Well, it’s been a hell of a month. But I’ve come out at the other end with some victories that are helping me to keep my chin up. I think what I am most proud of is that two of the most dominant (as in most loud and aggressive) personalities in my class, who are constantly disrupting, talking, getting up out of their seats, bullying others, and fighting with each other all day long, have been made into friends. Or at least have made a temporary truce. One day during a read aloud, suddenly some fight that had taken place during recess erupted into the classroom, shouting escalated back and forth between groups of students, based on the power struggle between those two aggressive personalities. So I stopped and decided to take it in stride. I listened to both sides and talked about how to resolve conflicts. I drew a feedback loop between two points in a circle, demonstrating how blame and aggression escalate and build endlessly. How there’s only two methods of resolving the situation: you either step forward to reconcile and forgive, or you step away and ignore. But it didn’t resolve anything and they didn’t really get it, because the two kids were still angry with each other.
Two days ago I kept the two kids behind the class when school ended and talked to them on the level. I let them know what I saw in class going on and how they were disrupting other students from learning. And then the real feelings started to come out, the hurts and the misunderstandings. I talked about how they could keep on fighting with each other, or they could act like sportsmen and forgive each other and shake hands. And finally, they did. Even exchanged numbers and agreed to meet online to play some game or something. So that was a success, because their vying for power and attention in class has been a constant problem. Which isn’t to say everything is great now, but it turned a corner in my relationship with them and with the class. I turned from being a hapless disciplinarian into a kind of tribal elder, and that was when I began to gain the vision of how to operate my classroom. Sometimes you have to allow for a bit of surface chaos in order to truly establish control.
According to commentary by others at the school based on these students’ past behavior, I have been successful in creating order in their school lives. They aren’t running the hallways all day long, breaking windows, stealing, or cussing out adults. Which isn’t to say that they are angels by any means, but they do stay in their seats overall, and they definitely don’t leave my classroom unless I allow them to.
Does this mean I am a good teacher? Not even remotely. I can’t even pretend that I am competent. I won’t be any good for at least another few years. I’m embarrassed by the kind of lessons I’ve been throwing together. But I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances, which means that I am flying by the seat of my pants. And it’s an extremely overwhelming experience, which does not even begin to describe how it feels. In teaching learning disabled children, you can’t teach a whole classroom lesson. You can’t tell the class to open their books to page 9 and complete the exercises after reading the passage. You can’t lecture. You can’t operate anything by any traditional means, because it just won’t work. Not that it works with students of any stripe, but it won’t even have a semblance of working with these students. Because they will erupt into chaos at the slightest sense of frustration or boredom. And I have 1 or 2 children who can read fairly fluently or do math relatively well, and then I have students who can’t decode words and can’t subtract. So I need to teach each student according to their level, which means anywhere from kindergarten to 5th grade — and in fact both and all at the same time, because I still have to pull them up their grade level standards for state tests — and that’s not easy to do when most students don’t work well independently and also don’t work well in groups.
The challenges are enormous. Unless you’ve been a teacher or are close to someone who is a teacher, you may not know how hard it is. You may think that teaching is easy, what with summer vacations and holidays. And maybe for some teachers in some schools it is. But for any teacher worth their salt, it’s akin to the kind of pressure and stress that a CEO of a company faces. You have to be extremely organized. You have to be a leader. You have to have intuition. You have to be a drill sergeant. You have to be a coach. You have to be a parent. You have to set policy and constantly tweak systems and structures. You have to plan for a year and plan for each minute. You have to attend meetings, conferences and join teams. You have to negotiate legal documents, compile and assess data, create forms and lessons and newsletters. You have to contact parents and create behavioral intervention plans. You have to organize your classroom artfully and advertise the learning taking place therein. You have be capable of immediate improvisation. You have to be in control every second of every day. You have to perform.
And this is minus the bonuses and societal recognition that a CEO would obtain. But the rewards — the love that you feel from a student who is finally recognized and challenged and feeling successful — almost make all of it worth it. I say almost because most days all I can think of is WTF am I doing? And all I can imagine is a nice quiet life somewhere in a forest where I am not being constantly challenged and harassed and disrespected. But the important thing right now is that my students are beginning to recognize that I am in it for real. They know that I care. And in a world of dislocation and upset and being let down by adults and society, that stands for something.