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

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

My Percentage

Dear Terrence,

classdojo-iconToday you asked me a question that I’ve never heard you ask before: “Mr. S, what’s my Dojo percentage.” You’ve always insisted that Class Dojo is a waste of time and a generally stupid idea, and although I’ve never given up trying to convince you of its value, I never really thought you’d come around and see it for what it is: a powerful tool for monitoring and controlling your behavior. After all, everyone is keeping points on us in their heads for all the good and bad things we do. It’s called a reputation. But at least with Dojo, you get an idea of where your strengths and weaknesses are. Anyway, your question caught me off guard, because I really didn’t know. I had to check. And that was a good thing, because in the past, I could have likely guessed it without looking: “No more than 30%, I’d say.”

You and I have had our issues this year, and at least once you’ve stormed out of class insisting that you have to get your schedule changed because you’re sure I’m out to get you. I assure you, I’m not: your behavior, though, sometimes seems like it is, which is why I think Class Dojo could be such a powerful tool for you. It could help you see your weaknesses (talking out of turn) and help you build on your strengths (helping others).

But you’ve made a turn around — at least your behavior of the last few days indicates that. So I was particularly pleased when I looked down at my phone and saw you were at 83% for the week.

Keep up the good work,
Your Teacher

Reading

I give the students the same information every year, but this year, I decided to break it down in a letter. Dear student, you recently took the MAP test, which measures your reading progress. And so on and so on. It’s a mail merge, so “student” is replaced with the kid’s name, and all the details are individualized. Like the winter score. Like its grade-level equivalent. It’s bound to be a disheartening moment for some: I’m not sure they’ve ever been told point blank, “Your reading scores indicate that you’re reading at a second-grade level.” How do you take the news that your skills are six years behind where they should be?

1-DSCF7873

There are a number of reasons one could posit for this, and for each, a exception: For some, it’s a question of limited English exposure at home. But I have Latino students in my honors high school courses as well. For others its a question of limited access to books. But I have such students in my honors high school courses as well, and they solve the problem by basically camping out in the school library. No role model in the immediate family to provide the support necessary. But I’ve had students in my honors high school courses who’d never even met their biological father.

2-DSCF7877

At times they seem like excuses, at times they seem like legitimate — and tragic — explanations. Whatever the case, they’re my charge, and I’m tasked with reversing the trend. Some days, though, it just feels like I’m making the situation worse still.

Wigilia 2015

“I can’t believe how mean they are this year,” one teacher said to me just the other day. Sadly, I’m not sure it’s just a “this year” issue. I think it’s a “this culture” issue. So many kids tend to dwell so deeply in the negative in their relations to each other that it’s stunning some of them have friends at all. There are always comments, put-downs, insults. When called on it, they often suggest they’re just playing, but often enough, they don’t hide the fact that they’re not playing: they’re just hurling insults at each other. Social media only worsens the situation because it gives them the possibility of extending such behavior beyond the walls of the school. And so some students, it seems, live day and night, at school and at home, in a fog of insults and bullying.

This is not to say such is the case for all of my students. It seems to fall along the socio-economic divide that splits our school so visibly. The students who tend to be academically behind tend to be most likely to exhibit such behavior and mean it, and they tend to be poorer than their peer who are academically ahead and only engage in joking (though still biting) insults.

On the internet, though, it seems to cut through all socioeconomic divisions, all political divisions, all divisions. Just take a look at the comments at the bottom of any article on any web site. Liberals call conservatives idiots; conservatives call liberals idiots. Fans of Star Wars call non-fans idiots; non-fans call fans idiots. Using the single word “idiot” glosses over much of the ugly reality of the words they use. We use — for I’ve gotten carried away online and done the same. Perhaps not call someone an idiot, but suggest that anyone who holds such and such a view is mentally defective somehow. With the suggested anonymity, it’s easy to get carried away, I suppose.

Today’s students have grown up in such a world, and it’s second nature for them. But what about the opposite movement? What about the desire to say kind things? The urge to brighten someone’s day with the power of the spoken word? It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us. Kathryn Frattarola summarizes it succinctly:

If we like something, we keep our mouth shut about it, or we discuss it as minimally as possible. If we don’t, we’re extremely vocal about it. We are more drawn to the negative than to the positive. We are choosing to be miserable and make others miserable as well. (Source)

So many of us tend to shy away from that because it seems to open a vulnerability in ourselves. We wear so many masks, play so many roles, that sometimes an act of genuine sincerity seems the hardest thing to do. We’re letting down all our masks and speaking not as a teacher, a peer, a cool kid, a nerd, but simply as a human being when we say something kind to someone else. Insults and jokes are easy because they keep the mask up. Complements and words of appreciation let that all down. It’s a difficult thing to do.

