What follows is an overview of my day from March 2nd, 2016. The impetus for this post came from my constant amazement at just how busy I (and every other teacher I know) appear to be pretty much all the time. I’ve decided to break it down roughly by school period. I’ve removed any and all identifying markers to specific students and/or adults without sacrificing the spirit of what transpired on March 2, 2016. See part 1 here and part 2 here.
My 2nd period is tiny, both as a class and as individuals. The few children who float into my room feel like Lilliputians next to the gangly beasts of period one. The warm-up is going much better. Children are lounging around the room either writing in their notebooks or hunting-and-pecking away on a Google Doc on their iPads. Except for one student, a girl I just haven’t been able to connect with in a meaningful way. I willingly devote massive quantities of mental and emotional energy trying to connect. A caring relationship is a two-way interaction. One person offers care while the other chooses whether or not to accept it. She, for reasons I have yet to fully grapple with, will not or can not receive my care. So today, instead of writing with everyone else, she walks around the room offering sticks of gum to every student. Loudly. Like, at a typical ‘teacher voice’ volume.
Even though I’ve been teaching for seven years, this type of behavior bothers me as much as it did when I was a pre-service teacher. To be honest, it probably bothers me more now than it did when I first started. I’m still emotionally off-kilter from first period, and her showmanship presents a challenge to recovering my equanimity. Before I respond, my brain pulls up everything I know about her. This doesn’t happen in any sort of logical way. It’s more like a shotgun blast of memories, details, and sensations that I try to pull together into a rational and logical decision. The following questions and answers go through my head in the three to four seconds between observing her behavior and acting on it. Some of them happen consciously; most present themselves as influencing factors only after the fact.
What is my relationship with this student?
Not good. I’ve struggled to connect with her since the beginning of the school year. She carries a lot of the free-floating and amorphous rage that characterizes many adolescents. While I can sometimes earn a smile from her in the hallway between classes, the second she steps into my room she hardens her face.
What’s my relationship with her family?
Parent-teacher conversations have a unique tenor to them. I’m essentially asking complete strangers to disclose their intimate details to me. Details that can often feel shameful. Every child struggles to some degree with divorce, suicide, poverty, abuse, depression, drugs, and loss. Trained therapists have months of weekly appointments to unearth these details; I have fifteen minutes. In a classroom. With an interpreter. Ideally the parent knows what’s going on with his or her kid. The parent can tell me who their kid hangs out with, how much time they spend on homework, where they do their reading, and what their family relationships are like. But more often than not I grope for details with parents who are confused, scared, overworked, and just as in the dark as I am.
In this case mom I’ve met with the student’s family three times since the school year started. The warning signs were apparent from the get-go, so I tried to enlist the family as soon as possible. When we first met in October the parents told me they were witnessing similar changes at home. With the help of a school translator, I found out that her sister had recently left for college.
What have I heard about her from other teachers and students?
She was an honor roll student last year who was playful with teachers. She had a healthy squad of female friends and enjoyed a prominent position on the school’s soccer team. This year seems to be a complete shift. Friends have disappeared, soccer has receded, and teacher relationships have gone from jovial to combative.
Is she aware of her current actions?
Her conspiratorial smile and frequent checks to see if I’m watching suggest that she’s aware of her behavior.
How typical is her behavior when placed within the larger continuum of adolescent behavior?
At my school, to walk around a quiet classroom shouting about gum while everyone else works is a few standard deviations away from normal behavior. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, though. We all have off days (or weeks/months/years).
How disruptive is her behavior?
The mileage of this behavior in 2nd period varies. Right now, though, the kids are ignoring her. This bodes well for 42 minutes left in the period.
Why might she be doing this?
Here’s where things can get a little tricky. Work avoidance? Making me and the other students feel as bad as she does? Boredom? Immaturity? Developmentally inappropriate tasks? Difficult morning at home? Dumped by boyfriend? Stayed up too late the night before? Tense home life? Lack of respect for me? Feeling disrespected by me? Unable to find relevance in the assignment? I’m not sure.
