Back to School

I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.

This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.

After talking to Babcia

It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.

Morning snack

On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)

Getting things in the ground

On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.

Proof that it’s shaping up to be a good day

So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”

It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.

But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.

And time to play guitar with your neighbor.

Turn Around

Dear Terrence,

What a turnaround you’ve had these last two weeks. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. (That’s not quite true: I would have believed it because I’ve seen it happen before, but not often. Not often enough, for certain: such kids are certainly outliers.) For the year to date, your Class Dojo positive behavior percentage has been right around 45%, which means you’re a negative influence on the class the majority of the time.

I’m not quite sure you realize the extent of your behavior. You couldn’t go more than a minute or two without talking to someone — and that’s not hyperbole but probably an understatement if anything. You turned in absolutely nothing for most of the year. When I ran a missing assignment report for the year to date a few weeks ago, you were missing 45 assignments, to go along with your 45% percent, I guess. At that point, I couldn’t have possibly given you more than 50 or 55 assignments, so that means you hadn’t turned in 85-90% of your work. Your grade was abysmal as well.

Then two or three weeks ago, something happened. What exactly, I really don’t know. Perhaps your mentor finally said something that really made an impact. Perhaps our counselor, who’s been pushing you all year, finally said something that made an impact. I’m afraid it wasn’t I who said something that made an impact because, I’m a little ashamed to admit, I had all but given up on you. You have to understand: I have 120 students. I can’t expend all my energy on one at-risk kid, and there comes a time when I have to say to myself, “I can keep going after this kid, which hasn’t worked for three-quarters of the year, or I can take that energy and apply it to that kid, who really has shown some growth.” Finite resources and all. So it wasn’t I, I’m afraid, but someone said or did something, and you’ve been a different person since then.

Last week, you turned in your article of the week and worked as hard as I’d ever seen you work. Sure, you didn’t turn in one assignment, but you did turn in two. That’s a vast improvement right there. Then there was that surprising Dojo percentage: 79%. I was shocked. You probably were, too.

Last weekend, I was wondering: “Will Terrence make it two weeks in a row or will things go back to normal?” Tuesday you approached me and said, “Mr. S, I left my article of the week at home, so I won’t be able to work on it as my bell ringer.” Wednesday, when you walked in the building and passed where I had hall duty, you waved your article at me: “Got it today!” You did your work; you set a good example. And that Dojo percentage? 90%. I like to frame things in reference to things you guys get, so I made the obvious parallel to basketball: “Think of that, Terrence: if you’re shooting 90% from the field and I’m your coach, I’m going to make sure you get paid whatever you have to get paid to stay on our team, and I’m going to tell the rest of the players, ‘Just carve out a little space for him and give him the ball. He’ll do the rest.'” That smile was unforgettable: “I know, right!?”

The truth is, Terrence, it’s not just in basketball that that 90% will get you whatever you dream of. Just about anywhere will work.

This week, it was an honor to have you in class. I can’t say I’ve always felt that way, though. Here’s hoping we both keep bring our A-game for the rest of the school year.

Impressed and still smiling,
Your Teacher

Optional

Dear Terrence,

When did a response to “Good morning” become optional? When did manners become a matter of personal preference?

For you, considering all that has passed between us, my behavior likely seems two-faced. You think, “Here he is trying to be all nice to me, and when I get to class, he’s going to be on my back about everything.” That’s not an accurate interpretation of my behavior, though. You see, I won’t deny a simple fact: despite the fact that your behavior often is the most irritating aspect of my entire day, despite the fact that your behavior disrupts the whole class, despite the fact that your behavior often descends into outright disrespect (never mind the fact that disruptive behavior is itself disrespectful) regardless of how politely I redirect you, and despite the fact that some of your behavior seems downright spiteful, I try to approach each day as if it were the first day you and I ever encountered each other. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt each and every day. In short, I try to start fresh daily.

It seems only fair. You are, after all, only a kid. Your personality and behaviors have not completely congealed, and there’s always hope that you will mature during the school year and come out the other side a different kid. It does happen. And so I want to foster that possibility, however remote, in your behavior by starting anew every morning, and the simplest way I can do that is simply saying as cheerfully as I can muster without sounding false, “Good morning.”

