Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 13 2012

Peer Approval, Manipulated

Kids are ridiculous little creatures. My best class at the beginning of the year has become my worst class now, and I go in every day with no idea what to expect. They have a couple of explosive personalities who can really affect the mood of the entire class (it would actually be impressive to watch, if it weren’t so exhausting to deal with) and I am really sick of them right about now.

I’ve been trying desperately to make it better, but nothing has been working. I can’t give a whole-class reaction to the behavior, since 25 out of 30 kids are great kids and don’t deserve to be yelled at. The other five can be so disruptive that it feels like the whole class has exploded, but when I lock down discipline on the group, all the good kids get angry at me and you can feel the backlash start to happen. Middle school teachers live and die by fairness, so that really isn’t something I can afford to screw up.

But if I try to stay really positive, reward the hell out of good behavior, and keep the class moving forward while trying to discipline the rough kids on the side, it isn’t possible to address their behavior as much as they need. They continue to go nuts, they really bring down the mood in my class, and all the joy gets sucked out of both the lesson and my day.

I’ve tried being super consistent with consequences, I’ve tried making the consequence ladder visual, I’ve tried calling parents, I’ve tried being super friendly and being super mean. I even went over to kids’ houses and sat with them to make up work they missed for not being on-task in class. Nothing was improving.

After a particularly bad day, I grabbed a couple of my coworkers and asked for some advice. One of them was genius enough to remind me that middle schoolers thrive off of attention from each other, and it was something that I could play to my advantage if I got creative.


I’m not the world’s most creative person, so I just picked up a whiteboard marker and wrote “This is what perfection looks like” on the board. When class started, I watched for the best-behaved kid and wrote her name down. Then I passed her the marker, and with the class listening, I explained to her that she should just watch her classmates. When she saw someone being perfect, she should silently get up, write that person’s name on the board, and pass the marker to them, and it would continue like that.


You wouldn’t believe how great those kids got. My most difficult kids couldn’t care less about getting my approval, but there is nothing they want more than their classmates’ approval. They were looking for peer attention, and suddenly big public attention was coming from being good. They were sitting up straight, nodding while I talked, and following every instruction immediately. If I wanted something done better, I would just look at the person with the marker and say, “Watch for someone who is doing a great job with ___ right now” or “Only give the marker for someone who is silent during this transition.” BOOM. They did everything I said. Kids this age really might not care about anything more than what other kids think about them, and it was nice to use that for my own purposes.

It was a truly lovely respite from terribleness.



One Response

  1. Candidelabelle

    Thank you for sharing!!! I will try this, because I was experiencing the same problems right before spring break!!

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