But what if we all did it at once, all at the same time? Might it not be easier then?

In our culture we don’t have many opportunities where everyone takes a moment and utters kind words to each other. Sure, if we’re Catholic, there’s the point in the Mass where we “offer one another a sign of peace.” But, except for our family and friends we might be sitting with, that’s just a perfunctory handshake with or nod to the strangers who happen to be sitting around us. “Peace be with you,” we all mutter, and that’s that.

From  my time in Poland, though, I knew of a tradition that accomplishes just that, at least in theory: the sharing of the the opłatek, the Christmas wafer. Breaking the small wafer and offering well wishes wasn’t something we just did in the family; in school, every class had its own opłatek day, and students wished each other well, hugged, shook hands, perhaps cried a bit. Even students who didn’t get along terribly well put aside their differences for the time being and played along. Was it farce? Perhaps a little, with some. But there was too much genuine joy in the room for there to be too many people faking it.

For a long time, I thought it might be a worthwhile activity to try in class the last week of school. There were always barriers, though. The first was finding the wafers. While they’re readily available in any corner food market in Poland this time of year, they’re impossible to find here. Certainly one could ask in-laws to send them, but enough for 100+ students? That might be asking a bit much. And then there was the year I had the Jehovah’s Witness twins, and any reference to anything religious at all got a call from mom and an explanation that “we don’t celebrate X.” (I got such a call from her when I showed students my All Saints’ Day pictures at the end of October. “Ma’am, I wasn’t ask them to celebrate anything. I was just showing them what a different culture looks like.” “Yes, but we don’t celebrate Halloween…”) This year, though, it struck me that perhaps I could substitute something for the Christmas wafers. And I knew if I explained it correctly, there would be no religious overtones at all — and besides, I have no one in class this year whose parents have the same kinds of concerns as the twins’ mother several years back.

I built it up for an entire week, including in my lesson plans for Friday merely the word “surprise.” How many students download lesson plans is likely negligible, but I also mentioned it in class.

“Are we having a Christmas party Friday, Mr. Scott?” students asked.

“Not really, but I do have a surprise for you.”

“What!?!” Just like our three-year-old in so many ways.

“Well, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore.”

From the beginning, though, I was wondering how well it would go. In the worst case scenario, I thought they might share with one or two, then begin sitting down, having their own little typical conversations. I thought it was possible that a few might even refuse to participate at all. Of course I won’t make anyone do anything, I thought, for that would ruin the whole spirit of the opłatek tradition. Still, one or two refusing — might be trouble, I worried. As with all activities, I also expected different responses from different classes. I anticipated the student who are least engaged in school to be least engaged in the activity, and I anticipated those most engaged in school to find it most interesting. I expected classes with the most behavior problems to exhibit the most reluctance. Basically, I expected the worst, hoped for the best.

It began with a short slide show about Christmas in Poland. I explained that almost every Christmas in southern Poland is a white Christmas.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I skipped over the one picture I could find of friends breaking the opłatek, explaining that we’d come back to it, suggesting in my tone that it was a bit of a mistake to include it at all. Finishing up the presentation, I went back to the image of my friends sharing the Christmas wafer and explained the tradition to the students. “And it’s not just in people’s homes that Poles do this,” I concluded, “but also in school. I’ve always thought it might be interesting to share the opłatek tradition with students here in the States, but I could never find the wafers.” And I still have never found them here, in this part of the States. Yet it occurred to me this year that it’s not the actual wafer that matters; it’s the act itself, the tradition. So when K found pizzelle at Aldi, I knew I’d found my replacement.

“Hold it in your left hand,” I explained as I passed out the pizzelle, “and then break off a small bit from your friend’s.” I demonstrated, then smiled and wished them all a merry Christmas. What came next was the last thing I was expecting and the greatest gift students have ever given me.