Ironically, this type of behavior extends even into the adult world. There have been plenty of times, in both my teaching career and in other jobs I’ve held, that I’ve come to work with a sore spot for some colleague or other. It’s hard to leave it all behind, and sometimes that sore spot gets irritated just by seeing that person, and the last thing in the world I want to do is to be cheerful and polite. But that’s part of the game. It’s not being false or two-faced to hide those true feelings; it’s called being professional. It’s called being an adult, realizing that these little rituals like “Good morning” are just that, rituals that really mean nothing more than “I acknowledge your existence this morning.” True, it is a shortened form of an older greeting, “I wish you a good morning.” But even my worst enemies I wish a good morning: if things are going well for them, they’re not likely to take anything out on me.

So let’s try this again. I’ll say “Good morning, Terrence,” and you say, “Good morning, Mr. Scott.” And we both know we’ve started our day off with each other on a positive note.

First practice is tomorrow morning.

Kindest regards,
Your Teacher

Body Language

Dear Terrence,

The fact today that you didn’t know your body language was so disrespectful — not to mention your tone — is only mildly surprising. What is more unexpected was the question you asked next, though it shouldn’t have been.

“You’re going to tell me that my body language is disrespectful even when it’s not my intention?”

To begin with, I’m impressed with that construction. That you would use the word “intention” like that — for some reason, it was surprising. Perhaps that’s because of the way you’ve spoken for the rest of the year.

But more surprising was the fact that you didn’t know that body language can be disrespectful without intention. I work hard to teach my own children just such things: there are things you can say and do that, even though you don’t mean disrespect, show disrespect. In the matter of disrespect, especially when dealing with people in positions of authority over you, it’s the question of interpretation that is often more important than the question of intention.

I don’t think you realized what your body was doing, though, because it’s hard to imagine someone sitting as you sat without realizing how much disrespect you were communicating as I spoke to you.

  • First of all, you were slouched down in your chair. This communicates a lack of effort, that you don’t even care to sit up and pay attention. It suggests you’re just enduring the current moment.
  • Next, you had your elbow on the table with your hand resting on a balled fist. A balled fist always suggests aggression. And having your head down like that communicates, “You are so exhausting me with this nonsense…”
  • Most tellingly, your facial expressions exuded disrespect. There was that scowl: eyebrows slanted downward, a frown. Your nostrils flared occasionally as well.
  • There was also your inability (or unwillingness) to make even cursory eye contact. Refusing to look at someone who is talking to you is about as disrespectful as you can get. It’s also a little immature.

I only mentioned your body language, but there were other non-verbal cues that suggested disrespect.

  • Your tone of voice when you mustered an occasional, monosyllabic response was edged with anger and contempt.
  • Your continual tooth sucking — don’t know what else to call it, so I’ll call it what you call it — suggests that you would say something to me but it’s not worth my time. You start to take the breath to speak, then realize I’m not worth it, and open your mouth to let the now-unneeded breath out.

To your credit, when I pointed all this out to you, you began slowly to change. You sat up, you made a bit of eye contact, and you stopped sucking your teeth.

But here’s the big problem: when you do this with me, I take this to be another teaching moment. It’s tiring, that’s for sure: “Here I go again, having to teach kids things they should already know by this age, things that have nothing to do with my subject matter.” But still, though I feel overworked with such issues, I see it as my job. I teach in order to prepare you for the future, and sometimes, interpreting figurative language seems the least significant subject matter for your success. However, you will soon encounter people who are not interested in teaching you these things, not interested in even dealing with it. These people will probably have the ability to make your life very miserable very quickly. I’m talking about bosses, and they’ll fire you in such a situation.

I know that’s meaningless to you. You say things like, “I’ll just get another job.” Unfortunately, getting other job when you’ve lost one is not like getting another pencil from you next teacher when you’ve lost it in the previous class.

I hope we can get this habit of yours under control before you head off to high school (there are teachers there who will treat you like the aforementioned boss), but even if we can’t, I hope we’ll continue making progress.

