Tag Archives: classroom management

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days

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In my neck of the woods (Portland, Oregon) there has been some media attention paid recently to a terrible new development inside elementary school classrooms: violently disruptive children. The problem is exacerbated by an interpretation of State Law that says that a teacher can never touch a student unless that student is in imminent danger. I may have it a bit backwards or not fully correct, but I think this means that if a kid threatens to jump out a second story window, the teacher can stop the kid physically, but  if the kid threatens to throw another kid out the window, that teacher can do nothing physically to remove the threatening kid away from the threatened, or, out of the fucking room. So the reports go something like this–on a daily basis in Oregon elementary schools, kids are cursing at other kids and at their teachers, they are throwing furniture, throwing scissors, throwing chairs through windows, they are punching teachers in the stomach, they are kicking, scratching, and biting teachers, they are running wildly around the room and down the halls, they are screaming bloody murder, threatening self harm and harm to others inside crowded classrooms of over 30 children, and the teacher, if they feel other students are in danger, must do this: a classroom clear. They must move every kid EXCEPT THE OFFENDING KID out of the classroom to a safe place. You read that correctly. And, if they can remove the offending kid, they must do it in a non-physical manner, something my elementary school colleagues call “herding.”

I would like to tell you that this stuff does not happen in my school district. I cannot tell you that. In fact, at union meetings I have heard teachers talking about these very things and in one investigative report done by KGW, a local television news outlet, our district is represented in a panel of teachers. It boggles the mind. I have to say that if this were my experience as a classroom teacher, I would immediately be looking for another line of work. I’m not sure how my colleagues have the capacity to deal with this kind of disruption and danger and stress. The gig is stressful enough, as I have written about here many times, without adding to it this element of physical and emotional danger.

Questions arise: First, WTF? Then, in no particular order: who wrote this stupid law and why is it there? Why are 30 kids removed from a room when one kid causes a safety issue? How did we arrive at a place where adults cannot, acting in good conscience and to protect themselves and others, touch a child? Why don’t we have security measures that would immediately remove dangerous children from classrooms? Why don’t we have counseling staff who can deal with kids in crisis? How much educational time is lost as a result of these kinds of events? How are other kids damaged and traumatized by seeing one of their 7 year old peers flip a gasket or a beloved teacher in danger? What happens when these dangerous kindergartners are teenagers? I’m going to use a phrase that I hate because I seem to be out of steam for anything more articulate: I can’t even.

A few of these questions I might be able to answer, I fear, somewhat unsatisfactorily. In 2011, House Bill 2939 was passed prohibiting teachers from touching students unless the student was in danger of “imminent, serious bodily injury.” It was designed to prevent the restraining or isolation of special needs students in response to an increase of these kinds of reports. Okay. Of course, we would hope there would be laws protecting special needs children from abusive treatment. But clearly, the interpretation of this law seems to have tied our hands behind our back. How does this happen? It feels not too far afield to suspect that we have cast our definition of what constitutes as “special needs” pretty widely to include a whole host of aberrant behavior unrelated to any medical or psychological “special need” diagnosis. Doesn’t the kid who screams obscenities at his teacher and runs with scissors have special needs? I would say yes. But these are needs that cannot be met in a classroom with one adult and 32 eight year olds.

So the law and our paranoid response to it provides answers to some of our questions. It seems to me that the other factors that prevent us from addressing this serious problem are those of awareness, will, and money. The panel of teachers in the KGW report say that until parents get involved, nothing will change. They say most folks are unaware this occurs in grade schools. One teacher on that panel said that this has become so normalized in the school experiences of our kids that students don’t even go home and talk about it. I would venture to guess that once the community becomes aware of the problem, the will might be found to change the system, and with the will from a serious number of constituents, the political and then financial support for smaller class sizes and more counseling services for students in need will be forthcoming–and laws can be better written and better understood so as to protect and support the rights of kids to a quality education AND a teacher’s right to safeguard their classrooms and their students. In a world. One can hope. And one can do stuff. Tell people. Share that news report. Wear a Red for Ed t-shirt. Go to the State Capital Building on February 18. Write a blog post. Anything.