They picked up their waffers and acted as if they had been doing this all their lives. Kids who normally don’t get along were making an effort to search each other out and wish each other well. Kids whose behavior causes problems more often than not sought me out for special wishes. “I hope all your classes are better next near.” “I hope all the students behave next year.” There was such a level of warmth and joy in the classroom that I’ve truly never experience before. The way they embraced the whole act of offering each other wishes for the new year — it was as if they were drinking water after crossing a desert, as if they had been craving this so deeply and for so long. And once again, there was a noticeable difference in the classes: the groups that encountered less success in school were much more enthusiastic about it. And what I most feared, that some would break bread with a couple of friends and then sit down, never happened. The pizzelle finished, they continued talking, wishing each other well, hugging and shaking hands.

It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in a classroom.


As for our Wigilia, it was a low-key, quiet affair. Everything just a little less than the years before, and by choice. One soup instead of two; a couple of cakes instead of a pantry-full.

Fewer gifts, fewer guests — smaller, smaller, smaller. A good change.

Numbers

2

Every night just before bedtime, just before we read a story, just before one or the other of us cuddles with him until he drifts to sleep, the Boy has a choice to make: which cars will I take to bed with me? We allow him two because otherwise, there would be no room on the bed for him — he would pack every single wheeled vehicle he owns onto his bed every single night.

He makes his choice carefully, and as is typical of his personality, changes his mind a time or three most nights.

9

This weekend, the Girl will have her birthday party. Her ninth. Her last in single digits. Her interests are maturing with her body. She’s planning on painting her fingernails before her birthday party Saturday, and it’s a choice that, like the Boy’s cars, requires significant thought.

220

The average RIT score on the MAP test for eighth-grade students is 220. My gifted classes have averages well above 230. My struggling classes have sometimes had averages below 200, putting them in the range of a first- or second-grade reader. When such a class, during optional winter testing, actually goes down as a whole class, it leaves a teacher feeling particularly ineffective. What can numbers tell us about reading? Nothing? Everything? Something?

3000

At a post a day, it would take eight years to reach 3000 posts. However, to reach this, the 3000th post, it took 11 years, which makes an average of 0.747 posts per day — posting about 75% of the time. Eleven years to make it to this, the 3000th post.

Monday Afternoon

Yesterday was such a busy day that I didn’t even take the time to share everything that happened. The Christmas tree got a mention but little else, and the promise of the lights we put up around the house was about there was of the final product. So it would be tempting just to post those pictures and call it day. After all, there is continuity with the pictures and the day’s before.

“That tree is enormous” seemed to be the general consensus — certainly the biggest one we’ve ever brought into our house. “Remember that first tree stand we used?” K mused as she held the tree later that night while I, sprawled on the floor, loosened all the screws holding the tree in place and reinforced it with planks of wood. He might have held a tree half the size of the one we have in our living room now, but it would just laugh at the tree we brought home Sunday.

1-DSCF7437

But to leave today’s story at that would be leaving out the wonder of today. For example, a girl in my most challenging — and as a result, often most rewarding — class left the room without asking permission. It’s not the kind of thing I would have expected her to do. I went out to talk to her and determined that she’d removed herself from a stressful situation so that she wouldn’t say something she regretted. It turned out, she’d already kind of said that anyway, making a comment under her breath that probably shouldn’t have even been said at all. “But she was off task, and being distracting,” S protested. I suggested that she really didn’t need to say what she said, no matter what M was doing, and after some thought, she agreed. We went back into the room and I suggested that to be really mature, to take the situation to the next level, she might want to apologize to the girl in question. And she agreed. And in a few moments, the two of them were in the hall together, working out their problems like forty-year-olds instead of fourteen-year-olds. So to leave that out of the day’s story would be a minor tragedy.

But there was still the Boy and our time exploring before dinner.

As I was putting on my shoes, E pointed out that the giant ladder truck that had been mine at his age and which Nana and Papa had saved was in sad repair. “It’s not new and shiny like it was when you got it,” he observed rather philosophically. “Did you get that from Santa?” he asked after a pause, and I thought, “Well, here it is.” It’s a moment I knew was coming, was surprised that never came with L, and yet while dreading it in a way, paradoxically never really gave it too much thought.

But it reminded me of something I wrote on a blog I used to run, now almost ten years defunct, in which I dissected the statements of leaders of various religious groups that all clung to the same beliefs I grew up with after the church in which I grew up declared its own beliefs heretical and moved to Protestant orthodoxy. When L was born, I struggled to find the time and motivation to keep it up, so in August of 2007, I resigned:

I’ve been struggling—to find topics for this blog, to maintain my interest in all things Armstrong, to find time to care.

