Tim Foley: Creating a Positive Classroom Narrative

People have all kinds of convoluted ways of telling you they want to be loved. When I was in first grade, I
returned home from school one day and expressed to my mom that I was jealous of my classmate Nicholas. “Mrs. Rienzi says his name all the time,” I groaned. I had observed in class that Nicholas’ way of getting our teacher’s attention was to make noises, to get out of his seat—to break the rules, and I resolved in my head that I was going to employ this same method. I explained to my mom that this was my plan, and she told me, in the bemused way in which one would speak to a six-year-old on a mission, that this was not the type of attention I really should be seeking. I took those words to heart, and they ended up molding the way that I approached my life as a student. But I’d never forget that desire I felt for attention of any kind, no matter what it took, as long as the teacher was saying my name.

* * *

It was March of 2019, nearing the final stretch of my first year as an LV at San Miguel School in Washington, D.C. Spring break was soon but not soon enough, and for the first time I was starting to hear the tone of my voice change. Classroom control was becoming increasingly more difficult. I found myself in the position of a teacher who came in far too loose and now needed to channel every ounce of energy into tightening. Stricter policies. Shorter responses. Shorter patience. I was butting heads with my students every day. It was getting to the point where it seemed like even the most simple and easy interactions were being met with a bitter, exasperated response from Mr. Foley.

Every time I opened my mouth, it was to address something negative. Calling students out in front of their classmates. Stopping the flow of class to single out someone who was disrupting. Escalating minor distractions by bringing them into the spotlight. I acknowledged that this was not the kind of attention my students truly needed. And yet every time I engaged with them in that negative way, I was giving them an incentive to act out even more. My students had found the quick and easy way to receive my attention, and each time they violated my expectations, I was rewarding them with exactly what they wanted. I was so far removed from my mindset as an elementary schooler that it was hard to remember how at one time, I had come to the same conclusion that many of my students seemed to have reached themselves: that the way to get attention from my teacher was to break the rules. By that time in March, I was just starting to become aware of this. I could see it, but I was struggling to see past the mound of frustration and impatience that was preventing me from breaking the poor habits I’d developed as an educator. I realized that it might take a great deal of time to pause, to reflect, and to consider what I truly needed from my teachers when I was a student, and what my students now truly needed from me.

* * *

Today, I am about three months into my second year as an LV, and I’ve come into this year with a new plan. Summer break was a good time for me to reassess, to pinpoint the areas that I needed to grow as an educator, and to develop a different approach. This year, I have been working hard to create a positive narrative in my classroom. For me, this involves taking that previous approach, the one which incentivized negative behavior, and flipping it on its head. To do this, I try to narrate ideal behavior, directing my attention toward students who are setting a good example. If anyone is not meeting classroom expectations, I handle it individually and discreetly. Rather than calling someone out for missing the mark, I’ll give a shout out to a student that is doing the right thing, and use that as a way to redirect the class. This is a continuous work in progress for me. On some days, it can be very hard to maintain this technique. But I can see how it’s impacting my students, and it’s helping to keep mein a better headspace as well. Classroom control has become far less exhausting.

A word that has been on my mind a lot this school year is evolution.I’ve come to find that it’s impossible for me to evolve, or to move toward the future, without taking a healthy and honest look at the past. I could not fully comprehend the underlying reason for misbehavior in school until I took a candid look at myself. Stress, frustration and exhaustion cause me to wall myself off from other perspectives and see only from my current point of view. By detaching from the present and recalling my own needs as a student, it became clear to me. I had experienced such a deep desire for my teacher’s attention, and the way I went about obtaining it seemed to matter little to me. It was a very human thing. We want to be noticed, we want to be heard, but ultimately at the root of it all, we want to be loved. And yes, we have all kinds of convoluted ways of telling people that we want to receive that love. My goal going forward is to love my students by constructing a narrative that will make them feel affirmed and empowered as they continue to grow.


Tim Foley is a second-year volunteer at San Miguel School in Washington, D.C., where he serves as an independent reading/media specialist (teacher: religion, independent reading, P.E.). He is a 2018 graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, with a degree in journalism.

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