Friday, January 11, 2008

Isn't it ironic...

...that while the teachers are at a crisis intervention training session, I keep having crises with their students?

I could smell the tension as soon as I walked into the classroom. The sub said they'd been "horrible." (The sub had also put some of them in charge of being "helpers," which means that there were kids touching the bell and moving the discipline cards. Lesson #1: Never let your students touch your bell or move your discipline cards.) It was the end of their first full week back from vacation, and the kids seemed keyed up, restless, ready to snap.

As soon as I asked them to put their writing folders away, Mohammed and Justin (who is ordinarily so docile that I've occasionally wondered whether he has mental challenges) got into a physical altercation. It wasn't the kind of irritated jostle I see my kindergarteners and first graders get into; there was real malice flashing in their eyes.

"WHOA!" I shouted, sounding like a jockey trying to tame a wild horse. Upstairs, the crisis intervention counselor had urged the teachers to "speak CAR" -- Calmly, Assertively, Respectfully. My "WHOA!" was precisely none of those things.

I instructed them to separate, cool off, ignore each other, take a breath. But after the mini lesson was over, Mohammed spit at Justin and apparently threatened to "f**k him up." Justin told Christopher that after I left, he would beat up Mohammed.

I believed both of them. This wasn't a situation where I could chastise someone for using unkind language or not keeping his hands to himself. This was a genuine, explosive crisis.

Let's get some perspective: I did my student teaching in Newton, Massachusetts, a town that has a median household income of $121,496 and was named the nation's safest city for three years in a row. When I interviewed for a teaching job with the New York City Department of Education -- in a group with two other young, white, female students at private colleges -- my recruiter emphasized heavily the need for us to have a desire to teach in an urban environment. Having spent thirteen years of my own in the New York City public school system, and having become disenchanted with the segregation I'd encountered at schools in Massachusetts (in one first grade classroom in which I student taught, there was one African-American student in the entire class -- she was bussed in from a neighboring town, of course -- and when the librarian showed my students a movie about Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white elementary school in the south, my students kept referring to her as "the Vanessa in the movie" and protested, "But we let Vanessa come to our school!"), I felt like I was up for the challenge.

But let's get real here: I thought "shut up" was a swear word until the fourth grade. And although I'd heard horror stories about things like second graders who say "I'm going to f**k you up" to each other, I never really thought I'd encounter it myself. Until one day I saw Nathaniel walking home from school, and his father was having a conversation with Nathaniel's older brother in which he casually tossed around curse words like they were popcorn kernels that were exploding their way into Nathaniel's brain. Is it any wonder that Nathaniel is one of my most challenging students or that he is so consistently rude and disrespectful to everyone around him?

Second graders in Newton do not threaten to f**k each other up. They're too busy taking swim lessons and getting privately tutored at places like Sylvan Learning Center. Which is why every urban teacher I know has such a beef with No Child Left Behind; obviously we want to hold our students to the same high standard, but how does whaling on them with standardized tests help us overcome the deficit that is a fact of life in less privileged areas?

After the fight, one of the students who'd tried to help break it up confided in me that "My dad keeps trying to teach me the wrong lesson. He says when someone hits you, you hit them back. I say tell the teacher. I say walk away. But he says pow, you hit them back."

This is why I worry about what will become of my students when they get older. I worry that we're spending so much time drilling them with academics in fear of federally mandated testing that we're losing sight of the responsibility we have to promote their social development. I worry that they are receiving deeply mixed signals from their teachers and parents about what kind of behavior is acceptable and who they should strive to be. And I worry that on days like today, when I yell at my students instead of trying to understand them, I'm only confusing them more and driving them to lash out in their anger.

Which is why I find myself wishing more and more that I had my own class; though I have no doubt that it would be just as challenging, it would be nice to have 25 or so students to worry about instead of 425.


J said...

Wow, what a tough day.

First, I'd say that your initial reaction was the same as mine'd be--at the very least, by speaking loudly, you got their attention focused on you so you could try to calm them down/get them away from each other.

I hope the boys didn't actually come to blows after class. Yikes.

cbh said...

so the thing is, its a constant struggle but you should remember that in many ways school is the only consistent thing in the students' lives. it is important that the teachers work together to stay as consistent as they can when it comes to discipline. if it is not happening at home it needs to happen somewhere. please stay in education. the fact that you are thinking like this and truly worried is reassuring.