Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Two Lessons Teaching Taught Me

I learned two of the most valuable lessons that teaching has to offer when I was a student teacher.  These lessons, both fortunately and unfortunately, were compliments of a student named Shay.

During my student teaching, I was a fragile and timid presence in the classroom.  I was constantly pushing back nerves that crept up from my stomach threatening to spew signs of weakness in my voice.  Back then I didn’t know how intuitive 9th graders are – that they could sense my insecurities a mile away and would use it to their advantage at the opportune time.  Luckily, my amazing mentor teacher and I had perfected the good-cop-bad-cop act by the middle of the semester, and things were looking up.  That is, until Shay enrolled in the class.

Shay was a beautiful girl minus a permanent scowl on her face and incessant eye-rolls.  She waltzed into the classroom, unapologetically demolishing the seating chart that I had crafted so meticulously.  You see, when one student sits in another’s assigned seat one of two things will likely happen: either an argument ensues, or he/she will sit in yet another student’s assigned seat.  Shay didn’t look like the type who talked about it without being about it, (that is, she appeared to be a skilled and ready fighter) so the domino affect ensued.  By the time the bell rang, over half of the class had seized the opportunity to sit next to their friends.  Any teacher knows that with some classes, this could mean chaos.  THIS was one of those classes.

Being the novice that I was, I continued on with my lesson without correcting the situation.  I had learned to pick my battles, and decided that giving Shay an available assigned seat as she walked in the following day would solve the problem.  Little did I know that I would have to personally remind every SINGLE student where his/her assigned seat was.  The whole class caught a serious case of amnesia for the rest of the week.  Block scheduling meant that I had to endure an hour and a half of the chaos, and endure I did.

There were random spurts of laughter and a paper-ball fight.  I distinctly remember a young man jumping up and doing the “Chicken Noodle Soup” dance as a group of girls laughed AT him though he assumed them to be laughing WITH him.  This all occurred while we “read aloud as a class.”  I was relieved when I could hand out a written assignment and just monitor. 

For a moment I thought that maybe Shay was on my side.  She seemed far less than amused by her new classmates as her arms remained folded and she rolled her eyes at the behavior she observed.  When we started individual work, I thought now was the time to make my move.  I approached her to explain that we had a seating chart, and that I understood that she didn’t know this, but could she please sit in (designated seat) tomorrow.  At that moment she tightened her scowl, looked up at me, and yelled how our school was “lame,” she’s not an “effing child,” and she should be able to sit where she pleases.  The whole class went silent for a second, then broke out into a mixture of laughter and cheering.  Following the grade-level policy, I asked her to leave and escorted her to the classroom across the hall where she would sit in the back.  This was the first in a list of behavior intervention steps, which I have since opined to be a way of making teachers carry the load of discipline so that administrators don’t have to.

The battle wasn’t over there.  I re-entered a class that was ten times more chaotic than before.  You see, according to the school rules I could not tell her to leave the classroom without escorting her somewhere.  I was discouraged from calling for back-up unless it was a dire situation (a new kid mouthing off was far from dire).  The way I saw it, I had only one choice – leave the classroom for one minute to deliver her to her destination.  That one minute was all it took to take the class to level ten.

I had given up all hope of refocusing the class, so at that point I tried incessantly to just get them to quiet down.  The last thing I needed was for someone to peek in from the hallway to witness my inability to control thirty fourteen-year-olds when I was seven WHOLE years their senior.  (Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I expected that of myself.)  That’s when I looked over at Shay’s desk and realized that she had left her classwork behind.  I knew that that meant that I had to scurry across the hall once more to deliver it to her.  You see, it was frowned upon to send a student out of class without any work.  That would be denying her the right to the academic instruction that she just interrupted.  It’s ironic how disciplining disruptive students ends up making them a priority over the entire class.

