Day 29: This is a story about unintended consequences. Sometimes, as a teacher, doing the right thing can feel really, really crummy. And even when every part of your brain knows you’re doing the right thing, your heart still stings.
Last year, my first as a teacher, I did many things well. I was an effective relationship builder with both my kids and their families. I was (often) engaging in class. I became way less teacher-centered. By and large, my students learned science.
However, I was NOT a good classroom manager. My classroom wasn’t (usually) a train wreck, but it wasn’t a bastion of order and efficiency either. In hindsight, I was permissiveness incarnate. I relied so much on relationships that I couldn’t give a damn consequence to save my life. I pled, I ignored, and I had a lot of 30-minute conversations with kids that didn’t change a heck of a lot.
This summer, I devoted the majority of my thinking about school to management. What were the procedures I wanted to implement? What would the structure look like in Room 105 so kids knew what was expected of them, and could focus their mental energy on learning science?
Overall, my preparation for more effective classroom structure has been an amazing success. My kids enter silently. They SLANT on command. They put up hand signals to ask for a pencil or to go to the bathroom. They put up a thumb to silently drop off an exit ticket and then silently wait in line to be dismissed.
The funny thing is, I honestly don’t think my kids even know how much structure they have. My kids are really happy to be in my room. We joke and laugh, but we bring it back fast. Some students clearly do recognize the high level of structure, and yet even they don’t seem to mind. One student, L, actually wrote on a quiz last week, “I like all the procedures we have in class.” I can’t make this stuff up.
I teach 98 students, and I’d estimate all but one or two have bought what I’m selling. And yet today showed me that when the right student isn’t with me, it can obliterate any happiness I get from the other 97.
I, a male student, was in my homeroom last year. I has an IEP and a serious behavioral disability, and he struggled all year. But he was my boy. I would have done anything for him. One time, I stayed at school with I until 7:30 pm on a Friday, until he’d retaken all of his quizzes and raised his quarter grade to an 85. He walked around my room chanting “ribosome makes protein” while simultaneously nailing assignment after assignment.
Ultimately, I was retained; his grades were too low in both English and math. This broke my heart. He’d worked so hard, and grown so much. Selfishly, I’d invested so much of myself in him, and was disappointed I couldn’t have done more. On the last day of school, he told me he was leaving the school, and that he thought I was a great teacher, that some kids didn’t even deserve me. As he ran off to play basketball, I nearly cried.
When I got word that I was not leaving, and was coming back, I was elated. I wanted to finish what I’d started, and help him get where I knew he was capable of going. Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last. I has struggled since Day 1 with his second trip through sixth grade. Surrounded by a classroom that is 100 percent on task, I is routinely the only person talking. When redirected, he reacts poorly and shuts down. I often teach I’s class first thing in the morning, and since he is routinely late, I’d estimate that he has missed at least 50 percent of the science instruction this year. He is missing most assignments.
Fast forward to today. Each weekend, my kids complete a reflection on the big goal for their homework. At first, I was pleased and surprised to see I had completed his homework. Then I read it. At the end of the reflection, I ask kids to write me a letter about anything they want. For example, one student wrote me last week, “I like cinnamon pancakes!”
I wrote, “I hate science class. I’d rather be in math. Science is boring. You are annoying. I don’t like you, and I don’t like that you always get me in trouble.”
The moment I read this, every positive memory from last year flashed through my brain. The afterschool tutoring sessions, the time I stayed with him to finish his midterm and he got an 87, the time he helped me lead the 5th graders on our field trip to the Nutcracker. Intellectually, I knew this was adolescent angst. But I hadn’t been that sad and disappointed in longer than I could remember.
Ultimately, I gave the letter to my vice principal and principal; I spent most of the afternoon in the office. The principal had him come see me after school, where we ineffectively made our way through about 30 minutes of tutoring before he shut down. I wrote him a note about how I still believed in him, that I still thought he’d be a star in the NFL while also managing a career in engineering, and how I knew he could do it. I have no idea if he will ever read this note.
At the end of last year, my principal gave me the advice that when I tightened up on management, some kids would resent me where their older siblings loved me. Again, in my head, I knew this was true. However, I would have never dreamed that I, the student I had given myself to heart and soul, would be both students – both the student that had loved me and the student that struggled to endure me.
This is a story about why teaching is hard, and why sometimes, it feels like you cannot win. I am proud of myself for the changes I have made to my practice. I am proud of how my classroom operates. I know that what I am doing is right. Yet, if I have lost I, if he is really going to simply survive me this year, it’s the first meaningful sacrifice I will have made to become the new teacher me. And that hurts.