Truth be told, to care.

Jared said it best in a recent comment:

[A] moribund XCG is [not] entirely a bad thing either. After all, there’s only so much one can say about Armstrongism before you’ve said it all. (Source)

I don’t feel like I’ve said it all—there are thousands of words that could still be written about the phenomenon of Herbert Armstrong and the sect he formed. Yet, I really no longer have the interest or time to write anymore words about it.

I feel like Chicken Little, for our common XCG sky will continually fall. David Pack will talk about his web site statistics until the day he dies. Rod Meredith will provide critics with still more reasons to call him Spanky until the day he dies. Those in the upper echelons of the dwindling WCG will continue to talk about their amazing transformation until the day they die.

But I will not be commenting on them at that point, and I certainly won’t be commenting on them when I die.

About six months ago, I started preparing a final post, but I kept putting it off. I thought, “Maybe I’ll just write a little here, a little there,” for a while. Several have noticed and commented on this, and I have remained silent as to the cause of this dip in output.

My initial draft of this post might provide clarification:

Certain things in life force us to see things in a different perspective. Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, conversions—these are the kinds of things that make us stop and reflect on where we are, what we are, and most importantly, what we’re doing with the short time we have on Earth.

We have twenty-four hours in a day. We work at least eight of them; we sleep six to eight of them; we wash, shave, cook, eat, clean, drive, exercise and a million other forms of maintenance for another three or four a day. That leaves us with precious few hours a day for ourselves.

What do we do with that time?

Until recently, I spent time looking at, analyzing, and even mocking the beliefs and actions of a group of people I no longer have anything in common with.

Recent developments in my life now make that a less-than-ideal way to spend my free time.

The “certain event” I was referring to was the birth of my first child.

Since then, I’ve been of thinking about what I want my daughter to know about my own religious past. Truth is, I want her to know as little as possible. Because of shame? Embarrassment? Certainly not. I don’t want her to know for the simple reason that it no longer impacts my life. I can’t see much positive coming from me ever going into any detail with her about what I used to believe, about what her grandparents used to believe, about the fact that a true handful of people in the world still believe it. I don’t believe it, and that’s that.

And so, to quote one of my favorite authors:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

To talk of many things—but not the XCG. And not here.

I appreciate all the support I’ve received during this little two-and-a-half-year adventure. I thank all the fellow contributors who, throughout these last nearly thirty months, have helped to make the discussion here a little more balanced. I am grateful to all you regulars. You really kept the site going.

Most of all, I’m heartened by some of the comments of the past, folks telling me that I have helped them in some way. I appreciate you sharing those thoughts, for it gave me a certain joy that I will truly never forget.

But the time has come.

Best wishes to all, ill wishes to none, and I leave with the hope that if we ever meet again, we’ll have so much more to talk about than the XCG.

And since then, the Girl never once asked about Santa for me (for we didn’t celebrate such heathen festivals), and I’d really forgotten about it. Of course I still write about the phenomenon, as evidenced by a post earlier this week (and as the thirtieth anniversary of Herbert Armstrong’s death is just a little over a month away, I will likely write about it again in the near future). But I hadn’t thought about what I’d say to the Boy or the Girl about my religious upbringing. It just didn’t seem important at all in a way. Until E asked me if Santa had brought me the ladder truck. I thought about it for a moment, realizing that a philosophical/theological treatise was certainly not required, and simply answered, “No, buddy, Santa didn’t bring it to me.” Maybe some day, he’ll ask about it again. Probably not. We’ll cross that little relatively insignificant bridge when we come to it.

Showing, Not Telling

What do you do when you come into work to find that a tool you’ve used for almost ten years, a tool you’ve created yourself and spent probably thousands of hours over the course of almost a decade, a tool you use now daily as a result of the initiative of your principal and his vision of turning your school into a true tech academy — what do you do when that tool is suddenly, inexplicably, and without any notification made completely unavailable to your students? It was the situation I found myself in this morning, as my first group of students filed in, logged on, and one by one said, “Mr. Scott, the site is blocked.”

My first reaction, of course, was fury. For the briefest of instants, I took it personally, as if my web site was specifically targeted for blocking. That took only a few moments to clear up in my mind: surely it was just a new filtering rule that had been applied, and like dolphins caught up in a net trawling for tuna, my poor site just got dragged into the mix. In the end, I’m really not sure what was going on, and I’ll likely never know the cause. What’s most important is not the cause but the effect: one of the most useful tools in my classroom is unavailable because of the actions of unknown people who work for the same organization as I.

