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.