Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The balancing act

One of my recent posts about Julio generated a flurry of discussion in the comments about the nature of collaboration, the role of students and teachers and the general fairness involved in pairing or "buddying" up students with special needs with other students. One commenter felt that I didn't display enough concern for the rights of the other students in my classroom, and I defended my position, which was basically: I'm trying to do what my mother taught me, which was to do the best I can!

Today we had a very, very difficult afternoon. Julio had not had a good day: yelling, singing, humming, tapping, taking his chair wherever he pleased, pulling his jacket over his head, etc. During math, I gave this direction to the whole class: "Take out your slates and your markers. If you can't find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead. If you can't find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead." Notice how I repeated this last part when I noticed kids starting to get up and wander around the room to look for extra slates or markers.

Julio had forgotten his marker. And I had forgotten to Pick My Battles. So as he got up from his seat to snag a marker after he had very specifically been told not to, I took the marker from his hand and asked him to take out his notebook.

Right around that time, Julio transformed into the Hulk. I'm familiar with Julio's Hulk routine, so initially I wasn't impressed. Basically it consists of rattling his desk back and forth as if he's threatening to tip it over. Occasionally he does tip it over, and then he goes full-on Hulk, grunting and groaning loudly as he tries to pick it up.

So there I am, trying to manage (1) the Hulk and (2) the math lesson. Briefly, it seemed as though the math lesson would win out. To Julio, I said, "I understand that you're upset, but you're choosing the wrong way to get my attention, so I'm not giving you my attention until you can choose a better way." To the class, I said, "If this dime is one whole, and two nickels can make a dime, what fraction of the dime would one nickel be?" The class is also familiar with Julio's Hulk routine, and although some of them were kind of eyeing him suspiciously out of the corner of their eyes, they were on the whole admirably focused on math.

Just as Lonny was about to offer a well-reasoned answer, the Hulk brought his desk crashing down on top of his leg. At which point the Hulk transformed back into Julio, a seven-year-old boy rolling around on the carpet clutching his leg and screaming and crying about how he had just chopped his leg off.

I immediately called the office and asked them to send someone upstairs, and then I told the class that we would have to change direction for a few minutes. I asked them to take out their math journals and work on math boxes instead. Lonny dropped his head back and said, "Aw, man! But I knew the answer!"

Eventually Lonny did get to offer his answer, after the security guard and the assistant principal led Julio away to the nurse, before I had to fill out the incident report and accident report and make the phone call home to Julio's mother. But I've been left grappling with all the questions raised by the Hulk, chief among them what can I do to make the rest of the year bearable? At this point, Julio is on a long waiting list for a seat in a self-contained class. When I call his mother to tell her what he's been doing in class, I'm not telling her anything she doesn't already know. My assistant principal is sticking to her "Document everything and call his mother" mantra; I have a 5-page single-spaced document of Julio's transgivings on my computer, and no one ever looks at it but me. Obviously I need to be more proactive and do a better job fighting for my students -- all of them-- but I hate casting myself in the role of agitator when at the moment I just feel overwhelmed.

Is my anonymous commenter right? Am I dooming my students to a lifetime of fearing impulsively violent classmates and being cast aside while emergencies like this one continue to build? Why, in a school where we've had to call the police and ambulances for disruptive students, do we still not have a crisis plan in place for these situations? Why does my assistant principal call me to nitpick the reading levels of my students but not to find out if my desk-flipper is flipping any desks over today?

Too many questions. Not enough solutions.


Ms. M said...

Sounds like a situation at my school exactly! Both the behavior of the student and the response by administration. This teacher had been keeping tons of notes that no one read but her. Then last week the kids punched her in the stomach and sent her to the hospital. Suddenly those notes are coming in handy now that she has to go to a hearing. I TRULY hope Julio doesn't inflict his violence on you or anyone else. Just saying that you never know when someone WILL read those anecdotals.

Anonymous said...

The enormously frustrating part is that your hands are tied by a system that forces all students into classrooms, regardless of whether or not it is in their best interests. And of course, there is often no appropriate classroom or classroom substitute for kids like Julio.

Do you have an assistant/aide for him? If not, is there a possibility of such a thing? Forgive my ignorance as I work up in Canada and am not overly familiar with staffing solutions in NYC.

I do know that there are some kids who are just too much for one person to deal with, on top of trying to run the classroom/teach. We have had several years of such difficult students at my school and it has been a real struggle - often unsuccessful - to keep things running smoothly.

Sometimes the only thing we could do was send the disruptive students to the office where the administration was kind enough to keep them for a few periods, long enough for some peaceful learning for the other kids.

I think there does come a point when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one - especially when resources are limited.

I hear you, miss brave. No real solutions to offer, just support.

Capt. Schmoe said...

The kids who follow direction, act in a normal and civilized fashion and are there to learn are so getting screwed over in this.

The system is so skewed in the needs of Julio (although not skewed enough that they will spend any money on him)that the needs of the rest of them are being ignored.

Sadly, you are the one who is stuck in the middle of a mother in denial, an administrator who won't (or can't) back you up and thirty-some kids who are saddled with the antics and drama of Julio.

As you actually care, the toll on you must be immense.

I'm just glad that I could afford to send my kids to a school where Julio would have been down the road after a few short weeks, regardless of what his selfish, inconsiderate mother wanted.

I don't mean to sound elitist or unsympathetic to Julio's needs, however someone needs to address the needs of the other kids - a calm and safe learning environment.

Good luck Miss Brave, I am a fan of yours and wish you and your kids the best.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Brave,

It sounds like you are doing what you can in the classroom, but the other kids are getting screwed. You have done almost everything you can. But you can take the next step.

