Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Classroom Management Nightmares in Abu Dhabi, T-Squared back to square 1

I originally posted this rather long lament in a UAE teachers group, figure there's a lot of non UAE teachers out there that may have had similar experiences(Hey Korea peeps!) or even non teachers with some wise experience (Hey rest of the world!) ......................................................................................................................................... Today was tough. In nine years of teaching I've never had students get to me like this. I've always been able to keep my composure with perhaps one or two instances in my very first few months in a classroom, and even then it was only momentary really. Tonight I can't sleep. What has worked for you all with classroom management? Two of my classes seem challenging but manageable. The third I feel is going to test my limits as a human being. On some level I know they are likely just testing me and trying to push my buttons because I'm the new guy. Other teachers have been helpful and supportive and told me not to take it personally. I'm trying really hard but I need to be honest, it's not easy. I'm no stranger to living in another culture and rolling with the punches, so I don't think it's as easy to explain as culture shock, though maybe that's a bit of it. I am ashamed to admit it but I've probably raised my voice more times in the last week than in my entire teaching career, perhaps even my life. My philosophy has always been that once I lose my composure I've already failed. The first week was so promising, with only a handful of the keen students showing up. I felt like I was really building relationships with the students and was so excited. Tonight I was brought to tears at 1 am. That's after coming home, reflecting, talking a bit with the teacher I am carpooling with, taking a swim and jacuzzi and making a conscious effort to look at all this positively and open minded. I've tried being strict, I've tried talking with my HOF and another Arabic speaking teacher a few days ago. Some students were sent home for a few days and during that time I tried changing my strategy, giving a short video at the beginning of class with the agreement of students that I would keep the videos at the beginning if they would promise to try to focus for the rest of class. It was actually working well, but some of the students who had been sent home for a few days came back and the whole dynamic went right back to Apocalypse Now. I've been trying to use a quick on the spot behaviour tracking chart of sorts, with green and red marks on the attendance sheet, though it's become apparent the students see it more as a work completion chart. The strange thing is, with many of the students who are acting out I do have some moments where I think they are really nice kids. And I have this feeling and sense that it's like another teacher said to me; really they just want me to like them and care about them. And I'm trying desperately, using everything I know and have learned over my career as a teacher. I just can't get why they are making it so hard, and even more, I can't get at all why I'm allowing myself to let it get to me. I've heard it said reflection is the key to improving as a teacher, so you could say I'm reflecting to stay alive here. I think tomorrow or maybe for a few days at least I may have to just focus 100% on building classroom community. I'm struggling to learn names as well, though I've got a few down. I think I need pictures. I'm contemplating bringing in my IPAD and using Class Dojo or something similar where I can put all their pics into a program and study, but I am genuinely worried about the safety of my IPAD. The Classroom door has already been broken, someone wrote on the projector screen when I wasn't in class. One of the students who I find very distracting, even though he is often somewhat friendly, (but in a way I can't quite tell if it's genuine or if he is playing head games 'pretending' to be trying to be helpful. He'll often say he's trying to help me, but the thing is he's a very big kid, with a huge booming voice, and pretty much simply refuses to stop talking, ever, when I'm trying to talk to the class) got angry and flipped out because I called him out for hitting another student in the chest with a backhand. It was right in front of me, and I could swear I saw him hit the other guy, who also seems to be one of the kids who constantly distracts and disrupts the class. He claimed he didn't hit him, just grabbed his head scarf or something. They both went off together and left the class without permission. I think they went to the principal because he said 'Mujeer' before he left. He also threw the already broken door handle, which we have to keep on a desk by the door, quite violently to the floor before he left. I think maybe he thinks I've singled him out, but he just always seems to be talking very loudly and interrupting me constantly. I feel like I can't win either way, if I keep trying to address the disruptions it's like I'm singling him out. If I let it slide it's almost impossible to keep the class on task. I somewhat suspect he may be intentionally playing me, knowing full well exactly how much he is pulling focus and taking control away from me, but I'm not 100% sure yet. There is always the possibility he genuinely feels like I've singled him out, or that he just has really poor impulse control. And honestly, it is not just him, not by a long shot. I'd say, on the bad days (and there have been some relatively good ones with this class), about 75-85, maybe even 90% of the students, are off task, talking loudly, refusing to stay in their desks. I do think, based on