I Said “Dang!” A Day in the Life of a Middle School Teacher – pt. 7

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 herepart 2 herepart 3 herepart 4 herepart 5 here, and part 6 here.

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At 12:00 the first bell rings. Students have three minutes to go to the bathroom, exchange smushed lunchboxes for smushed binders at their lockers, get water, and walk to class. This would be difficult for most of us, myself included. My 6th period attendance is always spotty. By the time the second bell chimes at 12:03, only 13 out of 21 students are in their seats. Two, a boy and a girl, are giggling and bumping into each other in the corner of the room. Although the amount of physical contact between students increases after winter break, it’s nothing compared to the hormonal insanity that kicks in after they get back from Spring Break.

The students who are on time today are the students who are always on time. I have about 90 seconds before the final six come slinking in through the doorway. I use this time to put down paper and pencil at every blank desk. That’s because every student who comes in late usually comes in without their supplies (this doesn’t bother me). And today is no exception.

As soon as the first late kid enters the room I scrunch my face up and press my index finger to my lips. “Oh, are we writing today?” He says loudly. “Mr. Anderson, I have to go to my locker. Can I please go so I can get my notebook and a pencil?” Resisting the urge to speak I simply flash a beatific grin and point to his desk where paper and pencil wait patiently for him. I point at my watch and mime the act of writing. “Oh, Ok,” he says, clearly annoyed.

I turn around and see the final students entering the room together. I look at them with a face that I hope communicates something along the lines of “I’m glad you’re here! I do wish you were here a little sooner, though. Our warm-ups, and the rituals surrounding them, are an important part of getting in the zone for this class.” They just sort of stare at me and move to their seats. I quickly circulate around the room. If a child has stopped writing I scan their page, point to a particularly nice phrase, and whisper “more like this!” If they’re still writing, I simply read over their shoulder. I make sure to spend an extra second lingering at the desk of any student who hasn’t written anything yet, which for this period is about a third of them. I sink down on my haunches and try to a) figure out how they’re doing and b) provide any necessary clarification. Students have learned that the trick to getting me to move away is to pick up their pencil and start writing something. Unfortunately many of them stop as soon as I leave a three foot radius. 

I keep a writer’s notebook for each class period. While I’ve already moved on to a second notebook in every other class, my 6th period journal only contains a few scribbled entries. This is because I choose to spend the warm-up time putting out small fires and trying to get everyone on board. 

The room is finally silent until a giant crunch crackles from the corner of the class. The first kid who entered has taken out a bag of Doritos and is eating them, relishing each bite. I run over, point at his blank page, and make a face like I’m about to have an aneurysm. “Oh, right!” He says, putting the orange bag down and picking up his pencil. “But can I go get some water first? These are making me thirsty.”

Rather than answer I simply whirl around and shout out “OK! Finish your word, thought, sentence, or phrase!” This is how I transition into sharing our warm-ups. “Who would like to share out?” In most classes, this question is greeted by at least five or six eager hands. Not in sixth period. There’s only one hand in the air. Bradley’s. He somehow manages to pen an entire novel for every warm-up. A novel that he chooses to read in the most deadpan of voices. No matter how often I model and praise the value of expressive reading, he just smiles and does his thing. “Anyone? No? Ok Bradley, take it away! Stick with your favorite paragraph.” He chose to read a chunk about why he loves being himself. It’s really awesome, and the earnestness of its message picks me up a little. A few kids murmur their approval. I give a quick comment on my favorite phrase and rush us into the activity.

Right before I give the signal to move to a conflict station, one of the girls who was tardy stands up and walks over to talk to her friend. I’m grateful she chooses to scoot along the periphery instead of opting for the bisection. “Uh…?” I say, pitching my voice lower than usual to make sure it stands out. This would not be considered best practices, by the way. Putting children on the spot like this can often backfire. Luckily, the fact that I rarely have to do it means this moment isn’t spoiled by the backwash of previous negative encounters.

“Oh, sorry,” she says, “I just thought of something that I need to tell her. Is that ok?”

It’s one of those moments when time slows down. Every student cranes their head to watch how I react. I have to play this just right. Although the answer to her question seems obvious at first (no!), it’s actually not that clear cut. What reasons do I have for saying “no?” There are a few things that might be going on here. First, and most likely, the girls are simply concluding a previous conversation. Choosing a social life instead of a writing warm-up isn’t really cause for alarm. Or maybe the first student just remembered something important that cast a previous conversation in a new light. Perhaps letting them have a quick sidebar will bring closure and help them concentrate on the lesson. However there’s also the chance that the content of the message will upset one or both of them, causing them to be less likely to participate in class. And what about the class? What message might it send if I allow it? That Mr. Anderson is a push-over? That his investment in his students’ education is so low that he will allow an off-task conversation? How would this moment be handled in the ‘real world?’