I’d like to talk about my own experience now to wrap things up. A facebook friend of mine posted that KGW report today, and it was one of those moments on social media where I felt compelled to say something, something that would compare my experience to my colleagues at the Elementary school and perhaps shed a little bit of secondary ed perspective on the thing. This is what I posted:

I have rarely, if ever, felt physically unsafe in my classroom. However, students these days more often seem disrespectful of the process and are more likely to be disruptive. It bugs me. Sometimes I think to myself that it’s just me, older, less patient. Other times I know that the culture has changed and young people seem less ready than ever, and needy for something I’m not prepared to give them.

No student has ever thrown a chair at me, hit me, kicked me, or bit me. Students have called me names on a few occasions, maybe walked out of the room in anger. These events are so rare that I cannot specifically name one. However, once in my career a student in my room started strangling another student. I touched that kid. I pulled his arms away from the other kid’s throat and I physically and personally escorted him down to student management. This was a long time ago. Also, long ago, a student threw a coin across the room and it hit a girl in the forehead. That kid was gone in a heartbeat. Two or three years ago, while a group of students waited in the hall for me to let them into my classroom, one student of mine, out of nowhere, without provocation, punched another kid really hard in the stomach. Again, I escorted the offender to student management and the other boy quietly recovered in the classroom. In 30 years, these are the three violent acts that have occurred in my room. And in that 30 years, in and around our building at large, every year, a small number of brawls and fistfights–in the hallways, in the lunchroom, in someone else’s classroom, somewhere on campus. These incidents notwithstanding, my school has seemed on the whole to be a safe school and I have never feared for my physical well being while at work.

But my social media comment above points to a different kind of danger. First semester, I wrote not a single behavior referral until the very last day, and that behavior was plagiarism. Nearly a third of my freshmen failed first semester English. About 8 of those students, who were mathematically close to a D grade, were given an Incomplete and a chance to make a corrective move in the next week or so. Yesterday, on the first day of the semester, I asked my 9th graders to write a letter to me about how they’re doing, how they felt about first semester, and what their goals were for second semester. In almost 45 minutes, most students could not (or would not) write more than a paragraph, a few students wrote three or four sentences, and a healthy handful (about a third, the same number of kids who failed first semester) wrote nothing at all. Many of my youngest students (14 or 15 years old) will not take academic work seriously. If they take grades seriously, they expect them, feel entitled to them, blame the teacher if grades are not to their satisfaction. Many others are above (beneath or beyond) even trying. They don’t want to work at anything. Some of them are capable, but won’t bother to use correct conventions in writing. Some of them don’t know how to write a complete sentence. Many are dismissive of reading or refuse to read, take absolute pride in not doing homework. In some classes, I am in constant competition for their attention. I compete with their phones and I compete with their friends and I compete with their utter disregard for the seriousness of learning, and sometimes I spend more time waiting for them or managing them than I do with any substantive material or content. And now and then, (thank the Universe, not this year) I have students who are not just easily distracted, uninterested, and apathetic, but downright evil. They deliberately try to hurt others and undermine the process in sneaky, devious, quiet, but nevertheless destructive ways. I spent the last two years with a gaggle of these. All of the above are experiences or moments when, while I am not in physical danger, I feel in constant emotional peril. It is exhausting. It is demoralizing. It is sometimes difficult to sense that I am making any positive headway with them at all. I often feel unequipped to protect myself and protect the students that are squarely on my side from the damage these other kids can do. And while I sometimes think, as I have said above, that it’s me, not them, I have to trust that indeed things have changed in the schoolhouse, in our community, in the culture at large. I don’t know exactly what it is, and, as I am in my penultimate year, feel I am running short of time to figure it out and fix it. Even if I had another 30 years, I feel the problem may not be solvable. I have left my phone charging in my bedroom for the better part of four or five hours now, and I realized moments ago that I have purposefully neglected to watch the State of the Union speech. And with that left turn for an ending, I’m going to do something domestic in the kitchen.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 4, 2017

