Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Tara O'Neill: Please Don't Make Me Wrong, Don't Make Me Fail....

Karyn’s Introduction:

Tara has worked with a small but very challenging class this year. Many of the students have some form of learning difficulty. All had considerable difficulty coping in other classrooms last year. Tara has been teaching using the Davis method and strategies for teaching students with dyslexia, but also combining a range of other methods and strategies.
Probably the most important strategies have been love and patience- as she describes below.

Please don’t make me wrong, don’t make me fail...

There is the student, face red, tense, arms flaying, chair flying, legs climbing.  All I asked was that they come and do their reading!  There is the child who just putdown another and then hit them.  There is the learner who is not doing what they were asked and instead playing a game on their I Pad.

There is the adult who feels frustrated, that yells at the child.  There is the teacher who wants to take the child and direct them firmly, no boss them, into what they should be doing.  There is the teacher who wants to punish the learner for not doing what they should have been doing by making them stay in at playtime.  

It is very easy for us as adults to take control over the student and to make them feel a bad person because of their choices.  It is very easy for us to notice the behaviour and comment on it in a way which puts that person down and makes them feel a lesser person.  It is also very easy to boss a learner about and make them sit and learn, our way!  

But, how will that child ever learn if they are not allowed to work it out for themselves?  By that I don’t mean we leave them stranded without helping them.   If we leave them without any guidance, we miss the point altogether.  All behaviour means something and needs to be noticed.   I teach very determined students who when they arrived in my class did not know how to process their frustrations.  They didn’t know what to do about their hate of decoding print and their difficulty with writing with a pencil, words which made sense.  They didn’t know what to do with their feelings when something went wrong at home before arriving at school.  So they would often yell, tease each other, hit, putdown and have meltdowns.   

Fortunately,  our school is a place where you are allowed to make mistakes and  you are allowed space to learn how not to let those mistakes affect other learners and yourself negatively.

With the help of mentors I am learning how to help students learn to control their anger.  How to help students not put down each other and how to help students love to learn.  Here are my top ten tips on what works for my space and my learners.

  1. In a professional way I show respect and kindness to each learner no matter what  I personally think of them.  I never give up in believing the best of them.
  2. I allow students the space to behave without putting them down because of their behaviour.  
  3. I notice what they are doing well on their journey to manage emotions and learning and speak these positive facts out in front of them and their peers.
  4. I play games with them, I talk and speak to them like they are my friends (which they are), but genuinely, like they are special human beings with purpose.  I take time to listen to their answers and don’t rush off.  
  5. I take note of student’s passions and design my teaching, our curriculum, to fit these passions, not expect the students to fit to my teaching and our curriculum.
  6. Learning is based in reality as much as possible using real situations and real materials.
  7. I refuse to boss them about and tell them what to do all the time.  I try to wait patiently for them to stop, turn and  learn.  I teach them social skills one step at a time in a very concrete way.  I give them space to practice.
  8. I used wisdom from our Specialist Resource Teacher of Behaviour and Learning and I did a course as a parent called the Incredible Years and used much of this in the classroom.  I read books.  I sat, thought and planned.
  9. I ignore as much negative behaviour as I can and then ignore some more.  
  10. I got help from other adults in our school when I needed it.  I trusted leadership to help.  They did, they listened.  Together we talked with families.  

Often my class looked like a battle ground, it wasn’t pretty. I felt failure because it wasn’t neat and tidy.   I felt like, “Was this going to ever stop?”  I felt out of control at times. But I trusted the methods, and my instincts, and I kept on like a broken record. I stood like a wall - no further!  This is as far as you can go, I love you but....  Choose to change.  
I kept trying different ideas, different ways until one day there were no more meltdowns.  Very few putdowns.  No hitting.  Students started to talk nicely to each other in a tone that was mellow.  Not all the time, but increasingly, they speak to each other with kindness and not hate.  A change is happening. 

What do you do to help your students develop independence in their behaviour and learning?

How are you able to support learners to learn without the need to control their every move?

How could you better support the positive things your students are doing now?

How can you let your students fail safely in an atmosphere of respect?


  1. Tara, a very confronting and honest post. As a teacher and a parent I relate to it very deeply. Well done for having the strength to commit in this way to your students. So exhausting and so uplifting.

    1. Thank you for replying, it is a risk to share your heart. I am so pleased you found it encouraging. Yes, it is exhausting, but I hope society will reap the benefits in years to come. What kind of approaches have you found helpful as a teacher and a parent?

  2. I just tweeted an excellent talk. Don't be put off by the title that has the word psychopath in it. It concludes with the dream of making character building part of the core curriculum