Like most teachers, I’ve developed a tone palette for speaking with students. Every teacher has to play to his or her strengths, and hyperactivity, patience, and exaggeration are mine. I decide to pull out my news anchor voice and just say, “No, you can not!” I’ve used this character enough that the moment passes without further issues. The girl issues a world-class pout and then goes back to her desk. “Alright, let’s do this!” I exclaim. There is literally zero movement. Even the kids who normally fidget stare up at me silent and still. “Ok! Here we go!” I repeat, exhaustion and minor irritation sneaking into my syllables as I wave my arms around like a deranged conductor.

After a few moments and a few audible groans, the kids are moving and drafting pieces of flash fiction focusing on different types of literary conflict. As I mentioned earlier, I’m pleased to see that the pictures I chose are helping kickstart some of their creativity. Many of them have already internalized the basic tenets of the genre (contains all the plot elements, focuses on a single moment in time, economy of language, and an ambiguous ending).

I’ve just started circulating when I hear a student say “Daaaaaamn, Daniel.” Anyone who has spent time within earshot of a child between the ages of 9 and 18 probably recognizes this phrase from the recent viral video. Within a second I’m kneeling down next to the kid who said it. “Please watch your language,” I say. “Refrain from using inappropriate words in an academic setting.” (I find it’s best to stick to quick declarative statements in these moments.)

“I said ‘Dang’!” the student replies in a voice loud enough for others to hear. I watch his body practically coil up, ready to spring. I make the choice to lead with geniality. To go at this kid head-on will just cause him to escalate. I take a breath, unclench my jaw (when did that become clenched?) and say “No, you didn’t! You were repeating what you heard from the YouTube video you were just watching about Daniel and his white Vans.” I cap it off by imitating the nasal tone of the speaker of the video. He looks at me, probably running a similar set of risk/reward calculations in his own head, before breaking into a smile.

“Aww, he got you! Mr. Anderson clutched it!” one of his friends replies. The two of them return their phones to their pockets and try to eek out a few more words.

Thankfully I saw the clip explained on the Ellen Degeneres show a few days prior.

The Doritos, the tardies, the student interruptions, the groaning, the low-level profanity. Every class shares these characteristics. But they’re usually counterbalanced with moments of joy, pride, and genuine accomplishment. We don’t have much of that in 6th period. Students range from barely comatose to hostile. I regularly ask fellow teachers and administrators to observe my 6th period. No matter who watches, the first thing they comment on is the atmosphere. They describe it as combative, stressful, or just negative.

We conclude class with our read aloud. Regardless of how well a lesson goes, this period struggles. I often get flustered and as a result have a hard time staying on my A game. This means 6th period is a solid 40 pages ahead of every other class. On the bright side, every student in this class is hooked on the book. That’s probably another reason why I read to them more than I do the others. Because it feels good to watch even the most cynical among them perk up out of his sweatshirt shell to listen.

While I have the occasional breakthrough with some of the students, others remain permanently closed off. On the best of days I’m able to transcend my ego and treat them with unconditional kindness and respect. Other times I get frustrated and upset and act like the uncaring adult many of them associate with schooling. The bell rings and I close the book, satisfied with how the period went. I join the kids in walking out of the room. I run to the water fountain. Even though I have water in my room, this pause gives me a chance to reset.

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14 comments

  1. C.Crouch

    I was captured by you and your 6th period class. Great descriptions made me feel like a mouse in the corner waiting for their arrival tomorrow. (and hoping for a smidgen of a Dorito!)

    Like

  2. Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski

    This was so fascinating to me since I’m an elementary teacher. The idea that different periods have different personalities and climates. I have the same group of kids all day long and can vary what we do at different times of day when energy is lagging or we just need to mix it up. It must be hard to have this same group of kids for the same subject at the same time of day and I’m sure that is a contributing factor to their behaviors. It’s a hard time of day and they sound like a challenging group. I love how you’ve taken this one day in time and slowed it down so much to be able to have so many thought-provoking posts from it. I love the insider look at your classroom and your bravery for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter Anderson

      Thank you for the kind words! And thanks for facilitating all of this with the SOL challenge. I agree with your comments about the same time of day. I think there’s something to be said about variable scheduling. Thanks again!

      Like

  3. Melanie Roy

    I like how unbelievably honest and reflective you are. You ask colleagues to sit in on your 6th period class to get feedback and ideas. My favorite line today: “I wave my arms around like a deranged conductor.” Brilliant. We’ve all been there. I have a few classes a week like this and I wonder if the time of day is what contributes to it being such a bomb as well as the makeup of the students.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Michelle Haseltine

    I don’t know where to start. I love that you knew about the viral video because of Ellen DeGeneres. I love that you are honest & authentic about all of your moments, even the ones that aren’t the best…it’s REAL. Oh 6th period…I know you too. I love how you are so aware of their needs and are working towards doing everything you can to meet them where they are while continuing to teach them. Have I mentioned how much I love this series of posts?!?!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Just Read the Passage and Answer the Questions: A Day in the Life of a Middle School Teacher – pt. 8 | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  6. Pingback: The Ending is the Beginning: A Day in the Life of a Middle School Teacher – pt. 9 | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  7. Pingback: Everything All of the Time: A Day in the Life of a Middle School Teacher – pt. 1 | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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