Of temper tantrums and persecution complexes.

Second grade is a year of growing independence but there are many times when kids still need to hide under the covers and wait for someone else to take care of things.

I have one little girl who is convinced no one likes her. I sometimes think that she is determined that no one like her. She tells on others for minor rule infractions. She takes requests from classmates to stop talking or tapping her pencil as personal insults. She feels ignored when someone doesn’t hear or understand her (I have several ELLs who simply do not know what she is saying). I’ve tried hard to show patience in the face of her doomsday outlook and to help her see that kids are not usually trying to be mean. So today, when she looked sad sitting alone during Math exploration, I braced myself and went over to see what the problem was. She said someone called her the “n word.” I was shocked, and also dubious. After all, this child has lied before in an effort to get me to understand the depths of her persecution. I asked another student, who she said was a witness, but the claim was unsupported. Then I talked to the alleged offender and he almost immediately broke down in tears. Oh my, I was unprepared for the allegations to be true. We talked it out together, then I talked to the girl and explained our conversation, then the little boy apologized for using a word that hurt her feelings. (Turned out, he said he was going to keep calling her that until she explained to him what it meant. She responded that she couldn’t explain because it was a bad word.) My little Eyore and I had a very good conversation about what was good and what was not at school and how we might work together to bring out more of the good. I hope I connected with her a little more today. I was at least reminded that her feelings do have a basis in fact.

Earlier in that same Math block, another student screamed at the very top of his surprisingly powerful lungs when I asked him to do something. I don’t remember what I asked him to do, or to stop doing, all I remember was that I was calm and that the request was minor and related to the normal work routine. Still, he was pushed to his limits. He threw the supply box for his table group to the floor and walked over to our Peace Desk where kids go to cool off. He tossed out all of the papers that we keep in that desk (reflection sheets and missing homework planner pages) and sat down quietly, his face red, his fists clenched. The other kids at his group quietly picked up the supplies and we all went on with the lesson. After about 10 minutes, I asked him if he was ready to rejoin us. He wasn’t. When the Special Education teacher came over to support him, he was under control enough to move to the work -table with her and explain to her calmly why he was so upset. She helped him work out a plan, and he was able to participate in the remainder of the workday. 

As a teacher, I don’t make an immediate connection with every student who walks in the door. Sometimes, it takes an awful lot of work on my part to build that connection. These two students each challenge me in different ways. After 34 days of school together, I feel a stronger bond with the two of them. And all it took was a temper tantrum and a few good conversations.

 

Ready for Monday

Nearly a week away from school. I am relaxed. As stressful as it has been these past few months, I am looking forward to getting back. I have no illusions that all will be magically better. I know my troubled kids will still be troubled, maybe even more so after a week without structure and routine. But, I’ll be better.

I have come to a few conclusions that should help me be a better teacher for the next few months.

1.)   I can’t save the world. I can’t make everyone learn. I can’t get through to all 20 kids every day. May not ever be able to get through to one of them. But none of that should prevent me from doing my best and continuing to try new things.

2.)   I want to be there. Those first few weeks I daydreamed of being back at the university where my biggest worry was that I wasn’t challenging a few high achievers enough, or that I wasn’t completely clear in an assignment and had to spend extra time reviewing. As I waded through Common Core requirements, WIDA testing, and Math Modules I wanted to be back with the few I’m-not-even-sure-college-has-anything-to offer smart alecks I had last semester. But this week, as I start mentally preparing myself to go back to work in a few days, I realize that I am not dreading it, that I want to hear what the kids did over break, that I want to figure out the best way to present the newest Math Module (which is on arrays and preparing for multiplication), that I want to find a more efficient Language Arts routine, that I want to beef up the Science and Social Studies lessons in my room.

3.)   And here’s my greatest realization: I want the challenging kids. True, I’m not really good at it yet, but I want to be. I want to be the teacher that can turn things around for a few tough nuts. I want to make school welcoming for the kids who are beginning to feel that they don’t belong, that they can’t compete, that they are destined for remedial. While I may never find a way to reach the Miguels of the world, who need way more help than I am trained to offer, I think I can make a more positive impact than I have done thus far.