Regards,
Your Teacher

Crossing

Dear Terrence,

I know some of the materials — most of the materials — I give you are merely crossing your desk. I stand here at the hole punch, making three even holes in these Frayer diagrams, preparing them for a long and lustrous life in your binder, but I understand that this paper, like so many others, simply won’t make it there. You don’t have a pencil most days, and you often can’t remember your password to use our Moodle installation, so how can I expect you to keep up with a single sheet of paper? I just punch the holes out of habit, I suppose.

Yet it’s not asking that much. I’ve told you things like this before, but the only really significant thing that separates you from the kids in the “smart” class is not intelligence but habits. I have students in that class, Terrence, that can produce materials I gave them at the beginning of the year. I can say, “Get out the graphic organizer we used for project X because we’re going to add some things to it and reuse it for this project.” And a fair number of them — a majority, I would say — can produce the material in question. That’s why they’re in that class. They’re not smarter than you. They care to be organized, and they are, therefore, simply more organized than you.

For you, though, the materials just cross your desk and often end up in the floor. It’s like so many things in your life . Even your housing situation seems to be just crossing the arc of your life: you don’t speak of living somewhere, only staying. So with so many things in flux in your life, its little wonder that this too is in flux. It seems like yet another example of non-curriculum skills we need to be teaching you, but in the age of testing, testing, testing, it just seems to fall through the cracks for all of us as you guys are crossing through our classrooms on your way to the future. Perhaps we all just need to cross ourselves and try harder.

A bit cross with myself and with you, as well as frustrated,
Your Teacher

Motives

“I’m not putting it up.” The kid has a book bag on his shoulder at the start of fifth period — verboten in our school. “I told all the other teachers, too.”

How did this happen? How did no one come down on you like a ton of bricks for such insubordination? How come your mentor, who works in this building, didn’t say something? How come I’m making assumptions?

“Why?” I asked.

“Because my locker is beside Samuel’s locker, and it stinks, and every day my bookbag stinks, and I’m not going to have it stinking anymore.”

Do you not realize that most teachers are so imminently reasonable that they would find your reluctance reasonable and offer a solution? I explain this to him.

“Now, explain to me your problem just like I showed you.”

He does. I offer to let him lock his bookbag in my closet until we can work out a solution.

“Thank you,” he says on the way out.

That all problems could be so easily solved.

Curriculum

Three events today, happening within moments of each other, reminded me just what challenges some students in my class face, and how I am often really not teaching what I thought I would be teaching to thirteen-year-olds.

We’re working on a cross-curricular unit that incorporates Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens as the anchor text. Since I’m the literature/reading teacher, the unit starts in my room. To make the process simpler and faster, as well as to hit more standards, I’ve designed a unit that includes a jigsaw reading of the article: independent groups read one chapter of the book, then present their chapter to others who read other portions of the book. Each group gets a habit.

I copied the book to make my life easier: we don’t have enough books for two classes to use them simultaneously, and because I have a class-set of Chromebooks due to an elective I teach, I told the other English teacher that I could just scan the book in for my students. I scanned them in two pages at a time, which meant that, because the first page of each chapter was on the right side of the page, there was always a page from the previous chapter as the first page. I knew it might be confusing for some, but I thought that most thirteen-year-olds could figure out that it must be part of the previous chapter, especially since I’d already shown the kids how to read the PDF versions of the novel: Left page, right page, scroll down; left page, right page, scroll down. When I found that some students were having trouble with that and were in fact treating the first page visible as the first page of their chapter, I was frustrated, disheartened even.

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Later, as I was moving around the room, I noticed some students having problems with Google Docs’ outline feature. It turned out that, instead of turning on the automatic-numbering outline feature, they were manually adding numbers — like it was just a typewriter instead of a computer. Since I had showed the students how to do this, since we had spent time working as a class, working as groups, working even as individuals with simple outlines, I thought everyone knew how to do it But if a student is not paying attention, if a student is more interested in most everything else other than what is being taught, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet it happens to these students time and time again, and they can never figure out why. What are the chances of someone who can’t pay enough attention to learn how to use a simple outline feature ever going to keep a job? Perhaps these students will learn some focus, but they’ve made it this far without paying attention: what’s in it for them to start now?

