the students, part 4: Justin

Telling the story of my experience with Justin might as well read like a choose-your-own adventure novel.  There are as many starting points as there are endings.

Justin was in my regular Civics class during the fall semester of my fourth year of teaching.  It is helpful to know that he was and possibily still is living as a foster child with a woman who probably has no business being a foster mother.  I did not know this at the start, and it certainly was no excuse for any of the events that took place, but it sure did add some context.

Justin is smart.  It was unfair that he was placed in a regular section of Civics when he could have been successful in an honors section.  Even his test scores (the revered numbers in education) indicated that he should have been in an honors class.  When I inquired about this in guidance, they gave some sort of answer involving the difficulty of scheduling.  To be honest, I understood.  It wasn’t their fault.  There are simply too many credits and too little time to give students the individual attention they deserve.  We all want to, but rarely get to. 

In any event, Justin is smart.  Unfortunatley, he found himself in a situation that so many students do – he didn’t know how to be a student.  He started doing things like throwing pens across the room, tripping classmates on their way back to their desks, using language inappropriate for the classroom (but that I would later repeat to my husband when expressing my frustrations with Justin). 

Finally I decided to exercise my authority and write a referral.  I wrote up the incident – this particular day it involved a combination of language, failure to do work, interrupting instruction, etc.  I handed him and his accomplice their referrals and asked them to leave, as they were expected in ISS.  Unfortunately, they did not leave.  They had a problem with the referral, and I told them to take it up with the administrator.  Instead, when I reached to open the door for them, they moved in front of me to block the door, hitting my arm in the process.  This caught me off guard, and I did something that I regret to this day – I became flustered.  I called the office to ask for assistance, at which point Justin and friend decided they should go to ISS.  I was so upset that I knocked on my colleague’s door and just kept walking. 

What I did not realize was that when the resource officer responds to any call, an incident report must be filed.  While I was in the bathroom wiping my face, my colleague had to get me and explain to me that I had to come out.  I did, we all calmed down and talked, I was given an apology, and several hero-teachers watched my class for the remainder of the session. 

That could have been the end of the story.  That was a Friday, and I made an appointment to get my hair cut.  It was well past my shoulders, and I got it cut chin-length.  I felt like doing something dramatic after that experience.  Part of me also felt like students viewed me as weak because I was a little white girl with long hair.  Since my hair was the only thing I could change, I did.  Sort of a reverse Samson effect.

Monday Justin spent the day in ISS.  The next day I found out he collapsed from exhaustion at football practice.  The coach heard about his incident in my class and worked him harder than he had ever worked in his life.  I didn’t know how to react, except to say, “I never had this conversation”.   I didn’t want to be implicated in that sort of thing.

Over the next several weeks, I learned how to shut down during class.  I’ve always enjoyed teaching because of what I teach and who I teach, but that class made enjoyment impossible.  I learned that I was capable of creating assignments, delivering instruction, and going through the motions without smiling, without joking, and without connecting.  It was exhausting and scary. 

One day about a month later I saw Justin in the hallway with a woman who I assumed was his foster mother.  She had on flip flops and a doo-rag and was making noise about something at his locker.  I watched from my classroom for a few minutes, and I noticed Justin do something that I had never seen him do before – he hung his head.  I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed or upset, or maybe a little of both.  That’s when I gained a different perspective on Justin’s behavior in my class.

The story could have ended there, too.  We made it through the remainder of the semester, and that group of students moved on.  Justin’s locker was right outside my classroom, and one day he did something that I did not expect – he came by to say hello.  In fact, Justin stopped by about once a week until the end of the school year to say hello, catch me up on his classes, and see how mine were going. 

When I first wrote him up and we found ouselves sitting in front of an administrator and a resource officer, the admin said, “Mrs. Russ, when a situation like this happens, you have grounds to have these students removed from your class.  Do you want to do that?”  I remember saying no, because I didn’t believe in giving up on anyone. 

I’m glad that my story with Justin had the twists and turns that it did, and I hope that Justin’s own story has a good ending.


the students, part 3: Reggie

“I’ve never felt threatened until now.”

Those are the words I recall saying to my administrator about Reggie. 