Photo on 12-4-17 at 7.26 PM

It’s a Monday and it’s my birthday. None of my students knew and I didn’t bother to tell them. It was a rough day. Last night, I stayed up too late. This morning, and all day really, I was suffering as a result. My cold’s getting better, I think, or, at least, no worse. But what made the day especially challenging, on top of the fatigue, was the growing realization that my students are not ready for prime time, cannot or will not do certain things that seem to me kind of no brainers, hence: they were really difficult to teach today.

I’d like my sophomores to take more responsibility for their own learning. I’d like my sophomores to be able to have conversations with each other about important things. I’d like them to be interested in what they’re doing. I’d like them to be present, to engage fully, to work hard, to monitor their own behavior. They want none of the above. Let me restate: most of them want none of the above. Most of them are either unwilling or unable to do any of these things. As long as I’ve been doing this gig, I feel like I’ve never really mastered how to teach them to do this stuff. It’s like this: they need to be taught how to be: how to be civil, how to be interested in other human beings, when to speak and when to shut their mouths and listen carefully; they even need to be taught (apparently) when it’s the appropriate time to go to the bathroom. And again, I’m not speaking about all of them, but I am speaking about a large enough number of them so as to make three periods in a row with sophomores today feel almost like a wasted day. Is it just that they’re 15 or 16 years old? I know that, partly, yes, that’s the culprit. In large part it’s also a “boy” thing. If I think about every single kid that was making my life difficult today, with a few exceptions, I’m thinking about a boy. They can’t sit still. They can’t take direction. They don’t read. They don’t do homework. They don’t take responsibility. They’re totally self-absorbed. You call them on a disruptive behavior and they look at you like you’re crazy. What!? they say. Or, that wasn’t me. Or, you’re treating me unfairly. It is infuriating. I have to remind myself again and again, (almost impossible to do in the moment), that they will grow out of it and most of them will be okay, will grow into those characteristics I listed above, and that I should just lighten the hell up. They’ll make it.

But many will not.

Over the last few weeks, my department mates and I have been agonizing over what to do about our seniors who enter their last year of high school short the English credits they need for graduation. If they haven’t taken a credit recovery class, summer school or some such band-aid approach, kids who have failed one or more English classes over the course of their high school years find themselves taking LOTS of English as seniors–sometimes two classes at once. And because we are loath to put seniors in classes with freshmen and sophomores, and because we have a limited list of things to take for seniors, they end up inappropriately placed, for example, in College Writing (WR 121). Sure, let’s take kids with a history of failing English classes and put them in a college level English course! It’s ridiculous, especially if the teacher of this class is concerned about maintaining his level of expectation for all the kids in the room, not diluting in any way. The kids placed in this class to make up for lost credits will most likely fail and it will bring them no closer to graduating. The English department dilemma, we thought, was about WHAT courses we’re offering, but I think we should have been talking about WHY so many kids are failing.

I have sophomore boys who come to class habitually late. They come without having done any homework. They come without pencils. They come without pens. Even if they have a pencil or a pen, they come without any paper to write on and they don’t have their composition notebooks. They don’t have the book we’re reading. They have no sense of agency or purpose. They see no value in the process. They see no potential in themselves to change direction. And these are the habits they bring with them through their schooling and these are the kids who will be short of earning enough credits to graduate.

