The Toughest Gamut


This last week has been perhaps one of the hardest thus far in my 1st year of teaching. It started in the very first minute on Monday and continued more or less unabated thereafter: insults, fights (one of which erupted in the middle of the sidewalk in front of all the parents at dismissal), yelling, and an uninhibited and calculated disrespect of myself and any other authority figure in the classroom. Some of my students spend their time in school determining how to best undermine my lessons (and goodwill) in any manner possible, and they will even coordinate their efforts. It is probably this latter behavior that most drains me.

The moments of breakthrough are few and far between with my students. By breakthrough, I mean for example moments such as when I watch a student perform various types of acting out behavior–such as ripping up papers to shreds, complaining every time I ask her to do any work, or stomping around the room and kicking things–and I recognize that something has happened to her that she needs support with, so I talk to her quietly about something that happened at home that morning and recognize that it is nothing personal against me (sounds so simple, right? Try doing it when you have 4 other students screaming for your attention and understanding). Or another moment of breakthrough with a student who has refused to communicate with me in any way except insults and blatant disregard since I have known him, but then on Thursday I actually got him to have a 2 minute conversation with me. And then he got suspended after that, so all progress has been subsequently lost. But maybe I might be able to have another conversation with him again.

In other words, extremely limited breakthroughs that take an extreme amount of effort and self-control. I’m not going to make much academic impact on some of my students. I understand the need for gauging the effectiveness of a teacher by test scores, but when you have a student taking a 5th grade state test when he reads at a pre-primer 1st grade level and he gets his test read to him but his working memory is extremely limited–well, exactly what kind of improvement are you going to see on that test? The kind of impact I have had on my students has been that I have taught them to stay in their seats 80% of the time and not to stand on tables and not to run down the hallways 95% of the time. I’m not joking or being facetious. There have been a number of different people in the building who have come up to me and told me that they are amazed at how much some of my students have changed. They used to be literally running around the entire building all day long and even terrorizing teachers by cornering them and threatening them physically. Now they sit in my classroom and spend the majority of their time insulting me and insulting each other. So that’s improvement.

But it eats away at my energy. It burns me out at the end of each day. I am sometimes left literally shaking with anger, stress, and despair in the middle of lessons, the moments when I have tried everything that I can think of but I just no longer have the will to fight or to see beyond the displays.

1st year Teaching Fellows are assigned an advisor from their graduate program who comes to observe lessons, lend support, and ensure that the school is treating them decent. My advisor has been great in giving me pep talks, because I am invariably a cynical and critical person, and I can be pretty hard on myself. She came into my school on Friday and arrived early during my prep, and talked to me the entire time, and I think some of my students overheard the conversation and decided that they wanted to put on a show for her. So during the next period, as I began my lesson, several of them really put on a show. I mean yelling, swearing, talking back to me, etc.  This continued unabated the entire lesson and into the next. I think that in some weird way, they wanted to show off to her, to show her how tough they were. It was disturbing, but I think what was encouraging was that there were 3 students during this performance who kept on track and attended to the lesson. So I taught it to them, and as I circulated and began working one on one with them, one of the others began doing their work, and then another, and finally the loudest of them all took out his paper and did a problem or two by the very end of the second lesson. My advisor stayed the entire time and worked one on one with one of my students who had walked out of my classroom upset. I have taught some of my students who have anger management issues to take a chair and sit outside of the classroom when they are angry until they cool down, and then they will come back into the classroom. My advisor was impressed that my student knew to walk outside, and then promptly returned ready to work a few minutes later. I didn’t even notice it, as this has become a frequent daily occurrence for a number of my students.

My students love to complain about the fact that I rarely take a day off. I think they overheard some of the conversation I had with my advisor, where she was talking to me about other 1st year teachers who have had nervous breakdowns in the classroom or quit, because they told me that they were going to make me leave. I told them that I liked them too much to do that. And I told them I would never take a day off even when I’m sick because teaching them was too important to me.

Which is a bunch of bullshit, but I’m not going to let them run me away into despair. They have been taught by their lives that the only manner in which to gain power is to destroy. But there is a deeper power. The power to create. The power to envision. The power to nurture. This is the only power that lasts.

My god I hope that I can heed my own dictums.

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Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

1 thought on “The Toughest Gamut”

  1. Hang in there. Teaching is tough, often thankless work. What goes on in the classroom seems so far removed from the teaching philosophies you learned in school. All I can say is that you are doing so much more than most people in shaping the future in a positive way. Please don’t despair, and don’t give up. You are making a difference by modeling the importance of education.

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