It was my second year of teaching, and Reggie was a latecomer to my class.  On his first day, he sat down and went to sleep.  When I tried to encourage him to participate in the bill simulation that we were working on, he quietly got up and walked out. 

I decided a phone call home was in order, but that was easier said than done.  The first number I tried was the infamous Dollar Tree trick.  A student gives a phone number as their home number, only it’s not their home, it’s the Dollar Tree.  So after some digging, I found the number for his grandmother, who was listed as his guardian.  The conversation went like this:

me: I’m calling because I want to make sure Reggie is on track to complete this course.
grandmother: i don’t have anything to do with Reggie.
me: can you give me the contact information of someone I can talk to about Reggie?
grandmother: you can try his aunt and uncle.

After calling his aunt, uncle, mother (imagine that), and a sibling, I soon realized that no one was willing to take responsibility for Reggie.  A look back at his records told me that he came to our school from a neighboring county, and when I inquired about that situation, I realized that he wasn’t new to our school at all.  He was expelled the previous year as a result of several violent offenses, moved to a different county, and re-enrolled for the new school year.  (a fun loophole in local education policy)

All of this took place while I tried to facilitate learning for Reggie.  He was not willing to do as much for himself though, and one day he exploded.  The years have erased the words, but the general meaning was this: Reggie was not doing his work, I prompted him to get on task, he crossed the line in his response, I wrote a referral to send him out, which prompted him to rattle off a number of angry responses, including an accusation that I was a racist. 

When I documented his outburst on his referral it earned him several days in ISS (in-school suspension).  Unfortunately for the next two days, Reggie did not go to ISS.  Instead, he found his way to my classroom window where he stood and stared at me as I tried to teach.  Each time I called security.  Finally he was removed from my class roster permanently, though I still saw him occasionally around campus. 

I wondered what Reggie was most angry about – the fact that I took action against him, or the feeling that I had given up on him just like everyone else in his life.

the students, part 2: Kyndra

In my second year of teaching, I was convinced I knew everything.   I had already conquered the dreaded “first year”, so I was clearly equipped to handle anything. 

Then Kyndra was placed in my class. 

This particular class was the most terrible of classes – it was 3rd block, and 3rd block was the lunch block.  This meant that my class came in for 25 minutes, left to go to lunch for 25 minutes, then came back to class for an hour.  Quick poll – how many of you believe my students actually returned to class after lunch??

In any event, Kyndra quickly found herself some friends in that class, and she actually returned from lunch every day.  Quitely.  Very subdued.  Very mellow.  Since I was a second-year teacher who knew everything, I concluded that she must get sleepy after she eats. 

One day Kyndra was escorted back to class by the SRO (School Resource Officer).  He pulled me aside and informed me that Kyndra’s “sleepiness” was not due to the food, but to the marijuana she was smoking during lunch.  I was to inform him if she was late to class or showed signs of any suspicious behavior. 

This set me off, for several reasons.  I was mad at myself for being duped.  I was also mad because Kyndra had a son and a job.  When I decided to confront her about this, it went something like this:

me: why would you do something like that?
kydra: leave me alone.
me: that’s not my job.
kyndra: *laughs*
me: you think that’s funny?  you can leave.
kyndra: *gets up to leave*
me: *yelling* and have fun working at mcdonalds for the rest of your life!

The class was stunned, and so was I.  It was not my finest moment as an educator, or as a human being.  This person who I was charged with educating was instead kicked out of my classroom and insulted on her way.  Not to mention the fact that I also demeaned every McDonalds employee in the process.  Who was I? 

Two weeks later I saw Kyndra in the hallway during my planning period.  She had papers from guidance and needed my signature to withdrawl.  Before I signed, I asked what she was going to do.  She told me she looked into a GED program that seemed like a good option for her, and it would allow her to keep working and take care of her son.  I signed the paper and wished her luck. 

I have no idea what happened to Kyndra, or if she ever thinks about my class.  But I think about my experience with her nearly every day.

the students, part 1: Liz

When people ask me what the best part about teaching is, I say it’s the students.  When I’m asked what the hardest part about teaching is, I give the same answer.  It seems that the things we love in life can often be the most infuritating, but the most rewarding. 