I asked one such student today, in exasperation, trying not to be didactic or sarcastic, if he knew why we were here. He said what he thought I wanted him to say, and just maybe, he believed it: we’re here to get an education. Okay, there’s a start. I asked him if he felt like he was getting an education. He said, not here. Not in English. Okay, fair enough. And I’m thinking, I wonder, you without pen or pencil, you without notebook or paper, you without book, you who are mostly absent and when you’re not absent you’re late, I wonder why you don’t feel like you’re getting an education here. At some point, he or his buddy said something like this: we don’t learn anything in English! We just read and write and talk! Never mind that the teacher has given you a list of thought provoking essential questions. Never mind that the teacher has tried to be super explicit about why we do what we do, about the value of story, about the necessity of hearing from other perspectives, about empathy, about the urgency of being able to articulate critical thought in speech and in writing, about the dangers to us in the absence of these things. This boy was absent that day, I guess. I delivered the little mini-lecture, and he was somewhat receptive. But it’s hard to imagine him turning things around, even though I know that that’s part of my job.

At the lunchroom table today, my friends Richard and Jack and Brad and I were talking about these things and wondering if we sounded like a bunch of grumpy old men. Yeah, we probably sounded like that. We asked the question, are we in a groove or in a rut? Are kids any different today than they have ever been, or is it JUST US? How good do you have to be to love every kid and to communicate to every kid that you are on their side and believe they can be successful? How do we balance, or should we balance, kids feeling good about themselves with the fact that hard work and persistence and failure are the very stuff of learning and of life. Our superintendent and our vice principal are very keen to talk about drop outs as “push outs” instead, shouldering all the responsibility for failing students squarely on the backs of teachers and the institutions for which they work. For many of us, this does not sit well. It’s too much to bear. It’s true that there are many students who are not served well by our schools. They need something else. They need something we are not prepared or equipped to give them. But there is no other alternative and here we are, between a rock and a hard place, all things to all people, trying to do what’s right, trying to keep it together, wondering why Johnny can’t or won’t read, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, rejecting and resisting burnout with every fiber of our being.

All right. That’s out. Time to celebrate my birthday.

 

 

 

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#58: Classroom Management

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A student entered the classroom
of my colleague with a rat.
Really.
The rat was traveling
visibly underneath the boy’s
clothing, around the stomach
and the chest, up and down
the sleeves and nestling in
the wide birth of his hoodie hood.
It made a girl scream.
The lesson, whatever it was,
is inevitably interrupted.
My colleague, I don’t know,
loathe as he always is to
the possibility of alienating
his students, even the ones with rats,
made the best of it.
And in the end the screaming
girl really did want to see it,
perhaps, even, to touch it,
and the boy learned that
if he wanted to bring his rat
to school, he would, as they say,
have to keep it under wraps.
And I end up in such admiration
of my teacher friend, knowing
that I could never be so magnanimous
in the face of a rat under wraps,
that I would have wanted the boy
stripped of his rat and the rat of his boy
forever and ever, amen.

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Of A Twelve Step Program for Young Cell Phone Addicts

I’m serious.  There’s not a day that goes by any more when I don’t tell a student or several students, sometimes repeatedly in a single period, to put their cell phones away.  And lately there hasn’t been a week that’s passed without a serious discussion around the lunch table about the need for some sort of school wide policy about phones.  My school does not have such a policy; it is up to teacher discretion–and that causes some serious angst–because not all teachers handle it the same way, and that inconsistency makes it more difficult for teachers to establish a no-tolerance expectation.

Some teachers confiscate immediately.  Some teachers warn and then confiscate. Some teachers ignore the problem altogether–and either this causes them serious anxiety as they are exceedingly bugged but feel helpless to do anything about it, or they have become, as a survival technique or coping mechanism, totally oblivious to the problem.  It’s a battle many teachers don’t want to fight. Some teachers harass and harangue or appeal to students’ better selves by using a thing called reason. The messages are: I see you doing that, I’m bugged, it’s rude, it’s impeding your success in this moment, so put it away.  This tends to be my mode of operation, a strategy which, woefully, doesn’t work very well, at least in the long term.  They look at me, sometimes sheepishly, they apologize, sometimes sincerely, they put the offending thing away, and then 15 minutes later they’re back at it.  Even less effective, but sometimes amusing, is a habit I have developed lately of simply inserting the phrase “put away the phone” at random intervals during the lesson, sometimes mid-sentence.  “Ezra Pound was one of the first and most famous, put away the phone, translators of ancient Chinese poetry.” I can’t ignore it–because that would be wrong.  And I can’t make myself into a confiscator because. . .because. . .(I’m stalling because this is complicated).