At this point, the astute reader is probably thinking, “Surely that is a mechanism in the school district through which teachers can request that a site be unblocked.” Indeed, there is. I’d made such a request a couple of years ago and another one at the beginning of the school year. According to the district records, those requests are still pending. There are many different ways to explain this, but none of them are particularly complementary of the school system’s mechanism for unblocking web sites. Still, I filled out the online form, and even sent an email, CC’ing my principal, explaining the situation and the fact that “all of my requests [for unblocking] are still pending” and my worry ” that it might be several months before any action is taken on this issue,” requesting that the powers that be “process this request immediately,” and expressing how much I “appreciate [their] prompt help in this matter.”

As a third fail-safe, I called the help line and explained my situation. The lady with whom I spoke explained that she had no power to unblock web sites, which was what I expected. She mentioned that she saw my email, which was what I expected. She explained that she’d forwarded it on to tier three, which I didn’t quite understand as I don’t know how many tiers there are in this particular case, but it was still a little unexpected. It sounded like progress. I asked if I might have some kind of contact information for someone in this tier three, and the help desk attendant explained that she didn’t even really know who they went to, simply that they went to tier three, which I somehow expected.

But how to turn it into a teaching experience? My second class filed in, and by then, I was in a white-hot righteous fury of epic proportions. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got, which sounds about right for me. Yet the students could not discern how angry I was, for I did my absolute best not to manifest it at all. In that particular class, I’m blessed to have a co-teacher, and when she entered, I explained to her what happened, then explained to the class what had happened. I went so far as to say that I was extremely angry about it. But I excused myself, went to the restroom, ranted for a little bit, washed my face to freshen up, and went back to the classroom and carried on as if nothing had happened. Students were finishing up summaries of a reading we’d just finished, and I and my co-teacher went from student to student, advising, helping, praising, encouraging — all the things we try to do on a daily basis to build the self-confidence of the students in this class, all of whom read below grade level. A corollary to this low reading ability for many of them is a low level of self-control. Several of them say what comes to mind when it comes to mind. Many of them, when they come into the classroom angry about some excessively emotional interaction that occurred in the hallway — “drama” they call it — enter the classroom already doomed: they will sit and stew about it the entire class, refusing to work, refusing to calm down, often disrupting the class further.

On Monday, I’ll be able to debrief them about how I dealt with my anger. “Please notice,” I’ll begin, “that I didn’t take it out on you and that I didn’t refuse to work. I dealt with it and moved on. Was I still angry at the end of class? Very much so. But I kept it from controlling me.” Will it help? Perhaps. Teaching by example is always better than teaching by words. Show, don’t tell. Who knows — that might turn out to be the most valuable session we had all year for some students.

Difficult

Dear Terrence,

It’s difficult to respect you sometimes because you so disrespect yourself by disrespecting everyone around you. It’s hard to be pleasant with you because your attitude and demeanor so often are so very unpleasant that I quite frankly would rather not even see you during the day. It’s difficult to care about you because no one, it seems, has really cared about you, and you have internalized all that and decided that you’re going to make sure that no one cares about you by being so terribly disrespectful and rude to everyone around you.

I can handle your daily disrespect of me: you’re just a child, and quite honestly, what you say to me has come to mean nothing because you never say anything that’s not disrespectful. You’re just like a toddler, forever pitching a fit. The problem is, when you do that, you do it in front of others, thereby challenging my authority, and that forces me to do something. I know, I know, you don’t care about referrals. You don’t care about suspension. You don’t care. But your apathy now affects the rest of the class, and by being so disrespectful and disruptive, you simply take away from them their opportunity to get the education I am offering. That is why, even though your words mean little to nothing to me already (Isn’t that sad? It only took seven weeks for you to completely alienate yourself and turn any potential adult allies against you, or at the very least make them apathetic to your obvious plight — tragic.), I will write those referrals and pursue those suspensions because we do better without you in the room.

I would hate if someone who was trying to help me said that about me. I would feel utterly miserable about myself. But if I were to say this to you, I know your shoulders would shrug, your lip would curl into its customary sneer, and you’d suck your teeth.

I can see your future, Terrence. And unless you change 180 degrees, it’s difficult.

