Bear in the Classroom

I love hiking. You never know what you’re going to see along the way!  The surprises keep the familiar paths fresh. Kind of like teaching…

When I was six years old, I went hiking in the woods outside my rural Washington State home with my mother.  We stumbled into the path of a black bear. My mom immediately took control of the situation, and taught me what her Native American grandmother had taught her.

“First, you have to tell him that you see him. Call him by name. Tell him that you respect him, and don’t want to bother him.  Then, don’t back away, but go forward, in a different direction. That way, he’s not afraid of you, but he knows that you’re not afraid of him.”

I followed my mom’s advice:  “Hello, Mr. Bear. I see you there. I’m just going to walk over here, Mr. Bear. Don’t let me bother you. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Bear.” Slowly, we circumnavigated the situation. The bear was happy. We kept hiking. Life went on.

I thought of this story the other day, when a new student joined my classroom.  His strong personality caught me by surprise.  He needed to talk and have all of his questions answered immediately.  He was clearly struggling to conform to the cultural norms of my classroom, and other students were having a hard time with him. I heard my mother’s voice in my head. For the sake of the analogy, I’ll call this surprising student “Mr. Bear.”

1.  First, acknowledge him. “I know that you have a lot of questions right now, Mr. Bear. I’m happy to answer them after class.”

2.  Name him. “Hi, Mr. Bear. How are you today, Mr. Bear? Mr. Bear, how was your weekend?”

3. State my respect. “I really respect your effort and participation in my class, Mr. Bear.” (Using “but” will negate my statement.  No “buts” here.)

4.  Then, state my intentions. “Our class is going to write outlines for our essays now. Everyone, please open your books to p. 52. Let me help you, Mr. Bear. Here it is. Thanks! Now, let’s continue….”

5.  Don’t confront. Sidestep. “I understand that you disagree with your quiz grade, Mr. Bear. At the break, you can ask your classmates about their answers. If you all agree that I made a mistake in the quiz grading, please explain it to me after the break.”

6.  No fear.  No aggression. “Thank you for your participation and questions, Mr. Bear. You have made me a better teacher.  I have learned so much from you!  I wish you well in the future. Good luck!”

Sometimes, we will have “bears” in our classroom.  Anyone can be bear if they are dealing with culture shock, stressful life events, and even undiagnosed learning and mental health conditions.  My “Mr. Bear” is mellowing out and adjusting to classroom life better now.  I’ve learned a lot from teaching him.  Teaching isn’t always a walk in the park.  But it’s always an adventure!

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Keri Anderson

Keri Anderson completed her TESOL Certificate from the School of Teaching ESL in 2012 and teaches in an Intensive English Program in Tacoma, WA.

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