There have been many points within the past few weeks during which all that I can think about is quitting. The kind of day in which I am greeted in the morning by a child who tells me he wants to punch me in the face. And then another child who is angry because of something that happened during a basketball game during lunch (something I am only to piece together much later) and so he begins swearing at me, telling another student that he will slap her, and slamming his desk against the ground. And another student who is unable to stop talking for more than 1 minute, rendering me incapable of completing a full sentence during most points of the day (I’m not exaggerating). And another student who becomes frustrated when I don’t allow him to do whatever he wants, so he grabs a computer monitor in order to try to break it. And another student who goes into violent hysterics when I gently and quietly suggest that she choose a book where she can read most of the words. And two students who begin punching each other because of something that happened between two other students. And so on and so forth. This is just a snippet of one day I’m talking about here.
I got pretty low there for a while, compounded by sickness. But eventually, I turned the corner. That’s just the way it goes. You get the bear up on your back, digging in his claws, and you’re getting dragged down, but then you turn the corner, and you find some sap and succor to carry you back into positivity. You find those moments of breakthrough, when students have a light in their eyes at the connection they are making to what you are saying.
I’ve also been learning coping strategies, to manage my own anger and upset. I sometimes have to step back and take a moment to allow students to have a completely off topic discussion, or to insult each other, until I can regain my composure and enter back into the fray. Because when I lose control of myself, that’s when my students begin to explode. They are like dry tinder in a forest, just waiting to be sparked. A little bit of anger from anyone, whether myself or another student, will spread like wildfire, and then the day will be spent in putting out flames. So I have to be able to take whatever they throw at me. I have to be the zen master, transforming their reactive stratagems of despair into teachable moments of development.
My students have learning disabilities (in addition to growing up in areas of high poverty), and I’m only just beginning to get a glimpse of what that really means. It means that nobody knows exactly how to teach them in just the way that they need. You can give them fragments of a standard education, but you have to find a way to pitch everything you do in a completely different way. And figuring out how to do that isn’t always clear. For example, a student may only be able to decode words at a kindergarten to early 1st grade level, but their comprehension is high. Meaning that they grow weary of low-level books about dogs and cats very easily. Or a student may be able to read words fluently at a 4th grade level, but their comprehension (or at least, their demonstration of their comprehension) of what they read is minimal. Traditional assessments don’t really convey exactly where they stand, in other words. It just tells you that they are behind, way behind.
So solutions may be, for example, that the student who can’t decode many words needs a graphic novel that requires complex understanding but has few words. And the student who reads fluently with little understanding may need books with clear and well-organized narratives, like well-written children’s books or short stories. But these aren’t solutions that you come to through training. You have to know the student that is in front of you and be able to see through their behaviors and symptoms and into the source of the obstruction to their learning. And you know, with all that free time and money that teachers have, you can develop all your own curriculum, get tons of great books, and tailor it just right for every student! (That last sentence was sarcasm, in case you didn’t catch it.)
I just keep on reminding myself — on those days in which I feel like breaking into tears in the middle of the classroom because my students are insulting each other in a way I would never even consider talking to any human being — that this is the challenge that I was looking for. I sought for it, and I got it.
And I remember last winter at this very time, I was going through the same struggle, in a different sense. I was sitting on the E train at 3 in the morning with the drunk and the homeless, then walking through the icy pre-dawn streets of Queens to shoulder the mythological struggle that is the American Dream. I was getting 4-5 hours of sleep and eating one and a half meals a day. So now, yes, this challenge right now, right here, is exactly what I came here for.
I’m here to work my ass off in order to make my world a better place. And what better place to do that in than New York City, the gateway portal to manifest destiny?