Crisis in the Classroom

I was alone with my students for 75 minutes at the end of the day, and calling it trying doesn’t really cover it. Traumatic, terrorizing, and terrible all seem more appropriate (and those are just the ‘t’ words!).

The 75 minutes after PE is usually not the best. Often my students are checked out, exhausted, or complaining of belly aches. But sometimes, the competition (real or perceived) has created drama that doesn’t get left on the fields. This is how my ordeal began.

Several of my boys were in a heated argument over who won a race and how “the losers” were treated afterwards. There were all sorts of claims about what happened, including teasing, mocking, cursing, and gesturing. Naturally, the students wanted to take a few minutes to step outside and discuss, but with only one teacher in the room, this became extremely challenging. I am fortunate to have an adjoining classroom and so I called in another assistant to watch the rest of my class while I a) tried to ascertain what happened and b) convinced one child to calm down enough to come inside.

The assistant improvised an activity with ease and her support was invaluable, but the uncertainty of the situation combined with the drama had the kids even more riled up than usual. The next hour was a battle of constant requests for attention, which I lost so badly that we barely made it out the door on time. With five minutes left in the day, my teacher returned to a classroom that looked like a tornado had whipped through, with students doing anything but what I was asking them to do, and three boys clamoring for her to mediate this situation.

This type of drama is not new to my class, and normally we have multiple adults in the room so we can maintain the majority of class activity while simultaneously launching an investigation. But alone, I was flummoxed. I considered sending the boys to the guidance counselor, but had no idea if she was available or if the three of them could get there without starting a physical fight. I debated asking the other assistant to continue watching the class while I tried to mediate; but knowing these particular boys, I doubted my ability to manage their conversation in a way that didn’t make it worse. Ultimately, I decided my best approach was to ignore the issue until I could get support. My teacher and I discussed it briefly, so she’d have my take on the facts, and she dealt with it.

This incident, and the others like them, have convinced me of several things. First, teachers need support in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. It could be an assistant, or a “panic” button that calls someone in. But if they are expected to manage the social and emotional development of their students, they need room to do so, and that requires more bodies. Many schools train teachers to send these students to the guidance counselor or the behavior resource teacher, but I don’t think this is the best solution. Taking the time to manage these issues, while trying for the teacher at times, is a powerful relationship and community builder. Our students trust that we will help them work through their issues and treat them fairly, which makes for a stronger learning environment overall.

Second, new teachers need mentor teachers, and badly. After this experience, I wanted nothing more than to explain what happened and hear ways I could have handled it better. I was primed for learning but had little opportunity to engage in it. Daily, I am faced with a hundred decisions that I’m not sure about, and I’m not even in charge! Plus, I have the enormous benefit of a teacher in the room to learn from through discussion, observation, and direct guidance. I cannot fathom how overwhelming and lonely the first year of teaching would be for a teacher without another adult in their room at all times. I recognize that it seems unrealistic to provide two full-time professionals in every classroom, and so I offer that providing a formal mentor, who is available for consult after experiences like these could be a strong alternative.

Detour

“But then, what the heck am I doing with my life?”

This thought slapped me across the face as I struggled with an unexpected decision. After a trying admissions process, wrought with confusion and frustration, I learned that my plan of completing a Masters degree would cost me three times what I had anticipated. Suddenly, instead of the steal that originally caught my attention, I was faced with taking on significant student loans for a degree that provided me no new educational credentials.

While the value of the degree is certainly debatable, that’s not what gave me pause. Instead, it was the fact that I was overwhelmed with a feeling of uselessness. For the last five months, I had taken every possible opportunity to tell myself and others that, not only was this degree valuable, but that it was my imminent mechanism of forward progress. The actual program was relatively easy to let go; the sense of progress that I had been counting on was not so easy to abandon.

Faced with the possibility of doing nothing but my current work and reading on my own, I was hugely disappointed. All I could think was: “What am I doing with my life?” Yet again, I found that my sense of self-worth was tightly tied to conventional productivity. I can appreciate the value of the experience I’m getting in my current work, conceptually. But the reality of my day-to-day, which seems less than productive, makes it challenging for me to feel the value as well.

My relaxed life has been going well. On a daily basis, I don’t feel useless or unproductive. But I feel like I’m waiting for “the next thing,” so my life can keep moving. As uncomfortable as it is to wait for my life to start, or know that I’m primarily fulfilled by work, I’m not sure how to disentangle these feelings. I’m not even sure that I want to. I hope to be happy no matter what I’m doing, but I also sense great power in letting my prime motivator be work, even if it’s work I haven’t found yet.