I don’t confiscate because I’m indignant about the idea that I would even have to do such a thing with high school juniors who are several months away from adulthood. I’m incensed that this has become ipso facto part of my job description. I don’t confiscate because it is not my style or my way to be a hard guy.  I don’t confiscate because, if it becomes a struggle–as it often does when students feel a sense of entitlement around their devices or they have come to believe that using their phones at any and all times of day is a basic human right–the resultant adrenaline rush, the anger, the power struggle, these things make me feel shitty and throw off my entire teaching game.

Cell phones didn’t used to be such an issue.  Only a few years ago, the biggest problem, and it happened infrequently, was an inappropriate ringy dingy in an inopportune moment.  Easy problem to fix.  Don’t answer it. Turn off the ringer. Solved. But today, with the advent of the smart phone and all its glories, students are receiving incoming digital information in the way of tweets, facebook posts, instagram messages, and texts–incessantly. They are being bombarded by this stuff 24/7, in every waking moment, and they are loath to pull themselves away, incapable of resisting, obsessed with any little blip on the screen that might amuse them or flatter them or titilate–while I’m trying to teach them about ancient Chinese poetry.  They are addicted, plain and simple.  They need a twelve step program.  They need interventions.  They need a detox.

Here’s what the sharing at the meeting might sound like.  Feel free, if this is your problem, or your kid’s problem, or your spouse’s problem, to use it as a script.

Hello, my name is _____________and I am a Smart Phone Addict.  I admit I am powerless over my cell phone and that it has made my life unmanageable.  My cell phone owns my dumb ass. I spend more time looking at a screen than looking at faces of real people who are in rooms with me.  Even on dates, I am more present with my phone than I am with my date. I am constantly distracted.  I can’t seem to concentrate on any one thing for any length of time–but I can look at my phone for hours at a stretch, anticipating every notification alert with a kind of euphoria that I can’t feel any other way.  While waiting for a message, I like to stroke the phone, tenderly, as if my loving attention will bring other notifications faster.  I sleep with it under my pillow.  The quality of my sleep is suffering, my grades are suffering, real face to face conversations about any substantive topics never occur, my English teacher is always angry at me. I have come to believe that a Power greater than myself could help relieve my suffering.  I have made a decision to turn my will and my life over to God as I understand God. (Or, for the atheists: I have made a decision to control my own behavior through conscientious, deliberate practice).  I have made a searching and fearless moral inventory and find that nothing about the Smart Phone makes me smarter.  Nothing about the cell phone makes me a better person or helps me live a better life. I am ready for God as I know God (atheists: I am ready) to remove all my defects and shortcomings.  I’ve made a list of people I’ve harmed, insulted, ignored, dismissed, and angered by my incessant cell phone usage.  I will make direct amends with these people whenever it is safe to do so.  Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps (even atheists can do this),  I will carry this message to other Smart Phone Addicts and practice these principles in all my affairs.  Thank you, brothers and sisters.

That’s what I’d like to hear from some of my young charges who seem to be incapable of turning off their phones.  I would so much like them to open their eyes to the fact that all the kids around them who are NOT engaged in Smart Phone Addict behaviors are twenty times more successful in almost every conceivable way.  In the best of all possible worlds, I would like young people to come to these conclusions and CHANGE, rather than devise some punitive measure (anything from a giant cell phone compactor to a less draconian cell phone ban) to force them to comply. But maybe that’s pie in the sky rose colored glasses.  Goodnight.  I have to get the iPad away from my son so he can take a bath.

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