Where I’m at

Well, it’s hard to believe, but I’ve almost made it through my first school year. It has been an intense, emotionally draining, spiritually devastating, and physically exhausting experience. But even as terrible as some days can be, the fact is that–except when sick–I’ve never had any trouble getting out of bed at 5 in the morning each day. And that says something.

There have been times during the year where I’ve felt my integrity and conception of self being lost. The fact is that when you come into a place where every single day, every single minute, the only interactions you have are incredibly negative, it just finally starts to affect your sense of self. You tell yourself that they are just kids. You tell yourself not to take it personal. But it just never stops, and it gets to you. It gets to you, and then you start to lose those clear boundaries between yourself and the kids. You begin “cutting ass” (i.e. making fun of someone) on your students. You begin walking with a slight swagger. You begin challenging those aspects of your life that are stable, nurturing, and calm.

I’ve begun to understand something of what “the streets” are all about, and I’ve begun to see the formation of gang mentality in my 5th grade students. 90% of the students in my building are eligible for a free lunch, yet I don’t think I could name one who doesn’t have a Wii, an Xbox 360, new sneakers, or an iPhone (or all of those things). All of my students’ lives are based on appearance–a superficial, hollow clamoring for attention. It’s all pretense, a big show, a big act. Breaking through this barrier and revealing the emptiness that lies within is a faux paus, an action worthy of the greatest disdain and derision and aggression. My role as a teacher is to break through my student’s displays and show them where the true paths to riches lies. As such, I stand as the greatest enemy to all in my classroom, and my students both fear and hate me for this. They rally around the students who are the most able to manipulate reality to make it seem as if they have some semblance of power, which comes in the form of displays such as an absolute refusal to do anything that I ask them to, or walking out of the classroom when they feel like it, or swearing at me or other adults who tell them what to do. When I jump down the throat of such a student, the others begin to act out in a coordinated effort to overthrow me, in an attempt to protect that student.

Such battles start early in the day, as soon as I come down to the schoolyard to pick them up. The tough ones will refuse to come up. One will run up the stairs, and another will follow. Sometimes even before I’ve arrived, they are already somewhere in the hallways, chasing each other, swearing at younger students, knocking on doors and running away.

My students require me to be tough. They require me to yell at them. They don’t respond to soft approaches. I can’t appeal to my relationship with them, because according to their well-established norm, they are supposed to hate me. So I have to resort to the little power that I do have, which is mental and emotional manipulation (i.e. “I’m calling your mother”, “You are going to be suspended out of the building”), physical intimidation, and yelling.  None of those approaches wield much power, as I’ve essentially stopped calling parents because it has no effect, and I can only yell for so long before I lose all my energy.

The only thing that can keep my students engaged is a lesson that happens to appeal to their interest. If you think that you can walk into a self-contained classroom and “wing it”, then you are in for a harsh wake up call to reality. I use anything I can to keep my students from getting into fights. My students are instantly engaged by being on a computer (though then they fight over which computer they have), so I plan many of my lessons using the computer as a tool for research, writing, and for feedback, such as by creating forms for them to fill out on Google Docs. I’m a firm believer that educators–particularly special educators–must utilize technology effectively in order to engage students. And it’s not about 21st century job skills or technological literacy or global competitiveness or any of that crap–it’s about the fact that my students will be 80% more likely to complete a task if given it on a computer then if given it on paper. As an example, before the state exams we were required by the administration to take several practice tests. When I put that practice test in front of my students, they shut down. Papers were ripped up, desks were overturned, students walked out of the class. The next week, I told my students to get on a computer and take the same practice test. All but 1 of them actually applied themselves and took it.

Anyway, these are just random thoughts about where I am right now. I’m still very much “in it”, as I’ve got 13 more harrowing days to go (I took today off due to illness, which is why I have the time to write this) and I’m taking summer graduate courses on top of that, but I’m beginning to ease back a little bit and think about the bigger picture. I’ve missed writing, running, and reading fiction books, and I hope to do those things some more soon. I’d like to write some posts on my thoughts on education in general and its relation to policy and social perspectives. This blog will therefore continue to be maintained, and hopefully I’ll also post some things soon having absolutely nothing to do about school or students!


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

3 thoughts on “Where I’m at”

  1. That’s not entirely true, that soft approaches don’t work with my students. Soft approaches sometimes work. Essentially, one has to be able to shift gears between nurturing patience and controlled anger on a dime, much as a jazz musician can spontaneously alter course both rhythmically and harmonically in response to his/her sonic environment. In fact, it’s even more than a simple shift between aggression and patience–it’s also the ability to completely shift emotional, physical, and mental approaches to not only a single student within the space of a few moments, but also to each individual student within the space of the classroom. It’s this state of nearly constant flux, during which the teacher processes loads of information and stimulus, prioritizing responses and actions necessary to maintain control and steer the students towards the completion of tasks. The students may win temporarily by insulting the teacher, each other, or getting away with eating a snack, but ultimately–if successful, the teacher will have won by having gotten all of them to finish their work. This is the herculean task before the teacher each single period.

  2. Hey Mark! Intense post. I really liked it. It’s amazing to get a glimpse into the education system like this. I’m most amazed at the 80% are more likely to complete a task on the computer than on paper. It’s funny because in some ways I feel like having grown up with both there are still certain tasks that if I have them on the computer I will never do them, and others that if given to me on paper I may never get to them. I just saw the movie “gamer”, and while it’s a pretty awful movie in many ways, it definitely taps into the fears of what the world may become with a technological overload. Of course, isn’t that what people used to think about fiction…? It was really good to see you both! Hopefully the next time can be sooner rather than later.

  3. Yo, thank you. Great seeing you, I had an awesome time and it made me miss la costa oeste.
    Some tasks are best left to paper, but computers offer the lure of slipping in a quick flash video game on the side or changing the wallpaper to Yu-Gi-Oh. As someone who grew up with video games and using computers for most everything, I think the Neo-Luddism is misplaced. It’s like railing against the abacus. Technology is a tool. We can waste our time with it, but we can also harness its power to network, collaborate, and generate swift grassroots momentum.
    Also, I just hate the loads of paper that is used each day in classrooms. I try to use as little paper as possible!

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