Finally, I had a vivid reminder of how poorly some of the students read. A student was struggling to figure out what to put as a sub-point in his outline. To his credit, he had figured out that the heading immediately above would be a main point and knew that something below it must be the sub-point. The first paragraph after the heading was short:

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“Synergy doesn’t just happen. It’s a process. You have to get there. And the foundation of getting there is this: Learn to celebrate differences.”

I sat down by the student and quickly assessed the problem. “Read the first paragraph under the heading,” I said. He read it. “Tell me something about ‘synergy’ from the paragraph.” “It’s a process,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. At this point, I was thinking that another helpful question or two and I’d be on my way. “And what is the foundation of that process?” He made a wild stab — something completely outside the text. “No,” I reminded him, “no, it must be in the text. It’s right there in the text.” Another wild stab. “Find the word ‘foundation’ in the text,” I instructed, growing a bit frustrated with my ineffectiveness. He found it. “And what does it say is the foundation? What’s right after it?” Another wild guess. I sat there, wondering what was going on in his head, wondering if he was seeing, what he was thinking, what even he was feeling.

This evening, I called the Girl to the computer and had her read the paragraph. “What is the foundation of synergy?” I asked. “It’s a process. You have to get there,” she began. “No,” I redirected, “one thing. It’s in the text.” She re-read, then said, “Learn to celebrate differences.”

I don’t say this to brag about our daughter. I point this out to show the level of reading of so many of my students, students who should have responded like L, for she is, according to testing, reading at about an eighth-grade level. The level my students should be reading at. What’s most frustrating about all of this is the shortsightedness of these same students. They don’t see how far behind they are — and how could then? They divide school into two, fatalistic groups: the smart kids classes and our classes.

Add to this all the students lacking social skills who need instruction in this simply to reach a state of mind in which they can functionally work with someone. No, that’s not even correct — to get them to the point that they can stand to be in the same group as someone they find irritating. Several students in my lowest level class are incapable of getting along with much of anyone. “He annoys me.” “She gets on my nerves.” “He’s a pain.” “We might fight.” So on top of basic reading, I have to try to teach them how to deal with each other. Given their fatalistic worldview, that’s nearly impossible. “When I’m mad, I just react. It’s just how I am.” For them, it’s as immutable a fact as the inevitability of tomorrow’s sunrise. There is nothing they can do to stop it. Is this laziness? Learned victimhood? Personality? Nature? Nurture? All the above?

It’s not that I’m feeling pessimistic about my chosen profession. I’m just not sure those who don’t teach, who don’t interact with such kids on a daily basis, really know the extent of the problem we face in the American education system today, and all too often, those very people are the ones making the decisions, about funding, about testing.

Twenty Years Ago

Twenty years ago, I was only a couple of months into my big adventure of teaching English in Poland. I came home from school and wrote this:

I had a bit of a run-in with Agnieszka today. While arranging the new seating today she got rather rebellious. She refused to sit with Greg because “I don’t like him.” She plopped down beside Iwona and didn’t acknowledge me at all. At first I was polite: “Please, move over there.” When she did nothing, I became a bit mad, for she was forcing me into a power struggle. “I’m not asking now, I’m telling: move to that seat.” She did nothing. I knew the critical moment had arrived: if I said nothing and let her sit there, I would have lost a major portion of my classroom control. If I continued in that fruitless way, I would have made a fool of myself. So I did the only think I could think of: “Could I speak to you in the hall?” I asked/demanded.

“Why are you making this a difficult situation?” I asked. We talked about it and reached a compromise. I explained to her the situation her stubborn belligerence (redundant) had put me in. And I told her that at the same time I didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable unnecessarily. So we reached a compromise, but in the end I still lost a great deal of credibility.

I should have handled it differently.

I wish I could say that, twenty years on, I don’t have these moments. Twenty years later, I’ve learned something. Twenty years on, I’m not repeating myself.

I wish I could say that, but I can’t.