As I think of all that I want to achieve as a teacher, I am also thinking of my family and what I want to do for them. These conclusions about my teaching career do not mean that I will stay late after school. I’ll still go home right after the students do, except for the one day a week when Greg goes home early to be with the girls. I still want to make family dinners, have after-school conversations about the events of the day, drive the girls to appointments and practices, exercise, read for pleasure, and write. I want to end the day watching television with Greg and falling asleep on the couch so he can switch to the sports channel. I want to meet up with my sisters once a month, make sure my girls get “cousin time” and go out for drinks with my “Bad Moms” group regularly.

When I took this job, after having worked only part time for a year and a half, I promised myself that I would not let it consume me, that I could not allow it to consume me, that my family (and my sanity) came first. The challenges of this class could make me break that promise, almost demand that I do, but then I would not have the strength to actually tackle those challenges. They would, instead, tackle me, leaving me dazed and useless. Eight hours a day (plus a few weekend hours) is all I can give and still be able to give at all.

So, as I spread my notebooks and curriculum guides at the kitchen table, I do so without resentment, without dread. I’m happy to put in a few hours to plan the week and looking forward to trying out a few new ideas. I feel ready for Monday.

 (Though, if the predicted snow causes a snow day on Monday, I won’t cry about it.)

wise as an 8 year old

Eight year old boys can be wise.

When I sat in a meeting with a troubled child who is exhibiting violent behavior in the classroom, we asked him who his friends were. He named two boys who he does, in fact play with and ask to be partnered with frequently. These same two boys, however, are the targets of his relentless teasing. He has gotten into verbal and physical fights with them almost every day.

And yet, every day, each one of them chooses to spend time with the other. They ask to be partnered, they sit together during independent reading, they build together at recess.

It bothers me that they can treat each other so poorly.

But today, I looked at one of the boys who gets so frustrated by his friend’s bad behavior that he has to give himself a time out, and I saw strength. He seems to have a better understanding than I about the struggles his friend is having; that his friend is more than this recent bad behavior.

So tomorrow, my goal is to see my troubled student the way his friend sees him. To wipe the slate clean once an outburst has passed, and remember that he is more than this.

 

Death by Second Grader

Near the end of a difficult day (week, actually) with a difficult student, I was tired.  I was trying to help a group of students who were still struggling to identify and add coins and at the same time challenge students who were ready for story problems, and still monitor this student for unsafe behavior. Through the course of this day he: put the large (thankfully, plastic) jar of coins from our coin drive on his head, stole money from that coin jar, threw letter tiles, kicked another student (his best friend in the classroom), made farting noises during group discussions, destroyed pencils, wrote in books, and of course, refused to do any actual school work. Each day this week I’ve been able to get him to do about 10 minutes of work (not in a row).

This second grader is reading at a kindergarten level and is unable to do basic addition or subtraction without counting on his fingers. But, he can play Black Ops II and tell you what happened on Family Guy last night.

I’ve met with his mother. I’ve implemented the behavior plan the office asked for. I’ve sent discipline reports to the office. I’ve sent home the behavior charts each day (keeping a copy for myself since I realize they will never reach Mom). Still, by day’s end he is completely out of control. No one else in the room can learn after 2:00pm. Perhaps I should simply dismiss the class an hour and a half early.

All of this has been frustrating enough, but the last two days, things have escalated. Thursday, he put his pencil in his hand like a gun and shot me for twenty minutes.  Friday morning, after I asked him to stop banging his pencil against the heating vent he laughed and said he was going to take that pencil and beat me with it. With an hour left to the day, in response to some request by me, he looked at me calmly and said, “I’m going over my cousin’s house this weekend and we’re going to find where you live and kill you.” I told him that would make my daughter very sad, turned and walked to the phone and called the office. “I need a student taken out of my class.” I recorded the incident on the very long list of incidents I had recorded that day, made out an official discipline report, and tried to carry on with the rest of my students.

