle with classroom management. In some teacher education programs, there are entire courses dedicated to how to “manage a classroom.” I honestly hate that term. So, I probably didn’t give the advice that my student expected to hear.

I explained that for most of the students I’ve worked with in my career, I’ve been able to be successful through a combination of building relationships and modeling respect. When I’d encounter a challenging student, I’d pull them aside before or after class and I’d ask them how they were doing. I’d explain that I was on their side and that I wanted to help them be successful. If I saw them in the hallway or in the cafeteria, I’d say hello and ask them about their day. Sometimes, I’d show up at an event or a sports match. In my interactions, I’d do my best to communicate respectfully and work to build a relationship. That’s it. No magical superpowers. No fancy “classroom management” techniques.

I’m not naive enough to believe that this strategy works for all students. I’ve worked with some really challenging students who have tested my patience and my resolve. I’d be in the middle of teaching a lesson and they’d start to push my buttons. I’d work to keep my composure, but then I’d lose my cool. It didn’t happen often. But enough that I still can remember the instances in which it did.

The interesting part is that some of those students would come in the next day acting like nothing happened. I’d struggle with the interaction from the previous day and they’d almost be a different person. But that leads to some of the best advice I received from my mentor teacher many years ago. “If you’re going to work with kids,” she said, “you better have a short memory. The student you work with one day may be very different the next one.”

I’ve tried to remember that throughout my career and I included it in my email advice to this beginning teacher. I framed it a little differently, though. I’ve been watching Ted Lasso, a show on Apple TV+ about an American football coach who is hired to coach an English premier team. Early in the first episode, the coach shares some advice to a struggling player.

“You know what the happiest animal in the world is?” Ted Lasso asks the player. “It’s a goldfish. It’s got a 10 second memory. Be a goldfish.”

In offering the advice, Ted is asking the player to put aside the mistake he had just made and work on improving things. Have a short memory.

And that might be the best way to think about the challenging students with whom we work. Try to be a goldfish. Do your best to foster positive relationships and model respect, but when students misstep, offer some grace to let them start tomorrow with a clean slate.

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