Classroom Strategies

Advice from 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, on best practices in the classroom

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

SCHOLASTIC:

If you were to name one book that you’ve taught to students that had the single greatest impact, what would that book be and why?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

I’m not certain that there is one single book that has had overwhelming impact for all students, because so many students connect to texts in vastly different ways. However, each time I taught Elie Wiesel’s Night, there was this reverence towards the text and the author that was unique for my sophomores. All kinds of readers — struggling, advanced, unmotivated — wanted to read this book and walked away from it with a greater sense of empathy and concern for all things human.

 

SCHOLASTIC:

What method do you use most frequently to engage kids in reading?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

If you asked my students how I motivate them to read, they would tell you it’s my unabashed passion for language and stories, which makes them want to have their own experience with a text. I share my excitement, confusion, frustration, and exhilaration about what I read with them. I think it’s in these honest conversations from one reader to another that they find the motivation to “geek out” with me.

 

SCHOLASTIC:

You’ve worked 12 years as a high school educator. Understanding that teenage students present their own unique challenges and contributions, can you give us your three best classroom management techniques that teachers of all grades could use?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

For me, so much of classroom management resembles parenting. In some cases, experiences teaching have helped me as a parent and other times it’s the parenting that informs my teaching.

1) When there seems to be a potentially contentious situation, don’t get in a power struggle, but instead offer the student two choices, either with which you could live. For example, if a student is disrupting class offer her the choice of collecting herself in the hall for a few minutes or getting out her journal for a few minutes. I can live with either; they aren’t punitive, and both actions are in an effort to get her ready to re-enter the learning environment.

2) Be consistent and follow through.

3) Respect students for who they are, right now. When I remember that students are bringing me the best version of themselves they can right now, I can work to understand their motivations and respond accordingly.

4) Remember and let students know that fair isn’t always equal.

 

SCHOLASTIC:

How do you deal with uninvolved students, and are there ever instances when a child can simply not be engaged?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING:

There are so many reasons why students may come to me dissatisfied with some aspect of school, which leaves them uninvolved. In these instances, I rely not on lower expectations, but longer expectations. It takes time to build the trust of students who have become disillusioned with school and I must realize that it may take longer for some students to reach the expectations of the course as we work to foster a culture in which they feel comfortable participating.

Certainly there have been times that despite my best efforts I have been unable to engage a student. I don’t think this means that they can never be engaged, but I just wasn’t the one to open them up. There is a reason why we have so many different and amazing teachers: because we have so many different and amazing students. As the old adage goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

 

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