August 26, 2016
School is back in session and emotions are running high. So far in my classroom there’s been laughter and sorrow, smiles and tears, and a whole lot of learning…and that’s only me, the teacher, not my prepubescent charges. As always, I have so much to learn about the students I teach.
The school year started out better than I had anticipated. In fact, it started out better than anyone had anticipated, the other teachers, the administration, even the students. The ‘feel’ of the new school year was much lighter, much happier, and much more chill than the previous three years. Even the students’ behavior had seemed to mellow over the summer. The school’s ‘detention room’ had much lower numbers than in previous years, and it began to feel like our school had turned a corner, at least behaviorally. Which made what happened this past week so upsetting. However, I have to admit, what happened this past week is part and parcel of teaching at the middle school level.
I have a secondary-education, English degree and in my state that means that I am able to teach 7th through 12th grade English Language Arts. I have always known that my personality and my teaching style work best with teenagers, ages 14 to 17. I am both strict and demanding of my students. I expect every student to reach just past where they think they can and to work just a little bit harder than they think they should. In other words, I have high standards, for my students as well as myself.
My high standards do not end at my classroom door. I expect students to behave like they have some sense when in the presence of adults. I realize that middle school students can act crazy and they can be loud and obnoxious, which is why you’ll find me wearing earphones when walking the halls and/or during school assemblies. It’s not the crazy, loud and/or obnoxious behavior that bothers me, be cause believe me, I can act crazy, loud and/or obnoxious right along with my students. No, it’s not that. It’s the flagrant disrespect, the bullying, and the violence that I cannot tolerate. And that is what always pushes my buttons.
In my classroom, the rules are simple: 1. Listen and follow directions; 2. Raise your hand and receive permission before leaving your seat; 3. Keep your hands and feet to yourself; 4. Respect yourself, your classmates, and your teacher. The consequences are equally simple: The first time a student breaks one of the class rules I give the student a warning. The second time a student breaks a class rule, they are sent to time-out. This may seem babyish and elementary. However, my students all work in groups and it pains them to be isolated from their peers. Needless to say, it is rare that I have to go to step three. I allow my students to re-enter their group once they have sat alone for a few minutes, thought about what they have done, admitted to me which rule(s) they broke, and apologize.
My last recourse for a rule-breaker in my class is to send them to the office with a referral. Now, once they leave my classroom and head to the office to speak with the vice-principal, any further consequence is out of my hands, and the rule-breaker is out of my hair…at least for a the day. Fast forward to this past week.
This past Wednesday was quite an eye-opener. Not only did I have to write one referral in one of my classes, I was close to writing 8, yes, 8 referrals in one class. I was beside myself. Before I began yelling (yes, I do raise my voice at my little cherubs), I stepped away from the front of my class to calm down. That is when I had a small epiphany: my students tune out anger and respond to calm. I calmly addressed the class.
It worked! The 8 rule-breakers were subdued with my soft, low voice and my encouraging words of wisdom…for exactly 6 minutes. Six minutes is just enough time to lull me into a sense of false security! It was the end of the period and I just didn’t have the heart to write 8 referrals. In fact, I was so hurt and disappointed that all I wanted to do was cry. I excused my students to their next class with the threat of writing referrals for the unhappy eight as soon as school was out.
I didn’t stick around after school to fill out the paperwork, “I’ll do it in the morning,” I sighed to myself. I do not make idle threats to my students, that just leads to students not taking my word seriously. No, I had to follow through with the consequences. However, I would sleep on it and go in to the office in the morning, sans emotion (I hear that is always best).
The next morning at school as I was writing the referrals, I received a call from one of the mothers of the unhappy eight. The mother wanted to know why I was punishing her daughter, at which time I politely explained my class rules, i explained which rules her daughter broke, and what the consequences were. The mother’s response? “Well that doesn’t sound like my daughter.” Sigh. Of course not.
There was no getting through to this mother. She kept insisting, “That doesn’t sound like my daughter!” and my insisting that it was exactly like her daughter was not going to change her mind. Finally, she said, “Well, I’m good friends with Mr. Vice Principal, and I’m going to give him a call!” Sigh. Of course.
I was certainly upset with this exchange. However, I had the whole morning to decide how I should handle the whole referral mess, the afternoon would come soon enough.
As the unhappy eight entered my classroom, I realized they were happy and smiling. The mess from the day before was long forgotten. What had broken my heart wasn’t even a blip on their radar. Oddly enough, this made me smile. The were 11 and 12 year old kids and they had been acting like 11 and 12 year old kids! It was then that I had a little bit bigger epiphany: they are only 11 and 12 year old kids!
The class began with light and airy conversation between me and the (now) happy eight. I was certainly in a much better mood, as were they. As we all came to an understanding, the student whose mother had called me that morning raised her hand and asked with a smile on her face, “Miss, did my mother give you a hard time on the phone?”
I smiled back, a genuine smile and said, “No, she just kept telling me, ‘That doesn’t sound like my daughter.'”
My student chuckled, “Yeah, she doesn’t know how I act at school.”
Of course not.