Preconceptions

Every year, my students begin Romeo and Juliet with certain preconceptions, both about the play and about the character of Romeo. It’s a Shakespeare play, they reason. Shakespeare’s hard to read, noble and magnanimous and all that. He writes about noble ideas, noble dilemmas, high-minded philosophy. They don’t expect it when the play starts out and within a few lines, characters are saying things like this:

GREGORY

The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON

‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I
have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY

The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON

Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY

They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON

Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and
’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

I take them through the text enough to get them to realize that these two characters, like Donald Trump, are fond of locker room talk that involves suggestions of sexual assault. (No, I don’t bring in the politics, but the thought crossed my mind to make the connection at least today.) I don’t point out to them what Sampson really means when he says, “Me they shall feel while I am able to stand,” but I suspect some of them get it.

Then there’s Romeo: He’s going to be a good guy, they reason, because the play is the most famous love story of all time, and the most famous love story of all time can’t possibly have anything other than the ideal man in it. So we begin reading and find this passage in response to Benvolio’s queries about what exactly is making Romeo’s days so long:

Well, in that hit you miss: she’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

“How has Romeo tried to win her?” I ask. We mark the text and make a list.

“She will not stay the siege of loving terms?” I ask, and the students figure it out.

“He’s used smooth words.”

“Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes?” I ask, and the students get it.

“He’s been making eyes at her.”

“Good. Finally, ‘Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” Here they stumble.

“Money?”

“No — how do guys use gold to win girls?”

Finally, someone gets it: “Oh, jewelry!”

“Right!” Then the question — should I pursue the issue further? Should I lead them to see just exactly what Romeo’s saying here? Some years, I don’t. This year, I did.

“And what about the rest of the line?”

They look at each other quizzically.

“What do you think he means by ‘ope’?” I ask.

“Open?” a student suggests.

“Correct. Now, she will not ‘ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” I see in some of their eyes that they’ve got it, so I suggest what I suggest every year. “We’ll have to behave as adults in this unit and not giggle and be immature about some of the topics. So what’s he saying?”

They get it. They’re mildly shocked. The girls are a little angry and disappointed that this supposed hero of the greatest love story of all time is a fairly typical male and simply trying to get Rosaline in bed — to spread her legs, literally.

“Nothing ever changes,” one student observes.

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The Girl tonight hit on her own preconceptions and battled them mightily. Beans are nasty. She’s decided that already. Of course, at her age, I’d decided the same thing about a lot of things, most beans as well. But we have a rule in our house as Nana and Papa had when I was growing up: you have to try everything. In L’s case, it was about three bites of beans.

We jokingly took a picture with a time-stamp (that’s in fact illegible) to see how long it took her to eat them. Although she didn’t have to sit at the table the whole time, she had her final bite around ten minutes before bedtime.

I remember doing the same thing.

Nothing ever changes.

Curve

Recently, our school district changed its grading scale for all high schools and middle schools, switching from a seven-point scale to a ten-point scale. In the past, the lowest A one could get would be a 93; now it’s a 90. Not a big change at the top end of the scale. But by the time you get to the bottom, it’s ten points. To pass with the old scale, you had to get a 70; now, it’s a 60. There was a grading floor of 61 with the old scale — the lowest grade a teacher could give was 61. That’s now a D. The new grade floor is a 50, which is the lowest F as well. In other words, a student can do absolutely nothing for an assignment and be 10 points from passing.

How does that affect the overall curve? When I put my quarter’s grades into the handy-dandy spreadsheet I use to calculate the letter grade spread of the class, I realized that I hadn’t updated the look up table that determines whether grade X is an A or a B, and so before I updated that table, I saved the old version for comparison.

A B C D F
16 33 39 46 33 26 17 21 34 13

It more than doubles the number of A’s and cuts by almost 67% the number of F’s. On the bright side, look how much better kids these days are doing!

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Mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, a lot of the people getting D’s now instead of F’s might need a bit of a confidence boost that finally not failing might give some of them.

On the other hand, most all of the students who have F’s have them because they don’t complete a significant number of assignments. It’s not that they’re trying, struggling, and failing — they’re not even make it past the “r” in “trying,” let alone the rest of the sentence. So what does this teach them?

I can’t help but feel that this is just another example of trying to rig the system so that the results look better. How do we decrease the number of high school drop-outs? Lowering the standards for passing might be one way. But in the end, what does that do?

