Archive | 12:02 am

The Blog That Was A Decade In The Making! Part Four

5 Oct

October 5, 2011

Part One can be found here,
Part Two is here,
And you can find Part Three here.

On the surface things really hadn’t changed much. I was still moving from room to room, though I only had four different rooms instead of eight, and I still had discipline problems. But here I had backup.

The biggest was a supervisor who not only supported me but knew the students and the situation I was in. Not only did she tell me to send bad students to her, she demanded it. And trust me, they did not get a single cookie from her. I wasn’t crazy about it because I felt that having her handle the unruly kids made me look weak, but we had to establish that there were consequences to disrupting the class.

As the years went on I sent fewer and fewer students to the Assistant Principal’s office. It became a point of pride. I was able to handle the bad situations on my own but more importantly I had the experience to keep those situations from ever starting. In fact, One of my strong points was classroom management. Not only did I later develop the school’s student code of conduct, but I was given a class that literally drove another teacher to tears (and the verge of a nervous breakdown) because I could handle them.

That was still in the future. In my first semester at the high school I was in a bad situation. I began teaching three weeks into the semester, so the kids were on a free ride. They had a string of substitutes and no real discipline. No matter what anyone tells you, a substitute teacher is there for one reason only: to prevent the kids from running in the halls and setting fire to the school. A teacher who leaves work for the sub to give the students and actually expects it to get done is crazy, at least in the schools I taught in.

But I changed that too, eventually.

The kids had experienced three weeks of total abandon during English class and now they had a teacher. And they knew that I was also new to teaching, two strikes right there. They tested me, they pushed me, they tried to beat me down. But even down two strikes the advantage was to me. First, I had resources. Unlike my old school where I never had a class set of anything, here I had six book rooms of textbooks. My old school had a delay of three days to a week if I wanted anything copied. Here I could go to the department office and copy as much as I needed at anytime. I was able to establish not only rules but consistency. Rules are good, consistency is king. The students needed to know what was expected of them, it had to be enforced, and it needed to be the same from day to day. They needed to know- clearly- what they were required to do, how it impacted them if they didn’t, and how it all affected their grades.

In the early, challenging days I was able to begin to develop the strategies that would make the later year far less challenging. And I cannot overstress how important it was that I had colleagues who went out of their way to help me. Those I shared rooms with were generous and helpful. My department became a team in every sense of the word.

But not every department was the same. Despite the strength of the English department many of the others were weak. I shared a room with a selfish social studies teacher who didn’t leave me a single closet for storage. It wasn’t that big a deal because I only taught one class in that room and I stacked the textbooks in a corner. He came to me after a couple of days yelling at me for leaving the books out because his students were throwing them out the window. He was actually mad at me because he could not control his own class. I told him it was his fault and he tried to tell me that all supplies had to be locked up to protect them from the students. Ridiculous.

We had bad students, that was a fact. Our school underperformed and had some high profile troubles. We got only kids who couldn’t get into another school and it was in a spiral. In my first semester I had a real scare. One of my students was obnoxious. She was loudly talking and carrying on conversations while I was trying to teach. I was still weak and having trouble controlling her. During this particular class we were reading from a story about a girl and a monster. We were making predictions about what would happen next and during the conversation I said, in reference to the character in the story “it looks like Christine is going to die.” One of the girls carrying on the conversation caught part of that and told the obnoxious one, whose name was Christina, “he said he’s going to kill you!”

She jumped up and said “what did you say? You’re going to kill me? You’re fucked! I’m going to get you fired!” She and three of her friends marched out and of course, the rest of the class was a lost cause. They did nothing but scream and tease me about how I was going to get arrested.

I ran to my boss’s office to explain my side of the story. She didn’t believe for a second that I threatened to kill anyone. I wrote up a statement and she wrote one up based on her talks with the girls. They all admitted that they didn’t hear what I said, they all admitted that they were fooling around in class, and they all ended up on suspension. I never heard another word about it, but I had a very tense few minutes after they ran out until the class ended.

Compare that to this incident a few years later.