So for now, I’m looking at quite a bit of free time between now and what I hope to be the start of a PhD. If anyone has any ideas about how to prepare for that adventure or things you wish you would have done, I’d certainly love to hear them!

What Makes a Good Day?

When I read “What do I expect from my children’s elementary school? Certainly not this“, I was immediately struck by one thing: it does not describe the school I work at. This was especially true this week, my first week back after Winter Break, when teachers seemed reenergized and eager to pull out some of their best material to share with their charges. Despite my frustrations with my school and the overarching system, this mom’s reflections helped me to identify some of the best things that my current school is doing.

For my elementary-school-aged children, I care more about whether or not they love going to school than their academic progress.I am clever enough to know that if they are enjoying themselves at school, they will learn.

I cannot more appreciate this particular sentiment. Of all the reflections from this piece, this is the one I wish my school had more of. I imagine many of my students’ parents would espouse a similar view, but when pressed (and even through their interactions with their children) most of them are highly concerned with academics. We have students who were not allowed to watch TV for months over AR points. One was threatened with Christmas being cancelled for the same reason. Multiple parents have grasped casual moments with the teacher to ask, “where does my third grader rank in this class?” Some parents do homework for their kids or apply generous pressure regarding grades. And of all the third grade classes at my school, we have the least involved parents. If more parents were talking to the school about how to make their child’s day phenomenal, I think they might be surprised by how their academic progress soared.

Just because students may have to sit in an office for eight hours a day when they are adults, doesn’t mean that they should have to start practicing it now as children. It is like saying to a 10-year-old, “One day you’re going to pay taxes, so I’m going to keep 50 percent of your birthday money from Grandma because I want you to get used to it.”

I absolutely love this analogy and my school has plusses and minuses in this department. On the downside, the elementary day is exceptionally long — two full hours longer than the public schools in town. And we expect students to spend an awful lot of time sitting in chairs, standing in line, or just generally suppressing play during that extended time. On the upside, all of our students go to PE four times a week. We have recess two, sometimes three, times a day. It is common practice to not only extend recess, but to offer additional playtime if the students need it. Our school recognizes that a good lap around the playground is more effective than a mark on a behavior chart could ever be.

Elementary school should be about exploration and exposure to vast amounts of very well-written books. Writing should be an opportunity to capture observations and imagination in a tangible form. Elementary education should include learning about history through storytelling, art and music. It should be about dancing and singing and playing while developing social skills, communication skills and interpersonal awareness…Elementary school science should be about questions and wonders, experiments and all things messy.

This week in reading class, we started Charlotte’s Web. I promptly re-read the classic and was impressed by its language, depth, and simple ability to engage. The kids love it, and all want baby pigs of their own; most importantly, it’s a stretch book for many of their skill levels and they are learning from it.

In library class, every student was given the outline of a book, spine included, and told to design a cover of a book they would write. They got to create, design, decorate, and shelve their own “stories,” empowering future authors in a half-hour.

In Spanish class, we spent half of the class watching videos and dancing to learn prepositions. Students got to walk like an Egyptian, waddle like a penguin, and swim their way through vocabulary. Before the break, the students learned about Los Tres Reyes Magos and how the holidays are celebrated in many Spanish speaking countries — in Spanish!

Our science project of the week? Dissecting owl pellets. Students spent a full hour working in small teams to discover what their owl ate and identify the tiny bones they found. A bit gross? Sure. A touch messy? Certainly. Engaging? As good as it gets. The kids were set loose with instructions and the tools they needed to learn, and they succeeded. While they were absorbed in this project, social strife between teammates dissolved instantly, students built structures to make sure everyone would have equal opportunity with the tools, teams worked together to not only find the bones, but to identify them and share their discoveries. They even forgot it was lunch time!

Music class kicked off our drama unit. What will they do? But of course, Pirates! The Musical! The entire third grade spent three hours of their week singing, dancing, and auditioning for a production that they will put on in March. Every grade does this, committing hours upon hours for two-plus months so that the kiddos can perform. And after seeing them engage with it this week, I could not be more inspired by the power of the arts to teach and engage.

Perhaps our success is proven by the fact that most of our students would say, “I had a good day” when they leave. Despite day-to-day frustrations and imperfect lessons, our students are happy overall and enjoying school.