Thankfully, there are a few perks in being an educator, foremost of which are the infrequent vacations that spring up at just that critical moment when I am about to turn clinically insane. In this first year of teaching, I’ve been etching my survival along the wall of my ebbing consciousness in accordance to these vacations. This latest one was a whole week off, known unto the New York state masses as ‘winter recess‘. Now I don’t give a shit what it’s called; it’s a godsend to my sanity, is what it is. I’ve been relaxing, looking for a new apartment that doesn’t have strangers snorting coke in the hallways or water that disappears in the middle of a shower, and even venturing out here and there. I know! Amazing, I kind of almost felt like I had a social life for a minute.
It’s also amazing how quickly the sense of overbearing stress from the daily grind in a classroom recedes, and I almost forget what I will be so very shortly returning to. But the stress begins to creep into my swiftly depleted vacation days nonetheless, as I start to try to wade through the graduate coursework that I’ve undertaken this semester.
In terms of where I stand vis-a-vis my classroom since the beginning of the year, I have made some headway into coping with the behaviors that I confront daily. I’m beginning to get to a point where I can sometimes see beyond the behavior and into the source of stress that creates the behavior in the student. As one example, when a particular student begins to throw a tantrum, cry, and sit in her chair kicking the desk and refusing to move (and sometimes begin fighting with other students and picking up chairs to throw them) I know that it is because she has internalized the idea that she is stupid, and that she believes she is incapable of completing whatever task I have given her. So I have to sit with her and try to encourage her to continue with my support until I have demonstrated that she is capable of doing the task.
In another example, I have a student that wants to have any kind of power and attention he can have, so he will take it by calling out and yelling when I am beginning my lesson, seeking to engage me in a power struggle. This is based on his past history of various foster care situations. He has a lot of anger at the world, and as an authority figure and male, I stand as a prime target. He needs to test me continually to reassess my commitment to fairness and justice. He is perfectly aware when he is “being bad,” but seems unable to control himself. There are a variety of strategies that I have to employ, ranging from ignoring, to recognizing him positively when he returns to his work. In the past, I willingly engaged in power struggles with him, and though I would sometimes win the standoffs, not only did it completely sap me of will and energy and vocal chords, but I furthermore realized that I was not modeling for him (and the class) the behavior I wanted him to demonstrate.
Nowadays, I try to reduce the amount of conflicts I have with my students, and spend more time investing in Life Space Crisis Intervention-style counseling talks. It’s not always possible to address every crisis situation that arrives every few minutes in my classroom in a completely supportive manner; after all, I’m not a counselor, I’m a teacher, and I have a class of students who all demand my attention equally, and will begin fighting when I have turned my attention solely to one student for too long. But I’m doing what I can, and the students are responding to the awareness that I am there not only to provide structure and discipline, but also support and guidance in their daily interpersonal conflicts.
It certainly is a learning experience, and I’m doing the best I can. But even though I keep trying to tell myself that (and accept it gracefully when others tell me it), there is always a hard ball of despair that sits lodged within my gut, because no matter how hard I work, it always feels like it will never be enough.
But a one man army can’t win a war, that much has become devastatingly evident. The only war that I know I am capable of winning is the battle for self-control. And this is a battle where I am beginning to move the front lines forward.