Exhausted and sadly somewhat apathetic to your problems anymore,
Your Teacher Babysitter

Follow-Up

Dear Terrence,

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it a million times more: nine times out of ten, when you get in trouble, it’s not what you originally did that gets you in trouble but how you react to teacher redirection that causes the issues. Today was no different: had you simply moved when I directed you to, things would have ended right there. Instead, you decided to turn it into a battle of wills. By insisting that I tell you why I wanted you to move, you put yourself on the same level as I, or at least tried, suggesting that my authority depends upon the legitimacy of the instructions I give you. By asking “Why” — and not just asking it, but asking it time after time after every calm repetition of the direction I provided — you suggested to everyone that you might move if you think the instructions were justified, and if you didn’t think they were justified, you would simply refuse. In other words, it was a direct challenge to my authority as a teacher.

After your week of excessive talking, if you didn’t know why I wanted you to move, I would be surprised if you didn’t know why I wanted you to move. The fact that you continually asked “Why?” — and in an increasingly disrespectful tone — suggested to me that you were never going to move anyway. It was a losing battle, and it was sucking time from the class and doing serious damage to the classroom atmosphere, and that’s why I decided to end it then and there by requiring that you get out your school-provided discipline card for me to notate the incident.

“Oh, the card!” you replied sarcastically. “I’m scared! I’m terrified! The card!

And at that moment, young man, you sealed your fate. Previously, you’d simply been disrespecting me and my authority. But mocking the school-wide discipline program, you disrespected the entire school, the entire administration, and the entire teaching staff that came up with a school-wide plan to help you and students like you change some of the damaging behaviors you and students like you so clearly and brazenly exhibit. These are behaviors that will destroy your future if you do not make a serious attempt to change them, and our school discipline plan is intended to help prevent that, to help you see in an on-going basis the negative (and positive) behaviors you’re showing. And so it is not intended to scare or frighten or even punish: it’s intended to help. But you showed that you don’t want help, that you’re set the way you are, that you see a bright future with your behaviors. Ironically, it was that very short-sightedness that we’re trying to help you correct.

Sad because of the disciplinary referral I now have to write,
Your Teacher.

Defining Up

Dear Terrence,

It really wasn’t that much I was asking you to do: put your head up. Simple. You began the class as you almost always do: head up but not really attentive. Within a few minutes, though, you folded those arms and dropped your head into the angle of your elbow.

“Terrence, put your head up, please.” Notice: I was polite. I was respectful. You can’t learn anything with your head down, so I needed you to raise your head and your attention. And you did. For a few seconds. Down it went again.

“Terrence, put your head up.” Notice: I was a little less polite. It’s hard to be polite with someone who’s being so disrespectful, and that’s really what it amounted to. When you don’t do what a teacher instructs you to do, it’s disrespect. Whether or not you agree with that is, sadly, irrelevant, because most of the world would accept that as a fair description of what you were doing. Your head went up, but this time, so did your arm, with your head now balanced on the side of your hand as you rested your elbow on your desk. So in a sense, you were obeying: your head was more “up” than it had been a few moments ago, but you knew perfectly well what I meant.

“Terrence, put your head up.” Notice: I was still polite. I tried to keep the edge out of my voice, because I was getting quite irritated with the whole situation and the disrespect you were showing in front of the whole classroom. The child in me wanted to respond in a similar fashion, with disrespect, with sarcasm. But thankfully I reminded myself that I am the adult, and while you could choose to act like an adult, you generally choose to act as you did.

It was at this point that you really crossed the line. But standing up and walking out of the classroom, you disrupted the class, you showed incredible disrespect, and you left me with no choice but to refer the matter to the administration. And you know that will mean an immediate three-day suspension. With your dreams of playing football — I eavesdrop in the hall, as do other teachers — that doesn’t seem like something you’d want. A discipline record and poor grades guarantee your disqualification from school sports. So it seemed very short-sighted of you.

See, here’s what you don’t understand: if I didn’t care about you, I’d just let you leave that head down. It’s much easier to let you sleep. So I ask you to put your head up knowing that I’m only making my life more difficult. I do it every day because I refuse to give up. You might force my hand as you did today, and if that’s the case, then I’ll do as instructed by my superiors and write you up every single time you do it. It doesn’t seem like a very productive way to spend my time, but I follow instructions. All I’m asking is that you do the same.