the few days that a few students had been suspended, that there are a few students that seem to kind of instigate a general low grade TV prison riot type herd mentality that just makes the whole class unmanageable. I'm sure a lot of it is just my feelings are raw right now, and maybe I'll laugh at it all someday, but I feel like some of the students really want to intentionally push me over the edge to see if I'll have a nervous breakdown. I'm not ready to quit, but somethings gotta give or change. There are some really nice students who seem to be 'on my side' (though I absolutely hate to have to frame it in that way) and want to help. I've talked to one of them a few times and he's kind of giving me a bit of honest information about whether or not he thinks certain students are deliberately trying to disrupt the class. I actually took him into the hall at one point to talk to him and sent him to try to get the VP or Principal. I even asked him, honestly, do you think that's a bad idea or good idea, because for some reason I trust his judgement. He's a good student, and I'm sure he knows a lot more than me about what's really going on with the class. He said "Both, good and bad perhaps, but there's no choice". I'm worried that this will all blow back in my face. As I said before, I know I shouldn't let it get to me. I've always in the past been able to keep a balance of being a bit strict but fair,when needed, while always maintaining a smile, and a clear message that I'm not angry with them with being casual and easygoing when appropriate, and always professional. I feel that's being blown out of the water with this class. I think what gets to me is that I've seen those few moments when they are being mostly respectful, so know they are capable of it and know the difference. A few days ago, the first time a class 'broke me' to a degree, for lack of a better phrase, I called up my HOF, who is Egyptian, and speaks Arabic, to come to the class to speak to them. They were completely silent and respectful for him, and I didn't sense it was out of fear either. He wasn't being overly stern or angry with them. He even translated a bunch for me. Afterwards, a bunch of the students apologized, but again, it was the students who were not causing problems, who were polite and helpful, who apologized. Actually, now that I think of it, that was another class, and they started off good, a bit rambunctious, but not too unreasonably, until that one day. I think I need someone (or several) from the Arabic staff, maybe the guidance counsellor, or VP, that I can call if the HOF is teaching a class himself and can't come, who can come and help from time to time, until I can establish some boundaries that the students won't cross. I am worried they'll think I'm not qualified enough, or just don't have what it takes, or that perhaps I'll discipline a student from an 'important' family or something and things will go bad for me. The other part of me thinks if I'm just honest and try to be professional, that they will understand and help me out. I've had some things work partially, and think it's a puzzle that needs solving, with the right balance of strictness, and friendliness, at the right times, with the building of relationships somehow. Anyway, I apologize for being so long winded and somewhat ranty at times, but really, really needed to do something, because crying myself to sleep is not a viable routine to get into, and although I've been teaching for almost nine years now, most of it internationally, I've never come up against classroom dynamics like this. It reminds me of that movie with Matthew Perry where he's teaching in an inner city school in Hell's Kitchen or something, like that, Coach Carter, or Dangerous Minds, you feel me? Any other new ADEC teachers feeling overwhelmed by the classroom dynamics here? Any vets care to chime in with constructive criticism, a wise or even just I partial take on it all? Some of my coworkers have said things like I'm doing well, and that it's a different ball game over here, and that the first few months are the hardest. I'm pretty sure I'm gaining some of that "If it doesn't kill ya, it makes ya stronger" experience, and that if I come out the other side with a solution that I'll be that much better of a teacher for it. Perhaps even a ninja! My inner ninja, bum, bum, bum, my inner ninja . . . For anybody else who is in a similar place or has been, or will be, I leave you all with an inspirational tune, cause lord knows we teachers need it sometime, . . . 


  1. Hi Trevor. I realise that your post is now a year old, but I was curious to know how you are fairing? My husband has been teaching in Abu Dhabi for a week now and he was ready to pack up and head back home. This after spending 7 years at a rural school in South Africa. We thought the kids there were difficult. They were what we now consider shining pillars of the community! He is trying to take it day by day, he has had a difficult start being one of the last groups called up and having only a week of orientation before being shoved into awful, tiny furnished apartments and shoved into an industrial school. I was just wondering if you had had any improvement on your classroom management and if so how? What did you do to improve? Right now he is highly considering leaving and going back home, so any advice and help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  2. I tried to reply and it didn't show up. I'll try again. Basically not much better. The ship is sinking at ADEC. Get out if you have a better opportunity and know you are not alone. Lots of others experience it the same way. I have two sections rather than three, so that's a bit better. When I finally leave I am going to be one happy fella.