What a week. My teacher friends were so beat by Friday afternoon. Everyone was complaining that they were EXHAUSTED. When the day was finally over and I sat down at my classroom computer, I felt like huge weights were pressing down on my shoulders and my chest–not like some dangerous medical condition, but just sheer and utter exhaustion–both mental and physical. I felt like I had been glued to the chair.
Not a bad week. I have had worse. Not a bad day—in the past year, I have had many that were far more challenging, upsetting, and discouraging. However, I did something last evening that I rarely do. My husband asked me how my day went, and I actually told him. I usually just respond, “It was O.K.,” because each day is usually pretty O.K. in a general sense, minus the various episodes of regret, embarrassment, bewilderment, and exasperation. I really opened up. I ranted. Not raving hysteria—no tears or exhortation—just many minutes of animated explanation and description of what an average day can be like for today’s middle school teacher.
I tried to tell him what school was like for me. What school these days can be like for many long-term (my 39th year), dedicated, well-organized, well-prepared, well-trained, mindful, hopeful, experienced, worldly, knowledgeable, and previously satisfied education professionals like my closest colleagues and I. I will not bore you with the details here—if you teach or have close friends who teach—you already know the drill. Let’s just say that it can be characterized by at least two simple concepts: frustration and disappointment.
And, I hate to whine. I really do not enjoy complaining. It is a practice that I try to limit to just a few close friends and confidantes.
I tried to convey to my husband (whose closest experience with teaching includes his own time spent in classrooms as a student 35 years ago, plus trying to run activities with den-loads of over-stimulated cub scouts, and attending his own children’s parent-teacher conferences) what it is like to be thwarted repeatedly by a group of eleven-year olds.
I am good at what I do—teaching 6th grade science. I am good with children and their parents. I like children. I love teaching. I love school—I always did. I understand the curriculum and have been thoroughly trained in the science kits that I teach. I am capable of creating/planning fairly engaging lessons that I know from past experience can move all students forward to understanding both concrete and abstract concepts, like calculating speed and graphing the data that results from various trial runs of little lab vehicles. Running small battery-powered cars and dot-cars that produce patterns that can be interpreted to show constant and changing rates of speed—pretty cool stuff. I continually make connections from our classroom activities to the outside world—the real world of science.
However, it has become more and more difficult to teach. To get in there and do what I do best: convey information, facilitate discovery, scaffold understanding, and build on prior and developing knowledge. Instead, I too often feel that just to teach, I must fight my way through thick jungle undergrowth, armed with a dull machete and a weak stroke. I feel like a lion tamer, with the big cats surrounding me, many of them growling and snarling and pawing the air. There I stand in the center of the ring, armed with a whip and a chair, struggling to back off a few of the angriest beasts, settle down the rest, and maintain a semblance of order and control.
Do you know the arcade game called “Whack-a-Mole?” In this clever game, players are armed with a soft mallet to be used to bop the head of any one of several mechanical “moles” that pop up again and again from various underground burrows. Up pop two different moles; you strike one and down it goes; you go for the other one. and two more pop up. Bop down the mole directly in front of you, then the one over there, and the first mole is up again. The moles are unrelenting. As soon as you settle down Sally and Suzy, Bobby and Brady are up to their antics. Both teachers, administrators, and even one or two superintendents have been known to laughingly refer to classroom discipline as “Whack-a-Mole.” It isn’t funny when it’s your quarter, and you’re the one holding the almost useless mallet.
I am not a fan of professional wrestling, but even I know what a tag-team event is. Tag-teaming by 6th graders is not at all conspiratorial. I do not imagine for one second that the two to three participants actually planned this strategy. It just happens. Call it equal opportunity disruption—call it coincidence. You get the class settled and down to business in the first three minutes; you hand out pencils to the 4-5 kids who come unprepared; most students are busy with the requisite warm-up; you take roll call; and the day’s science lesson begins.
