Shifting the Way I Interpret Student Behavior

by | 01.22.19

If there was an action figure of me as a teacher, she would have a clipboard in her hand. My clipboard is where I keep my plan for that day. It’s where I keep notes about my students, including their behavior. The clipboard has everything. Early on in my teaching career, I once left the clipboard sitting somewhere while I helped a kid, and when I came back, the sheet with all my grades and notes was gone.

I felt so hurt and betrayed. I felt a kid had broken my trust, and I made a really big deal out of it, asking the class, “Why would someone do that?” I asked for whoever had taken the sheet to come forward and promised that I’d give them “amnesty” in return for their honesty – but of course, no one did. Then, about a week later, I found the paper. It was all ripped up and had been thrown behind the bookshelf.

When I look back on that moment now, I realize a few things. One, what happened was so not a big deal. Two, I thought I could turn the whole situation into a learning opportunity, but I hadn’t built the trust that would enable kids to want to be honest with me. If they felt the sheet on my clipboard was so harmful to them that they had to rip it up, why would I think they’d then turn the corner and say, “Oh, I took it. It was me. I trust you enough to tell you”?

Another thing I realize now was that for a kid to do that – to swipe the paper from my clipboard, rip it up and hide it – meant something bigger was going on. The most important thing happening was not that a kid had “betrayed” me. The bigger issue was that the kid felt unheard or unseen by whatever I’d written down there – there was something going on with my clipboard routine that was bothering him. I couldn’t see that then, because I was still in a reactive place. At that point in my career, I took behavior issues and classroom management issues really personally. If a student told me they didn’t like me or my class, I took it at face value.

But I had a mentor who helped me understand that behavior issues are usually symptomatic of some larger problem – of needs that aren’t being met. She helped me understand that I couldn’t take behavior issues so personally, because when I took them personally, I was missing the bigger picture – and the opportunity to actually be there for my students or find solutions that addressed the real issues. My mentor helped me decenter myself, which has been helpful in shaping who I am as a teacher. That shift bleeds into my thinking not just about behavioral issues, but also academic needs and other reasons kids might be struggling.

Now, when kids are having side conversations during my lessons, I still think, “I wish they wouldn’t do that.” But I also ask myself, “What have I done in setting up this activity or this task that’s not working? Have I not been clear with my instructions? Could this activity actually work better if they did it collaboratively? Are my expectations not high enough?” I can start by asking myself all these questions, rather than by assuming the problem is with the child.

An important part of my building a more equitable practice has been learning to hear what kids are actually communicating to me through their behaviors, and recognizing that the way they communicate looks different from how I might communicate. I need to do the work of peeling back the layers to see what’s really going on. That’s the only way I can figure out how to meet my kids’ needs.

I try to be explicit about my own whiteness when I think about racial equity in particular. The vast majority of my students are kids of color, and I’m a white woman. There are pieces of their identities and lived experiences that are so different from mine. It’s really important that I be mindful and recognize that everything I experience is going to be filtered through my whiteness, and that matters. I have to think about my own whiteness, privilege, and implicit biases and how they influence the ways I see my kids and how I interpret their behaviors.

I’ve had to learn that all the learners in my class are different, and they all need different things from me.

The clipboard incident is one of those new-teacher moments I look back on and wish I could do over. If that same thing happened today, I would handle it differently. Instead of making a big deal out of it and trying to convince the kid to confess in front of the whole class, I would pull him aside and meet with him. I would ask, “What’s going on? Let’s talk about it.” I would push my own ego out of the way and try to figure out what he needed from me that he wasn’t getting. And then I’d do better. That’s what I understand now that I didn’t get then: teaching is about messing up and then doing better. It’s messy, humbling work. But that’s the kind of work that humans—not action figures—do.


About the Author


Sydney Chaffee
Sydney Chaffee

Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches ninth grade Humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @SydneyChaffee.


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