Still a little frustrated,
Your Teacher

Play Too Much

Dear Terrence,

I watch you walking down the hall, getting upset by the least little thing, and I worry. Someone bumps into you, and you’re upset. Someone says something to you that you don’t want to hear, and you’re upset. Someone doesn’t do this or that, and you’re upset. And then today, you’re about to get into a fight because — because why exactly? I could never get more out of you than, “He play too much.”

Of course, you’re not the first to say that. I hear it a lot. “You play too much.” “They play too much.” “Mr. Jones play too much.” I hear it a lot, but I’m not sure what it means. I’m fairly certain you don’t mean that literally: I don’t think it’s the amount of time this or that person spends playing video games that upsets you. We’re not playing any sport in the hallway, so you’re not referring to that. What you must mean is that the person in question plays mind games too much. That’s the only thing I can figure. But an odd thing about mind games: they take two to play. So if he plays too much, if she plays too much, it only means that you’re playing along too much.

So he bumps you and perhaps it’s on purpose: it’s only “playing” if you play along. So someone says something you don’t like: it’s only “playing” if you play along.

Why not try ignoring the people who play too much? If they have no one to play with, they’ll go look for a new playmate. Simple.

Playfully,
Your Teacher

The Jacket

Dear Teresa,

Women-Quilted-fitting-Biker-Leather-Jacket-13-240x340You looked really sharp in that leather jacket, I must say. It really worked well with your tight, curly black hair, and you wore it with a confidence that was surprising. In short, it looked great.

Sadly, it was also a dress code violation.

I know, I know — I get tired of the dress code myself. I get tired of enforcing it. I get tired of policing it. I get tired of dealing with it. But truth be told, we all have a dress code. I can’t wear anything I want to school, and while your dress code as a student is much more restrictive than mine as a teacher, I can sympathize to a degree. Still, it’s my job to police it (I choose that verb carefully and deliberately), and every time I have to approach a student for the first time about a violation, I’m a little apprehensive. I know some students can’t handle that criticism well, and it risks turning into a confrontation that I really don’t want to have.

“No one else has said anything to me about it!” is a common refrain. Perhaps no one else noticed — after all, we teachers have a million and one things on our minds. Dress code sometimes takes a backseat.

“I wore it yesterday, and no one said anything about it!” is another common response. See above.

“I’ve worn it all year, and no one has said a word about it!” is one I hear every now and then. See above.

So when I see a dress code violation, I get a little nervous. I just don’t like situations that could escalate into a bigger issue. I always do my best not to escalate the situation, and I think I do a good job of keeping things calm. But there are some students who are determined — absolutely determined — to make an issue of it.

And then there are students like you: I mentioned the lovely jacket was a dress code violation, and you simply put it in your locker. I could tell from your body language that you were not happy at all about it, but still, you put it away without a word. I was more impressed when we talked about it: you said something like the responses above, with a few new twists, but you waited until the appropriate time to discuss it. That showed a maturity that is impressive.

Thank you for handling an unpleasant situation like a true young adult. It makes me feel even more fortunate to be your teacher.

Still smiling,
Your Teacher

First Week

Dear Terrence,

We’re nearing the end of our first week of school. Where are you? Three days in and I’d always be able to tell who would be my Terrences and my Teresas this year would be. Last year, I could tell within three seconds. You probably think I’m being hyperbolic (exaggerating for effect), but it’s true: one Teresa (and there were so many last year) introduced herself with her actions and words before she even entered my classroom, and several of the Terrences made clear their priorities just as they’d stepped inside my room. This year, I just don’t know where you are. Granted, I’ve seen a glimmer of you in this student and that, but you — that attitude, that consistently disruptive behavior, that anger, that defiance — are nowhere to be seen.

While that does relieve me for the most part, I must admit that there’s a little part of me that’s somewhat unnerved by it. I’m used to seeking you out and working with you and your issues immediately, and the fact that you haven’t appeared makes me think that perhaps I’ve lost my discerning edge or that perhaps you’ve gotten better at blending in and will pop up later than expected. I enjoy the challenge, that’s true, but the fact that I still haven’t figured out who you are this year gives me a bit more hope about the future than I usually have. Maybe my cynicism and pessimism are misplaced. We’ll see as soon as the honeymoon period wears off.

In the meantime, I just want to thank you for keeping it cool. I’m still fairly sure you’re out there somewhere, but you’re blending in nicely now, and that makes my job a whole lot more enjoyable.

With beginning-of-the-year hope,
Your Teacher