How important is it for her to complete this warm-up?
I try to structure my class as a series of small tasks that are both simple and potentially complex at the same time. On the bright side this means that each task plays a part in something larger, ideally lending a sense of purpose and cohesion to each period. This also means, however, that it’s easy to opt out of something. The fact that I removed grades from my class makes this more problematic (I didn’t realize how much I relied on points as a carrot/stick until I stopped using them). I count on warm-ups to build writing fluency, foster classroom community through sharing, expose students to new genres and points of view, etc. So while opting out of a five minute freewrite feels minor, it makes it much harder for her to connect with the larger ecology of the class.
Are her actions making students feel emotionally or physically unsafe?
I don’t think so.
Do I engage with this student now? Or do I wait until she’s had a seat?
I think it’s pretty obvious she wants to get into in a conflict cycle with me in front of the class. Since no one is being harmed and the class continues to feel safe, I choose to pause and take a few deep breaths. Although quick decisions are important to keeping a class going, I’ve learned when to listen to myself and slow down and pause. To help remain calm I plop down on the floor next to a few of the boys and complete the warm-up with them. I burrow into my writing, keeping only 5% of my cognitive capacity trained on the girl. The kids know she’s acting out and thankfully choose to ignore her. After five minutes we return to our seats.
Although I create new seating charts every few weeks to make sure kids sit in heterogenous groups (by race, gender, and academic proclivity), every couple of days they seem to sneak back to their friends. They swap seats like enemies trading spies during a cold war. They think I don’t notice, but I notice everything. Most teachers notice everything, we just learn to choose what we call out with care and measured deliberation. This is a skill that comes with time. Most of the time I don’t raise too much of a stink about the gradual change in sides. Our faculty meetings are the same. We all complain when we have to sit somewhere different from our normal seat with our normal friends.
After listening to a few kids share out their warm-ups (in this period, in stark contrast to the first, everyone wants to share), we run through the agenda and get to the task. For the most part my second period loves to write. They happily move to the first conflict station while the girl sits at her desk in the corner of the room (she prefers to sit away from everyone else). I made sure to print out extra copies of the conflict stations for situations like this. I try to engage with her about the task. Its purpose, how it works, etc. She offers up monosyllabic replies every third or fourth question I ask. I make sure to position myself so that I keep my eye on the class while speaking with her. I tell the girl, who now refuses to meet my gaze for longer than two seconds, that I’m going to go move around the class now. And that I’m excited to see what she comes up with. This is another moment when I’m putting a lot of energy into believing what I’m saying. Pushing aside any sarcasm and frustration and trying my best to communicate the essence of the task.
Second period is also home to some extremely social boys. One boy in particular talks essentially non-stop. It’s never disrespectful or mean spirited; in fact, most of the time it’s related to what we’re doing. But it never stops. I get up and remind him to please be silent while writing. I do this knowing I’ll say it at least five more times by the time 2nd period is through. I do my best to do it quietly and with grace. Sometimes I snap. Today I don’t.
The rest of the period goes by without incident. I enjoy moving around and reading their Flash Fiction drafts over their shoulder. I write my own as well, sitting with them and making exaggerated faces as I hem and haw over coming up with a story on the spot. Reading student writing is one of my favorite parts of the job. Even when the mechanics are shaky and the word count is meager, the ideas are so lovely. Kids can be so creative and expressive and irreverent. I love watching the joy and frustration bloom on their face as they try and work through whatever it is I’ve designed.
A few of us share our drafts. Before we begin the read aloud I ask whether or not anyone else wants to read. The girl in the corner shoots up her hand. Based on the smile on her face I know what’s coming.
“Can I go to the bathroom?” She bellows.
After a few minutes of read aloud the bell rings, ending the first chunk of my teaching.