Open House

We have Meet the Teacher night before the school year gets started, but all the students are still just unknown names on rosters. By the time tonight rolls around, when parents come to ramble through the school and follow their children’s schedules, I have faces to go with the names. And personalities. And fears. And excitements.

I got a chance to talk to C’s parents. She’s new to the school, having changed schools just at the start of the final year of middle school. A tough time to make that switch. “She’s having a tough time,” her mother confided in me. She misses her friends; she misses her teachers; she misses not having such a strict dress code — all the worries of a thirteen-year-old, I suppose.

I got a chance to talk to I’s mother and tell her what a powerful leader she can be in class. “She was making sure everyone in the class stayed on task today, really taking a strong leadership role,” I told her. Both I and her mother smiled.

I got a chance to talk to A’s parents. A is, in his mother’s words, “a diamond in the rough.” All parents see their kids like that, I know, but I think that’s really an accurate description of A. He displays flashes of brilliance in his comments and performance at times, but they’re often couched in moments of apparent apathy. Or insecurity. It’s hard to tell with eighth-graders. I think it’s hard for them to tell sometimes.

I got to meet K’s mother. K is in the same class as I. They’re real gems. K has made it to the 100% club every week (i.e., 100% positive behavior as recorded in Class Dojo). Her mom saw that and whipped out her phone. “I’m getting a picture of this!” K laughed and tugged on her arm. “No! No! This needs a picture!” If only every child could have a parent that supportive.

I didn’t get to meet other parents, parents I really wanted to talk to because of genuine concerns that are growing. Sure, I can call them, perhaps email them, but talking to them in person is always so much more productive. I try not to judge — maybe they had to work or had prior commitments — but I can’t help but see a correlation.

Dead Ends

Mug 2

It’s really just how I would imagine his mug shot to be: head cocked at an angle to show that, while he was complying with the police officer, he still wanted it clear that he was his own person. It’s the defiance of the desperate: lacking any other meaningful way to express himself, he showed that he wasn’t going to face the camera straight on.

I met De’Andre (not his real name) while working with at-risk youth in North Carolina. For a year, I and others worked with him (and others) to provide instructions and practice in the basic social skills: accepting “no”; following instructions; managing anger; maintaining eye contact in conversations with authority figures; managing impulses. The things that so many of us learned without direct instruction; the things that make basic interactions in society possible; the things without which success is unthinkable. Some days were successful; others were not.

mug3

Like De’Andre, Clearance had great difficulty with even the most basic social skills. He had a short temper that could quickly grow violent and a mischievousness that could quickly cross all boundaries of acceptability.

For both these young men, life had been a series of dead ends. Clearance’s one bit of pride came from his success in fourth grade as a football player. De’Andre had even less he would express pride about. They lived moment to moment, second to second, without any hope of making it to anything but the next meal. They shuffled in and out every day, unsure what would happen the moment they crossed the threshold, and quite honestly, unconcerned as well.

Mug 1

What can we do with young men — and there are thousands of them in America today — who are so very fatalistic that their probable response to seeing their own mug shots on the internet would be, “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later?” What do we do to help young men from seeing their lives as a dead end?

It is here that I remain left-leaning with right-leaning motivations. This is not to say that I see these men as victims. They might have been victims as children — and from what I know of the personal histories of individuals like this, they certainly were victims of various forms of abuse — but the only thing they’re victims of now is their own fatalistic thinking and the habits they’ve formed over the years. Their mug shots are now on the internet because of choices they made, pure and simple.

But my left-leaning tendencies emerge when I think of their experience in school. It’s clear that they had no one in their homes to teach them these skills; it’s clear that they had no one in their lives to model these skills. That is the sense in which they are now victims of their neglected childhood. And as a teacher, I wonder if we can’t do something while such young men are children to help them develop the skills they need.

mug4These deficiencies are as clear in early life as reading problems. In fact, they’re more clearly evident. What are the current options in such situations? There are few, if any. The classroom teacher is responsible for the academic instruction of thirty young children; she has little to no time to instruct little De’Andre or Clearance in the basic skills they seem so clearly to lack. So they get called down, sent to time out, removed from activities, and generally shunned. Instead of learning these skills, they become resentful of those who have the skills and meet with success in school. Indeed, they don’t even recognize that there are different skills successful students are using. “Those kids are just kiss-ups” is the common response.

mug5What do we do with this students are they grow older and more intractable, more incorrigible? We do the logical thing: we suspend them. Talk back to the teacher? Get three days out of school. Fight with a student? Get five days out of school. Initiate a fight that is particularly brutal? Get ten days out of school. And this helps these students how? Giving students who don’t want to be in school because they’ve only met with failure in school a chance to get out of school advances their education how?