Locker

It’s really not always been a pleasant task, morning duty. I stand by my doorway, keeping an eye on the kids in the morning as they head out to their lockers in shifts (girls, boys, then late-comers) and keep an eye on my room as well. In some years, it’s been horrific: because of the fact that the lockers for my class are, logically, more or less by my door, I’m surrounded by my homeroom class, and when it’s a class that’s challenging, it’s exhausting. There’s misbehavior in the hallway; there’s misbehavior in the classroom — watching one means neglecting the other.

This year, though, I have a class of high achievers for my homeroom, which always means few if any behavior issues. And just outside my door, one of the sweetest students I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching has her locker. She always, always is in a good mood, and it’s evident in everything she does.

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Today I mentioned to her that I’d noticed that and really appreciated it.

“Are you always in a good mood?” I asked.

“Pretty much.”

“Why?”

“I see other people happy, and it makes me happy.”

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Other people’s joy makes her joyful. Such a radical notion, it seems, when you’re jaded with the behavior of some of they challenging students, students who have such warped worldviews that it’s difficult to believe it took only thirteen years to reach that level fatalism.

“Other people’s happiness makes you happy,” I said as I headed back into my classroom to get a paper for an student. “That’s beautiful.”

First Impressions

Dear Teresa,

You caught my eye from the very first moment I walked into the room. You were sitting at the end of one of the two-seat tables your teacher uses instead of desks, talking to your friend. It was obvious you weren’t supposed to be there: the lab tables are designed for two people, not three. When I moved to the front of the classroom, clipboard in my head, obviously ready to take role, you didn’t move back to your seat. I hadn’t said anything earlier because I didn’t want to assume you were being anything other than a friendly student who knew when to move back to her seat. So your behavior from the beginning was something that called attention to you.

When I asked you to move to your seat, you insisted that that was your seat. I’m a patient man, and I thought that perhaps you were just being a typical playful seventh grader, so I calmly and politely repeated that you needed to move to your seat. When you again insisted that you were in your seat, I saw the whole interaction unfold before me. I knew you were going to be defiant. I knew you were going to show an attitude. I knew that you were going to be disrespectful. I knew all these things because I’ve seen people behave like you behaved many times, and I know the behaviors that lead up to it. As I stated, I had my eye on you from the moment I walked into class because of your behavior: you called attention to yourself immediately.

Now, what was most troubling about our interaction was when I asked you what your name was. I asked you, and you said nothing. I asked you again, and you were silent. Your rigid body language said plenty, though. It said, “I will not respond to you. I will not reply.” However, someone in the classroom said your name. The problem with that is simple: I wasn’t asking the question “What’s her name?” to the class. I was asking you, “What’s your name.” So when you didn’t answer, you were being defiant yet again. And when I kept insisting and you finally said, “You hear my name. You hear them telling you,” I knew we were close to the end.

It was our discussion in the hallway that sealed it. You refused to look at me. You answered in a very disrespectful tone. You huffed and puffed, smacking your teeth. You all but flipped me off with your behavior. Your behavior screamed profanity, screamed disrespect. I’m very sorry that you didn’t see that. I’m very sorry you didn’t realize the horrible things your body language was saying. However, it was at that moment that I knew there was no way to salvage the situation. I knew that, if you stayed in the room, you would not have a positive impact on the class. so I asked the administrator to take you out.

Look at the situation from my perspective: I come into your classroom during my planning period to cover for a lacking substitute teacher. I simply asked you to move to your seat. And from that, you have created a very strong and very negative first impression. Should I see your name on my role next year, it will be hard for me to start with a clean slate with you. However, that’s just what I’ll do, for two reasons: first, because I’m an adult. Simple as that. Second, I don’t know what happened to you this morning leading up to our encounter that might have soured your whole day. I don’t think I deserved for you to take it out on me, but still, you’re a kid, and kids often don’t have the cognitive and emotional mental tools yet to deal with such situations. (Truth be told, many adults don’t either.)

So I just wanted to let you know that, should you still be a student here next year, I’ll do my best to let that first impression side. But here’s the thing: if that’s how you always behave, you’ll quickly create that same first impression with every teacher in the eighth-grade hallway, and you’ll find yourself in situation after situation like the one you experienced today. You might say to that, “I don’t care,” and perhaps you don’t. That would be a tragedy. But I think you do care.

