Post 04 – Biggest Challenges & Best Things

I’m doing a reflection challenge with some of my colleagues where we have a different prompt to reflect on each week.  Here’s this weeks:

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far this new school year? And what’s the best thing you’ve experienced so far?


I think my biggest challenge this year have been a couple of difficult students.  One in particular who I’ve had in class in previous years.  Let’s call the student Maria.  Maria doesn’t fit the mold of difficult students I’ve had in the past; she’s very sweet and greets me with enthusiasm each day she sees me.  “Hi Thom!  How are you!?”  In the past, difficult students usually weren’t the most jovial and friendly.  I have Maria right up front as she tends to space out a bit.  This year I’ve been providing guided notes so students don’t have to actually write down as much as previous years, which saves quite a bit of class time.  Just about any time I ask students to write down what I have up on the board, I have to redirect Maria…”Maria, you need to write this down in your notes.”

One of the more challenging behaviors of Maria is that she will persistently ask why she has to do something during class.  It isn’t an aggressive sort of ‘why do I have to this!?’ but almost a genuine curiosity…”Why are you having me write this down?”  I’m more than willing to chat with Maria on why I do the things I do in class but as these questions are so persistent, I can’t stop the flow of class to address them every single time.  And the more she asks, the more annoyed I get.  I’ve told Maria to come by office hours and I’ll share why I have students take notes, why I give the problems I do, etc.  She hasn’t come.

In the first week of class, a student was sharing her work on a whiteboard that was behind Maria.  I asked all students in that row to turn their chairs so they could give their attention to the student sharing work.  Maria turned her head but not her chair.  I repeated my instruction to turn the chairs (as students generally get tired of turning their head, then look back at their desk, and sort of check out).  Maria began to say ‘why can’t I just turn my head?  I can see’  To which I just responded, ‘please turn your chairs to give full attention to the student presenting.’  Maria pressed a little more ‘but why? I can see.’  Annoyed, I decided to not have a confrontation as all other students were following directions.  I normally wouldn’t let this happen because I wouldn’t want other students to think ‘oh it’s acceptable to not do what Thom says,’ but an interesting thing about Maria is that while she is sometimes off task, I notice that other students don’t really take cues from her on what behavior is acceptable.  It seems most of them are sort of just thinking ‘just do what he asked’ and are mildly annoyed as well.

I checked in with Maria later and told her ‘I wanted you to turn your chair to keep you from getting distracted’ and shared that I had noticed that she indeed did just turn back around and start doodling in her journal while the other student was sharing.  Maria responded really positively to this and said ‘ok…I understand.’  She responds really well to one-on-one redirection…but again, with the persistent refusal to follow directions if they don’t make sense to her, I can’t stop the flow of things to explain each of my requests to Maria.  Other teachers have shared similar experiences with Maria in their classes.  She doesn’t have a ton of friends as she is sort of in her own little world.  I feel bad for students that I place next to her because those students are generally the really sweet ones who have to deal with her absent-mindedness and inability to follow directions.

Mathematically, Maria has some good number sense and can play with numbers in an intuitive way.  Often her self-defeating attitude gets in the way of that though.  “This is too hard…this is too much work…I don’t want to do this” are things she says often in class.  I’ve worked with her around reframing statements like that.  “I need some help with this” or “This is challenging” would be better ways to express those ideas as they have a connotation of a willingness to press on through the challenge rather than be defeated by them.

Additionally, Maria is often unprepared and receives fines in our classroom economy for doing so.  She’s one of the students who has a backpack that looks like a bomb of papers and food went off in.  She responded a bit aggressively last week when she received a fine for not having a pencil saying ‘It’s not my fault.  I lost it.  I hate your classroom economy fines.’  I didn’t respond to the comment and if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think fines will redirect her behavior but it makes me feel better to give her a fine for it.  Probably not the best way to manage the problem.  I did check in with her a few days later, gave her a pencil, and said she should try and get two or three more just in case she loses it so she can still be prepared for class.  She still had the pencil two days later.  Maybe the fine did work.

I have a positive relationship with Maria’s parents and sent an email home sharing some of the behaviors I’ve seen.  They said they will continue to have conversations with her and thanked me for keeping them in the loop.  Maria is super tech-savvy and her parents say she sometimes has difficulty really engaging in anything else.

I think what concerns me is that I really work to keep my negative emotions about a student from directing my actions towards that student; if I don’t like a student, they shouldn’t know that I don’t really like them.  I’m worried that I’ve noticed in some of my interactions with Maria, I’ve been a bit short with her and much less friendly when she greets me than I am with other students.

Where to go from here?  I think perhaps having a time where I have Maria in for office hours and ask “what are the things that you find frustrating or challenging about math class” and letting her voice everything out.  I can then share my perspective on why I choose to do things the way I do, let her know why I can’t address every opposition she brings up in class and for her to do so is disrespectful to her peers and to me.  I think it could be fruitful to just ask if she’s willing to trust me that the things I’m doing will help her grow in her mathematical understanding. Also, if there are those instance where she’s wondering ‘why are we doing this,’ talking to me after would be a better course of action.


I think the best thing this year has been my schedule.  This year I’m teaching three sections of Pre-Algebra (my favorite math class to teach), no sections of 6th grade math (which historically has been my least favorite class to teach), one section of robotics, advisory, and serving as math department head.  I have all three Pre-Algebra classes on A-days leaving just advisory and robotics on B-days.  It frees up my mornings a couple days of the week to really grind out most of my grading and lesson planning so I don’t have to work on it after school.  I work much better in the mornings.

Having a lighter schedule has also allowed me to take Mandarin during 8th period after robotics.  Initially I thought ‘man, I’m probably going to want to just go home at the end of the day…do I really want to commit to taking this class.’  Thankfully, I’ve found the class a really great way to end the day.  That 2:30-4:00pm time is generally when I’d either workout or just go home and watch YouTube for 45 minutes before working on anything.  Now I just workout in the mornings or run later in the evening with my wife when she gets home from work.  The class isn’t burdensome because our teacher is great and I’m excited about learning the content.  It’s nice that I don’t have to be ‘on’ as a teacher and I can just go and learn as a student.

Having a TA in both Pre-Algebra and Robotics has been helpful (I mentioned that in last week’s reflection).  Additionally, my classroom economy is the most streamlined it’s been so that’s going to take much less class time than it ever has.  Some of the classroom economy jobs are also being performed better than ever, especially our class photographers who have been fairly consistently putting up great content on our classroom Instagram.  While I do have a couple challenging students as I mentioned above, this year I don’t really have any students with a ‘too cool for school attitude’ which is a first for me.

My advisory is a really good mix this year.  8th graders are developing positive relationships with the 6th graders.  I’ll generally have at least 1 jaded 8th grader who I don’t have the strongest connection with but I have a really great relationship with all the 8th graders in my advisory this year (who all happen to be boys).  All my advisees generally buy into just about everything we do, even game day where we run around for 30 minutes in the middle of the day; something that’s usually hard to get 8th graders to do, but perhaps it’s because I don’t have any 8th grade girls this year.


I realize my ‘best thing’ section is significantly shorter than my ‘biggest challenge’ section but I truly do feel this has been shaping up to be my best year in education.  When talking about challenging students, I want to do so in a way that helps paint a complete picture, not just a few lines of I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY’RE DOING THIS!

Thanks for reading 🙂

By Thom H Gibson

I help middle school STEM teachers create meaningful & memorable experiences for their students. Teacher, podcaster, YouTuber. Two-time teacher of the year

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