What’s in place for habitual offenders — alternative school — seems less than effective. Indeed, De’Andre and Clearance had already been to alternatives school, and they’d met with as much success there as they had in regular school.

mug6I would imagine it’s the same success they’ve met everywhere else in life. And it seems to me that when people aren’t meeting success through the normal channels of life, they begin looking for it in other ways. Or, perhaps as in the cases of these boys’ lives, they apply the techniques that bring them relative success on the streets to institutional situations, where those same methods will bring not success but condemnation. Or even eventual incarceration.

And every day I see flickers of such futures in this or that student. I see reactions that I think, “Young man, that will get you fired in ten years.” And it occurs to me that perhaps the best thing I can do for such young men and women is provide an environment where they experience at least some success without resorting to a thug attitude.

Fear

Dear Teresa,

There are some students that I would believe could be afraid of me. I do try to seem sterner in the opening days of the school year than I actually am — it’s not an accident. It’s an act, but not an accident.

You, though, try to come off tough as iron, as if nothing moves you, frightens you, or disturbs you. That was certainly the impression I got when I met you, and it was certainly the image previous teachers painted. Or at least, that that was the impression you wanted everyone to have of you.

So when Mr. Smith told me that you absolutely refused to come to my room during advisory period to get help with your work on account of being afraid of me, I had to smile a bit.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t really want you to be afraid of me. But a little fear does go a long way: It has shades of humility that you try so hard not to exhibit. It has shadows of understanding one’s place and accepting it, which you try so hard to suggest you don’t do, won’t do, for anyone. Those attributes are essential for being able to accept help. And we all need a little help.

With hope for a fear-free, help-filled year,
Your Teacher

At A Loss

There are some times in my classroom that I am positively at a loss, that I am standing there, looking at what just happened, listening to what’s being said, watching what’s going on, and I find myself wondering, “What in the world do I do about this?” I’ve been in the classroom for almost twenty years now, and I’ve come to realize that I will always — always — have these moments.

Last week, for example, in order to load a document I wanted the students to view on the projector, I turned my back on my most challenging class — challenging in that they are, by and large, not motivated and therefore not inclined to behave in a manner that produces the most efficient use of our limited class time — and in the few seconds that I had my back turned, this happened.

This, in fact, is a photo after I kicked some of the papers into a more consolidated pile.

Apparently, in a matter of seconds, a boy who sits in the back of the room stood up, ran to the front of the room, grabbed a girl’s binder, ran back to the back of the room, and emptied its contents on the floor with the girl in heated pursuit. This girl is not very popular, and she has a habit of antagonizing everyone around her and then playing the victim. In this case, though, she was the victim, but that didn’t stop the kids from hooting in approval at the boy’s actions.

I called them down; they stopped after a few seconds; and I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do. I removed them both from the classroom, but that’s hardly a preventative measure for the next time the kid gets an impulse to do something like this. Truth be told, the boy can be more antagonistic and disruptive among his peers as the girl.

These are thirteen-year-old kids. They’re not two or three. Yet their behavior belies their age, because this sort of thing happens so frequently. If it was a one-time occurrence, it would just be a question of youthful hi-jinks, but something similar happens on a regular basis, and I never really know what to do to prevent it.

Bald Headed Son of a

Dear Terrence,

Why did you just finish that thought? I mean, you said enough already to get three days’ suspension. Why not go ahead and say it? It’s like buying a meal, then walking out before it’s served. You’ve already made the purchase — at least get your money’s worth.

Still laughing about it though I probably shouldn’t,
Your Bald Headed Teacher Babysitter

Expected

Dear Terrence,

In your two classes, there are fifty-six students. I expected to get somewhere around twenty projects turned in. I got thirteen.

I wouldn’t think I’d need to talk to you guys about the importance of doing work in a timely manner, but obviously I do. Again.

Depressed again,
Your Teacher

Working

Dear Terrence,

You once said as a complaint that you’d probably never do anything more than manual labor. First of all, if you’re complaining about that it means you really don’t want to spend your life doing manual labor for your money. If that’s the case, perhaps a little more focus in class would help open more doors of opportunity.

Labor-Pearce-Highsmith-detail-1More importantly, though, I’d like to point out that there is nothing wrong with manual labor. It has a great many advantages over mental labor. Your post-work exhaustion is real, deep, and runs throughout your body. My exhaustion when I’m done teaching some days is purely mental — usually from dealing with some of your and your peers’ in-class decisions. It’s often an exhaustion born out of frustration, in other words.

Another advantage is that once done, physical labor usually produces some sort of tangible product. You can hold it, sit in it, take shelter under it — it’s not just a theoretical assistance like my job often provides. Many people view teaching as planting seeds, and we never see the fruits. With manual labor, it’s different.

Finally, there’s a great need for it. We need plumbers and carpenters, mechanics and janitors. They’re noble professions, each and every one of them. So it’s nothing to be upset about. Be pleased that you have skills in that direction.

Somewhat envious of how you’ll fall into bed every night so exhausted that you’ll just drift right off to sleep,
Your Teacher