In my professional life, it’s all about the students.  It has to be in order for me to maintain any perspective and sanity.  I think I forgot that recently, but one of my former students reminded me why I love teaching so much, and why I became a teacher in the first place. 

Because of these precious, smelly, annoying, and lovely young people, I’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts to my experiences with them.  No administrators, no school policy issues, no whining…just some of the reasons why I’m a teacher, and the reasons for the good days. 

Liz was the first student I taught whose parent was also a teacher at my school.  This could have been an intimidating situation, but I knew enough about Liz’s mom to know that we shared a common goal:  get Liz through high school. 

If I could choose three words to describe Liz, they would be firecracker, determined, and firecracker.  She would frequently ask a series of content-based questions about the Roman Empire, Elizabethan England, the French Revolution…only to conclude, “that’s dumb”.  It wasn’t that she didn’t understand or didn’t care, that’s really what she thought. 

Liz was also never afraid to speak her mind, which I admired about her.  15-year olds tend to pick one of two sides: the most popular, or the second most popular.  Liz thought for herself on everything from music to religion to politics.  And she said it.  Out loud.  Sometimes it was scary. 

One day in class we were discussing our upcoming International Mystery Breakfast.  Students were required to dress up as an historical figure and play the part.  Liz thought she would make a joke.  “If I dress up as a Catholic priest, do I get to bring a little boy with me?” 

I yanked her out in the hallway and finally did what I had threatened to do the entires school year – I called her mom.  Instead of waiting several days for a conference, I only had to wait a matter of seconds for her mom to walk downstairs from her classroom.  It was amazing.

Because she was part of a Seminar social studies group, I taught her during her 9th and 10th grade years.  I was surprised to learn shortly into her sophomore year that she would be transferring to a different school because of some unfortunate circumstances involving other students.  That’s when I realized how important these students are to me – when I felt as strongly about Liz’s situation as I’m sure her own parents did. 

I still keep in touch with Liz, and the last time I talked to her she said, “you should write a blog post about me.”  Well Liz, here’s your post 🙂

“he’s very rarely in front of them teaching”

When I started teaching (5 whole years ago), the focus of instructional methodology was on engaging students in the learning process using a variety of tools.  That sentiment has only grown over the years as I’ve attended countless professional development sessions and even led several about the importance of student ownership of learning.

This concept was comforting to me, especially as I learned how to craft assignments and assessments that challenged students’ thought processes.  Eventually I became an expert at using 21st century technology to engage students – SMART Boards, Tablets, CPS remotes, document cameras, and mobile labs.  I have always looked for ways to engage my students using current events, webquests, infographics, and opportunities to create their own products of learning.  This is why I love teaching.

This year has been different.  I found it challenging to complete a lesson with my new students, so I began simplifying my plans – Warm up, 10-15 minutes worth of spoon-fed instruction, student application/practice, and review.  Each element usually revolves around some sort of vocabulary practice or essential question activity.  On a good day, students complete each part of the lesson and are on-task, even asking questions out of curiosity as we go.  On a bad day, which happens more often than not, students are behaviorally challenging, off-task, and unprepared (the 75 pencils I bought last Monday were gone by the end of the day). 

I have sought out much advice about this professional conundrum as I have never been faced with the reality of failure before.  Because my value as an educator will be based on my student’s test scores at the end of the year, I am attempting to intervene in every way possible.  Administrators, colleagues, parents, even other students have all been called upon.  Still, this week seemed to be no different.

During my planning period, I had a very candid conversation with my special education collaboration teacher.  She’s in my classroom every other day to assist with learning-, emotionally-, and behaviorally-disabled students, so she’s been able to observe a great deal.  She has also noticed my frustration.  After sharing a little with her about my teaching background and what a surprise this year has been, she had several things to share.  This one stuck with me:

“The other Civics teacher uses the computers every day.  He has them come in, work on their warm-up, then go straight to the computers to do their assignments.  He’s very rarely in front of them teaching.  It just works so well.”

I sat, stunned.  I waited for clarification, which she gave me:

“That’s what you need to do more of.  Some of your kids ask me why your class can’t be more like his.”