If you’d like some help learning how to make better first (and second and third) impressions, I’d be happy to help you out. Just let Ms. Smith know, and we’ll figure out something we can do.

Regards,
Your One-Period Sub

Planning Help

My students are about to embark on a paired-down version of the short story project I’ve been using for years. Paired down is hardly accurate: it’s radically changed. Instead of reading The Tell-Tale Heart and writing three analytic paragraphs about it, they’re adding on to something they did earlier this year. More choice. Less grading. Seems like a win-win situation.

Less is sometimes more for everyone.

How Many?

They always seem a little surprised that I can do it. I strike up a conversation with a student before school, someone unknown, someone who’s caught my attention. We chat a bit, and then I ask the question: “If it’s not too forward, can I ask you how many referrals you got last year?” Today’s student, E, raised his eyes to the ceiling as he began count, but I didn’t let him continue. “It’s okay,” I explained. “The number is not the point. The question is the point.” He looked at me with a bit of confusion. “Did you notice I didn’t ask you, ‘Did you get any referrals last year?’ but rather, ‘How many referrals did you get?’, which is a different question entirely.” I paused. “Do you want to know how I knew you’d gotten referrals even though I’ve never seen you before in my life?”

Later, when E is in class with me, I recalled for the class, with his permission, the conversation. They were intrigued and asked if I could do it again.

“Really? You want me to put you on the spot like this?”

“Yes, we don’t mind!”

I pointed to a boy who had already been quite chatty. “You’ve gotten a few.” I pointed to a girl who, despite her best effort to hold it in, had displayed a bit of attitude. “You got a few.” I mentioned two or three other students, and I was not wrong with a single one of them.

“Do you want to know how I do it? Do you want to know why I can confidently say that I could walk down the all on other team and tell you who’d gotten referrals, that I could go up to the sixth grade hall and make bets on who would get referrals within a few weeks?” They all wanted to know, so I explained the simple fact: “You are constantly, constantly communicating. With everything you do.” I glanced around the classroom and created a list on the fly: “The way you’re sitting in your desk communicates,” I said to a young man who was slouched in his desk. “The way you carried on at the beginning of class, before we really got started, communicated,” I said to the girl who was arguing loudly at the start of the period. “The way you wear your clothes,” I said to a girl who obviously takes a great deal of pride in her physical appearance.

“Every little thing about every one of you communicates, some of it positive, some of it negative. Some of it you’re aware of; most of it, I would guess, you’re not aware of.” And so many of them are not. They don’t see that they’re communicating disrespect with their body language and get upset when a teacher calls them on out on it. They don’t see when they’re communicating apathy by the simple way that they hold themselves. They think they’re riddles wrapped in mysteries, but so much of it is just so obvious.

“Are you saying you know everything about us?” one girl asked.

“Certainly not. I’m only making inferences based on what I see, inferences based on past experiences. I don’t know why you all do the things you do.” That was a bit of a lie: I don’t know about the specifics for this or that student, but I know many of the contributing factors.

Every year, I have this same conversation. Every year, I have the same hope that I can help them change.

New Start

Dear Terrence,

Tomorrow is the first day of the new school year, and I’m assuming I’ll meet you tomorrow, but sometimes you don’t really show up until the second or third week. That is to say, your behaviors don’t show up until then.

I’ll be honest: I’ve talked to your administrator from last year, and I have a pretty good idea who you might be, but that of course is never certain. The move from seventh to eighth grade works wonders sometimes, and you disappear into the crowd and become just another student. Still, you sometimes like to come out swinging, letting me know that very first period who you are with your disruptive and sometimes disrespectful behavior.

I would just remind you of a simple fact: you don’t have to go that direction this year. You can choose to make a different path for yourself. You don’t have to play the same part with the same actors as last year, possibly the year before. It can be different. It can be better. All you have to do is meet my smile with one of your own, and when in doubt, don’t speak. Don’t get me wrong — I want to hear what you say, but what you say can sometimes be disruptive, so just keep the burner on low for the first week and let’s see how things go.

With hope,
Your New Teacher