Let the parents of the other kids know what their kids have to go through dealing with Julian. Let them know how much instructional time is lost dealing with a disturbed child. Let the parents know their kids go to school in a hostile and threatening enviroment. The school year is almost over, nothing will be done about Julio until June, but the other parents might be able to pull their kids and get them in a safe environment.

You may be a great teacher, but you're not Superwoman. You can't fix the situation, but you might be able to give the parents of the other kids enough information so that those kids can escape.

Ann T. said...

Dear Miss Brave,
As one of those in the flurry of comments at the previous post, you know I support you.

1. You are not wrong. You are noble and right.
2. You are doing everything for everybody, including the everybody that yells at you or ignores you.

3. Administrators will continue to fuss over the part that is manageable and avoid the unmanageable part. That way they have 'worked' without having 'worked hard or well'. Hypocrisy.

4. It is time to step up the hell factor for somebody else. Unfortunately I don't know who. Would someone at your union or a veteran teacher know? Is it possible to address the parents as others have suggested?

Oh, how I admire your good work, and honor you for your good intentions.

Ann T.

Ms. Peace said...

This is so typical of how the system works. Basically you have to be physically assaulted by a students (AND it has to leave a mark) for anything to be done by administration. I learned early on that administration wants NOTHING to do with our violent kids. I remember having a girl in my class who bit our assistant principal during her first day at school. After that, no one wanted to intervene. I was just basically told to "duck" while this child would lock herself in the closet and cry for hours, color all over herself with marker, and threaten to pee on our books during reading workshop. No one wanted to help her or me. In addition to all of this, she was at a Pre-K academic level (I teach 1st grade). She couldn't even recognize her own name in print. I just put up with it for months until the girl finally moved away. I always wondered what happened to her.

Anonymous said...

Miss Brave, you are "overperforming." This is a technical term for someone who does their own job and other people's jobs too. Not that it is easy for you to get out of this situation, but the fact that so many teachers are willing to overperform is part of why school systems allow children like Julio, who are so obviously disturbed, to continue wrecking the other children's educations. I had a child like Julio in my first grade classroom many years ago. He had a screaming tantrum that lasted over an hour. The principal's office (right across the hall) said it was my problem, that since this was a Catholic school there was no guidance/social work staff (or any other extra staff) and I would just have to figure out how to handle it. My solution was to quit at the end of the year. This system was not serving children.

Anonymous said...

PS: "overperforming" carries the imlication that the extra work being done by the overperformer does not add to the efficacy of the overall institution or group. Of course, in an emergency, everyone pitches in and does what must be done without regard to whose job is what. But schools can't operate as if these very predictable issues -- children who can't control themselves -- are emergencies.

Kate Coe said...

Why doesn't Julio have an IEP? Can you get a social worker involved? His mother seems pretty dense.

Cal said...

Take out your slates and your markers. If you can't find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead.

You're teaching seven year olds, right? For future reference, this is NOT the way to give instructions to 7 year olds.

"You're going to need something to write with for this next activity. If you have your slate and marker at your desk, raise your hand. Okay, good job. You students get out your slate and markers. If you don't have your slate and marker, get out paper and pencil."

Or something like that.

I'm trying to do what my mother taught me, which was to do the best I can!

It is quite possible to be trying hard while still doing the wrong thing. It's not how hard you try, but which direction you take.

Am I dooming my students to a lifetime of fearing impulsively violent classmates and being cast aside while emergencies like this one continue to build?

You're not "dooming" your students. You're just not teaching them well, and aren't fulfilling your primary responsibility to all your students. And look, I'm a teacher. I know it can be tough to find a balance between giving a kid a chance and ensuring the well-being of the classroom. But you're way, way, way off-balance. It's not even close.

Why does my assistant principal call me to nitpick the reading levels of my students but not to find out if my desk-flipper is flipping any desks over today?

Because you do not call for that student to be removed every.single.day. Which is what you should do at the first moment of disruption. Get him out of the class. That will make him the school's problem.

Instead, you're complaining that the assistant principal is letting you do a bad job because it makes her/his job easier. Yeah. That's what they do.

But seriously, this isn't a close call, unless you've been exaggerating for effect until people started criticizing you. You're offloading responsibility onto his class mates, you can't teach a math class without him disrupting, and he is routinely going beserkers. You are the teacher. You can have him removed every single time he's a problem.

Sarah said...

Wow, Ms. Brave,
I think this log is incredibly overloaded with critical comments in the face of a situation that sounds REALLY tough. "removing" the child isn't always the easiest solution- take this from a pre-k teacher who knows the second my ADHD, mohawked "bad" kid reaches his "RED light" to leave the room, he will hit MAN DOWN CODE 10 levels of berserkness. It's less disruptive sometimes to work with him than to "lay down the law". Frankly, most of you sound like elitist parents and teachers who could give a shit about the "bad kids". News flash, folks. Those "bad kids" will always be someone's problem. They are children too. Disturbed, sad, angry children that need love despite their horrendous issues. Kudos to you, Ms. Brave for doing the damn best you can.

Anonymous said...

"Remove" doesn't mean "ignore." What several of us are saying is that there is (or should be) a better environment for children who can't yet manage the stresses of a regular classroom. In hospitals, the regular wards do not attempt to handle trauma cases. We're not saying that that more-beneficial environment is always immediately available to each child who needs it, we're just saying that it's not helpful to claim that you can really help the child as much as s/he needs, as long as you're trying to offer that help in the middle of twenty, twenty five, or more other children.