I was teaching a class and a student came in late. Normally that never disrupts a class because I had procedures in place to handle lateness but this was different. This particular student was not a bad person but had poor impulse control. Even though she couldn’t pay attention in class and was badly failing we still got along. Over the years many of the students I failed were also the ones I got along with best. It was strange that the students I failed often treated me better after I failed them, even though they wouldn’t have me again. I was usually able to have a separation between professional and personal so even when a student failed they knew why and didn’t blame me. OK, not always, but usually.

As I said, this student had poor impulse control. And something had happened in her last class that set her off. She came into my room, let out a roar that made some of the kids jump, and kicked the garbage can across the room, making five or six kids duck. I was moving towards her with the intention of guiding her into the hall when she walked to my desk and flipped it over.

This was an old, heavy wooden desk. It had drawers on both sides and was not easy to move. She was so enraged that not only did she flip it over; it did a complete 360 in midair. Picture this, the desk completely revolved in midair. And I had a lot of papers and books on top which ended up all across the room. The desk landed on an angle and shattered into one large and three or four small pieces.

This was one of only two times I was stunned.

I was shocked into immobility, the class was so stunned that no one breathed, and even the girl who flipped the desk couldn’t believe what happened and just stood there. Someone in another room must have heard the commotion because as I finally started to react security showed up and took her away. But what did the rest of the class do? Instead of going crazy and using it as an excuse to have a wild time, they asked me if I was all right and cleaned up the mess. Without being asked. In a few minutes we were back to the lesson. That was how far I had gone from the days of being yelled at day after day for not controlling my students.

I always arranged my rooms (when I finally got my own room) in a horseshoe. That gave me a lot of room to walk around and see what the kids were up to. Rows, I am convinced, are good for almost nothing. They bind a teacher to the front of the room. If you walk to the back the kids in the front can’t see you. If you go down row five then row one is out of your direct line of sight. One advantage of a horseshoe shape is that I could teach from any point in the room. There were many days when I taught my classes while leaning against the back wall.

It also led to the other time I was stunned.

I had a bad student who was failing every class. He wasn’t just my problem; he was a problem in every class and also at home. I almost never saw his face, he was always turned around to talk to someone. We didn’t have desks, we had chairs with the desk built in to the arm. I once lifted his chair, with him still in it, and turned him around. He laughed and spun around again.

By a total coincidence I got a phone call just a minute later that his parents were on their way up and I wasn’t to say anything. They wanted to see for themselves how he behaved in school so they were going to peek in the window. Thanks to the horseshoe they had a clear line of sight and what they saw was not good. I saw them in the window and their faces were not happy. The father came in the room and without a word gave the waggling “come here” finger. Their son didn’t move fast enough and the mother charged him, grabbed him by the ear, and pulled him outside.

I stayed inside and tried to keep the class under control because they were howling with laughter so I missed what happened in the hall but I heard it.

The father was whipping the son with his belt.

Security happened to see it and ran to break it up.

I developed a reputation as a fight breaker. If two students started fighting in my room, and it happened too often, I got in the middle and broke it up. Eventually I was officially informed by both my boss and the UFT representative that I was to let them fight. No one wanted to see me getting hurt and I could get written up if I got involved. It galled me but I had to stand on the sidelines once while I saw one girl get a clump of hair ripped out.

One debt I owe to my first school is that because the Principal was in and out of my room so much I stopped caring who entered my room. Not only did nothing bother me, but I soon took ownership of the room. It was my room. If I wanted to control who came in I locked it and let someone in when I was ready. I never interrupted a lesson, not a single sentence, to open a door to let someone in until there was a natural break. That was true for late students, other teachers, and even high level Department of Education officials. The kids would get freaked out that I wasn’t opening the door. I told them this was my class and in here not even the Mayor could tell me what to do. That was my attitude. That was the confidence I eventually gained.

And unlike my first school, no one ever made me pass a student I wanted to fail. In fact, after my first semester I was applauded for the number of students I failed. It sounds strange but it is a testament to the freedom I had.


Part One can be found here,
Part Two is here,
And you can find Part Three here.

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