After three minutes of instruction, Johnny opens with a stroll across the room to the pencil sharpener, and an even slower return to his seat. A minute later, Jason follows up with waving his hand in the air, not to answer your last question, but to ask to get a drink. When you tell him “No”, this is followed by eye-rolling, head-tossing, and teeth-sucking, accompanied by an under-the-breath rendition of the all-popular catch-phrase: “On, my gawd!” This is said with much disdain and in a stage whisper. [Teeth-sucking is a sound of displeasure that most adults cannot replicate. Apparently, once one attains the age of 18, one loses the ability, if one ever had it.] Johnny now needs a tissue, which requires the requisite perambulation, this time making a slow pass between teacher and class. Next, Jason and Judy share candy with much rustling of crinkly plastic wrappers and whispering. By now, some of the class is keeping their eyes on both teacher and student, waiting to see what happens.
But, I am ready, Eddie; I keep my cool, Jule; I ignore all the action, Jackson—and “Round One” goes to Mrs. Jenner. This time.
Here I am, on stage, performing my interesting and valuable lesson (“It’s the Frederika Jenner Show!”) and too often anymore, the audience is continually restless–looking at their watches and glancing around for the exit sign. To top it off, somebody else keeps intruding on the stage, entering and re-entering the scene, disrupting the flow of the lesson, interrupting my train of thought, and causing confusing and disconcerting moments for many members of my audience. Get off of the stage—let me teach. The show must go on, and of course, it does.
Occasionally, some show-goers must have their tickets returned and are shown the door. Others are spoken to by the usher or even by the manager. Control is maintained, but, honestly, some days, it is challenge to maintain one’s cool and stay in school.
Some of you who are parents may well be able to imagine how it feels to have your authority challenged by your own child. Trust me, this in no way compares to the same kinds of authority-challenging moments accomplished in front of the classroom audience, under the watchful eyes and ears of 29 other ever-vigilant comrades. Some are ready to be entertained or to have the lesson delayed or derailed. Luckily, in my school, many are there to get a good education, which we are ready, willing, and able to provide. God bless the child who is there to learn and to let me teach.
Then there are those who are ready to join the fray, not just by adding to the mix with their own misbehaviors or lapses in judgment, but also by taking sides. We call it “lawyering”, and it is a practice that seems to be on the rise, something new to me and different. Difficult to deflect.
Here’s how it works: The teacher chooses to speak to Johnny—you remember Johnny, whose careful, deliberate, sloth-like steps actually take extreme control and planning—walking way slow is not easy—try it some time. As Johnny gets up out of his seat for a third time to re-sharpen that pencil, I tell him to sit down. He keeps on keeping on. I again say, “Sit down, thank you.” He stops in his tracks, but does not sit. I say, “Sit.” Suddenly, but not unexpectedly, Mary blurts out, “He isn’t doin’ anything wrong. He needs to sharpen his pencil. You can’t expect him to do his work with no pencil!” “Yeah,” chorus some others. Unbeknownst to the authorities, Mary’s services have unofficially been engaged in order to protect the innocent from the tyrannical.
Well, I gave my old man a picture of how school has evolved. It was not pretty. He had lots of advice—some of it good, some of it draconian. Some of it obvious—stuff we had tried years ago. I wasn’t interested in advice or debate. I just felt like unloading, and besides, he asked for it.
Don’t get me wrong. I still do school. I still do a damned good job. I like kids and teaching. I often tell the misbehavers that I like them, I just don’t like the ways in which they choose to behave. I mean it. I can separate the two. However, I will be the first to tell anyone that I could do an even better job if I had some additional resources, like:
- New skills and strategies for teachers trying to deal with the latest versions of classroom disruptions. How many times and how many ways do I have to communicate to the powers that be that I need help? I am known for good classroom management skills. Teachers like me need help. I have run through my entire repertoire—stuff that used to work for me in a science lab.
- Novel and different disciplinary tools in our schools—suspension is not working. It appears to have little or no impact on our repeat offenders. Why keep doing the same thing with the same lousy results?
- An effective time out program—one which kids HATE with a passion—one that persuades kids to shape up before they have to be shipped out—one with no appeal whatsoever.
- Counseling for troubled students—real and effective therapeutic counseling that helps kids assess their actions and begin to change for the better.
- Student, parent, and community accountability. It takes a village to raise a child.
OMG. This started out as a brief intro to my third part on teacher tenure. I just shot a hole in my Saturday afternoon, and I will have to hold off on the tenure piece until next time. But, I do feel better. I felt better after filling my husband’s ear last night, and I feel better letting it all hang out here and now. Thanks—this has been quite cathartic.