Pushing Buttons

John Tyler, a new teacher at the Wentworth Day School, thought his Master's degree prepared him for daily life in the classroom. But his first teaching position presents challenges he did not expect. One student throws John off-balance during a classroom activity and makes him wonder about his career choice.

As a first-year teacher, John struggles to balance three preps, coaching obligations, and classroom discipline.

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Students in John’s second class are easily distracted.

John was tired. Last night, he’d refereed a home soccer game and then stayed up late re-reading the next few chapters of All Quiet on the Western Front to prep for today’s discussion. He had not read this book as a student, but it had long been part of the school’s curriculum. Since he hadn’t had time to create a reader response guide, John found a decent assignment online and downloaded the appropriate pages to give for homework. He just needed something to help monitor student comprehension and keep them focused while they read.

The site John uses to generate the homework assignment

The day was going well, despite his fatigue. The first class had made some surprising connections and shown a depth of understanding beyond what John expected from eighth graders. Students clearly were engaged and affected by the story, and John’s doubts about starting the year with this book receded.

Going into his second class, John felt optimistic. After all, they were good kids, mainly, motivated and bright. There was just one student who gave him trouble—nothing he couldn’t handle—but he had to be careful not to let Henry get under his skin. John couldn’t quite put his finger on the problem, but Henry pushed his buttons. Today, Henry participated in the discussion adequately. It wasn’t until the end of class that Henry showed his typical combativeness—and John had had enough. It was time to establish his authority, he thought.

After a difficult week, John seeks advice from an experienced teacher.

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John sits down with Chris.

In the week following his confrontation with Henry, John was more wary during second block. Henry had become outright disruptive, throwing crumpled papers whenever John’s back was turned, distracting his classmates, and interrupting John’s lectures with inane questions. His average continued to drop and he was now barely passing. John didn’t know much about Henry’s family, but he was certain they had high expectations for success.

But it wasn’t just Henry that John worried about; the rest of the class had become much less participatory as well, and John was sure Henry’s attitude was rubbing off on them. He needed to get the situation under control. John slogged through his lessons—which went so well during first block—and found himself counting down the minutes until lunch.

Not sure where to turn, John figured he’d better meet with his department chair as a starting point. Chris was a veteran teacher and had known Henry since he’d started at Wentworth in fifth grade. Maybe he’d have some good advice about how to make this kid be more respectful in the classroom.

The conference with Henry’s mother does not go as planned.

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Martha advocates for her son.

Martha Harrison was due to arrive any minute. John quickly reviewed Henry’s grades on the computer, reminded himself of Chris’s pointers, and jotted down his main goals: Henry needs to behave; he needs to do his homework; he needs to stop being so difficult! John was nervous; he’d learned that Henry’s parents were well-known in the school community and big donors to the Annual Drive. He crumpled the sheet up just as Martha knocked on the door.