I nodded, feeling more defeated than I have ever felt in my entire life.  Never have I been told to do less, but that’s exactly what I was told today.  Stop engaging them, just put them on a computer. 

I couldn’t help but wonder why I was hired in the first place, if my job can be done by a computer.  And what happens when the online assignments aren’t aligned to the curriculum, as is the case with “the other civics teacher”?  What is our instructional focus – student engagement or technology?  How can we encourage the use of both without negating the other? 

Obviously I recognize the value of computers and online instruction when it’s done right, with the right guidelines and alignment.  It is a struggle for me to see so many opportunities for what I believe is student engagement, only to be told “no, that’s too much.”

While I contemplate these things, I will prepare for the start of our two-day, in-class local government project.  In small groups, students will be creating their own county, city or town.  They will then have the option of presenting it through a filmed commercial, website, online newpaper, or billboard. 

I wonder what “the other teacher’s” class will be doing.

“why do you want to be a teacher?”

In college, I majored in history, and I loved it.  I remember clearly the existential crisis I had at the end of my junior year when I realized that you can’t do anything with a history degree.  After graduation, I was engaged and working as a receptionist at an Architectural Design firm.  I was eventually promoted to Submittals Coordinator, and soon after that my husband was accepted to graduate school in another state, so we moved.  It was then that I decided to make my move into the classroom, and soon found myself in an interview for a teaching position with a small private school.

When the headmaster asked me that question, “Why?”, I had two answers – I love history, and I really want to work with youth.  I believed that I could make a difference and bridge whatever educational and/or moral gap they were missing at home.  I was going to change the world, one teenager at a time.

I attribute this sense of optimism to my parents.  They are good, honest people with a passion for serving others.  They amazed me yet again recently when they called to tell me about their latest adventure – they took in a homeless student from the local high school.  They learned through the school’s social worker that there were a number of families in the community who are living in vans and camping out in parking lots, and many of them have school-aged children.  My parents decided to take in one such student, an 18-year old senior, so that he could finish his degree and graduate.  His name is James.

James did not have a storybook childhood – his parents divorced when he was 9, and he was forced to choose who he wanted to live with.  He chose his father, which meant that he would be split up from his mother and sister.  When his father began living with a raging alcoholic, James felt it would be best to move in with his mother.  Unfortunately, her live-in boyfriend became physically abusive, and James was eventually kicked out, making him homeless.

I learned that James was surrounded at school by educators just like me – teachers, guidance counselors, and social workers who wanted to help and maybe even change the course of James’ life.  The arrangement seemed to be working out well.  Then I received a phone call from my parents.

It seems that James has found himself wrapped up in some very serious illegal activity.  Unfortunatley, my parents are the victims.  After some items went missing from their home last Wednesday, they came home from church today to broken windows and more stolen posessions. 

When I heard this news, I felt upset and immediately angry.  My instinct was to get in the car, make the 7-hour trip home, and roam the streets until I found this kid.  Then it would be just me and him on the street, no witnesses. 

Now I am only left with questions.  Why would he choose to do this?  Was my parent’s kindness not enough?  Even with such a lousy childhood, didn’t he learn different behavior somewhere else?  What about all the teachers who supported him, even chipped in to pay for a motel room for him? 

And if, after all of these interventions, he still turned out like this…why do I want to be a teacher?

“you should go kill yourself”

That was one of the last things a student said to me on Tuesday.  He thought it was hilarious.  Sadly, I was not surprised to hear something like that come from him, or anyone else in his class. 

Teaching secondary students reminds me of being one, and I like to think I’ve grown some thick skin over the past 5 years.  The honor roll assemblies and graduation ceremonies are nice, but I like to remember comments like these to keep me grounded (warning –  the comments below, just like the words that come from my student’s mouths, are unedited):

1.  “That skirt makes your legs look ugly.” 

2.  “Oh my god, your ears are so weird and pointy.”

3.  “Why does your skin look yellow?”

4.  “Are you pregnant?” (I’m not, by the way)

5.  “Bitch, leave me alone.”

6.  “It looks like you have a mullet.”

7.  “Your forehead is HUGE.”

8.  “You kind of have a pancake butt.”

9.  “Are you fucking retarded?”

10.  “I hate this class.”