I grabbed her materials and ran across the hall.  I could tell that she had had words with that teacher based upon the look on his face, and I felt guilty.  I averted his eyes, and handed the work to her.  She then asked a question that, though accompanied by a disrespectful tone, made me pause and think.  How was she supposed to do the work when she wasn’t here to read the first half of the book?  This was her first day, after all.  I didn’t have time to go through what she had missed one-on-one.  She didn’t have time to catch up before the next assessment.  I have found myself in this dilemma many times over the years.  New students come at any given time and the teacher is expected to give them a crash course of what they missed.  The problem is that when you have as many as 150 students a year, you just don’t have time.  I told Shay to just start reading from page one, and forget about the assignment for today.  She responded by pushing the book to the corner of her desk and putting her head down.

The next two weeks were riddled with unpleasant encounters with Shay.  She always found a way to disrupt class and disrespect me in the process.  The worst part was that the class followed her lead – the boys wanted to be with her and the girls wanted to be like her.  I followed the chain of discipline: removal from class, lunch detentions, student-teacher conferences, and counselor referrals. Finally she reached the point where I had to write her a referral, and her contact information appeared in the computer just in time.  Although I hated calling parents more than anything else, I agreed with my mentor teacher that I should be the one to call.  When I finally accessed her file, I was shocked and saddened by what I saw.

I had only been a student teacher for a couple months, but I knew that when the point of contact was “guardian” as opposed to a designated relative that student was a foster child.  Foster children were not uncommon, but what stood out about Shay was that according to her file, she had had about 4 different guardians over the past year, and had even had a short stint back home with her biological mother.  She had bounced between schools, and I imagined that an extensive discipline record had followed her to each one.  I wondered what it must have felt like to be recycled so many times like an unwanted object.  I wondered if her behavior was a defense mechanism that she had picked up over time –maybe she had to reject a new environment before it rejected her.  Of course I considered that maybe she couldn’t stick with a foster home because of her disrespectful behavior, but something inside of me knew in that instant that weather one event or several, something in her past had turned an innocent child into the Shay that terrorized my classroom each day.  That’s when I learned lesson one: You never know the circumstances that made a student who she is. 

The call with her guardians was what I expected.  She was their newly-acquired foster child, they didn’t know what to do with her, and their voices were full of regret.

The next day I was determined to be a positive force in Shay’s life from that moment forward.  I greeted her with the biggest smile and “Good Morning!” when she walked through the door, but in true Shay fashion she was not amused.  I made sure to give her praise for the very little work that she actually attempted, and even conveniently ignored some of her off-task behavior.  When she had her typical moments of blatant and outright disrespect, I took time to talk to her on our walks across the hall.  You know you’re better than your behavior, right?  You’re too intelligent to be disruptive in class.  I went on this way for as long as she and I were in the classroom together.  I just could not forget all those foster homes every time I looked at her.  I told myself that in the end, kindness always wins.

Except, in the classroom, kindness doesn’t always win – at least not in the moment.  Shay seemed to view my sudden partiality toward her as an opportunity to get away with even more unpleasant behavior.  She’d take out her cell phone and make calls during instruction and excuse herself to the restroom without permission.  In the moments that I had to discipline her, she seemed even more irate than before.  I smiled at her, encouraged her, and praised her few good deeds to no end.  I told myself that this was why I became a teacher: to be the antithesis of the difficult environment from which many of my students came.

At this point in the na├»ve-teacher-saves-hood-kids movies that have become popular over time, things usually start looking up.  Just when the teacher’s frustration hits the limit, little Shay-Shay realizes and appreciates her teacher’s efforts, and rewards her with diligence in the classroom.  Unfortunately, the story between Shay and me just didn’t end that well.  She was the same Shay until the last day, and was happy to get rid of the “annoying” teacher, as she often labeled me.  She served many more detentions and suspensions before her last day of ninth grade.

Lesson number two was the hardest pill to swallow: every student isn’t going to blossom with a little TLC.  I remember one of my professors telling a room of future educators that the rough kids don’t always change for the better, and sometimes you’re just “happy to see them move on at the end of the year.”  She was half right, but I wasn’t happy to see Shay move on the same way that she came to me.  Time an experience has taught me better, but that year I felt that I had failed – because of ONE student.