Yes, I understand this child is only eight years old. I also understand that he has been exposed to things well beyond his years and to people who should not be with an 8-year-old. And frankly, I do not feel safe.

The child was never removed from my classroom that day. He packed up and got on his bus. On my way back into the building from dropping my students at their buses, the School Counselor said she was not able to get a hold of his mother to come pick him up but that he would not be in school on Monday. I was too upset to even ask about Tuesday.

 

Bad teacher for one

I wanted to post this week about my struggle to find a way to help my second graders learn to revise. I want them to see that a writer goes back to a “finished” piece and adds new understanding or makes a sentence more clear for the reader, or even takes out a part that doesn’t serve the purpose. It’s not an easy concept.

I was also thinking of writing about my search for a way to make my Readers’ Workshop function for all of my students: my two newcomers who have little or no English, my two boys who are reading at a Kindergarten level, my two girls who are slowly moving toward grade level reading, my group who tested at grade level before I came to the school but who show serious lapses in comprehension, and my group that is ready to soar ahead and enter Literature Circles. I’m working on strategies that allow each cohort to work at their own level, and a schedule that gives me the time to push all of them.

But, neither of those were my focus this week. This week was all about finding a way to teach through behavior problems. I have been practicing deep breathing and pausing before I speak so I don’t yell at the children. It’s so hard not to yell. (And, of course I have yelled.) It’s one thing for a student to refuse to do his own work, quite another when he makes it difficult for others to do theirs.

This week, in our classroom, students have stolen items from me and from classmates, students have torn papers and broken pencils, students have wandered aimlessly around the classroom making incredibly distracting noises.

A little while before lunch Friday, the Vice Principal stopped by my class to check in with a student that we had been working together to help. She had already seen him that morning, when he had assured her he would turn his day around, and I appreciate her taking the time to visit. In a lucky coincidence, I had just had to set the class to 10 minutes of quiet reading at their desks so I could deal with this student. He had recently returned from a visit to our Buddy Classroom for a time out, but returned immediately to the same behaviors – refusing to do any work, pushing other students, making noises when they were trying to talk or listen, taking things away from a student and leaving them on the other side of the room. When the VP asked him to walk with her to the hallway to talk, he refused. I took the opportunity to have a one-to-one with another student about his stealing and fighting, knowing everyone else would be on good behavior with the VP in the room, so I could turn my back on them.

The VP was still with the misbehaving students when I organized the class for lunch. I walked them all to the cafeteria and the two were still in my classroom when I got back. I left to have lunch with my colleagues.  Eventually, the school counselor got him to the office and I was told Mom would come to pick him up. She never did.

At the end of the day, there was my student, down from the office to get his things for the bus. I got his papers from his mailbox, including a brand new set of the week’s homework with a note saying he had not turned any of it in, and I watched him put it in his backpack. He made a few rude gestures, and meandered to his bus group. I have little hope those papers will reach home. I got my students to their buses before heading back to my classroom to cry.

The other 20 students in my class should not have to struggle to learn through his ridiculous behavior.

Full disclosure: I am incredibly worried about my own daughter. She is having a rough time and has given me a lot to worry about. While I was sitting down to lunch that day, I heard the voice mail from her school nurse – an hour old –  saying she had been to the office twice and was not feeling well. By the time I was able to get a hold of my husband and the nurse, my girl was put on the bus. Had I not been dealing with that student, I would have gotten my own daughter taken care of. So, yes, I’m more than a little resentful.

I know that this boy has had difficulty in his life. I know his mother is lost and, even with good intentions, just doesn’t know what to do. Like all of us, she has made mistakes as a parent. I empathize with her. But. I’m also angry with her. Her son needs more and she needs to get it for him. I am not a behavior specialist. I do not know how to fix what is wrong here. Given an hour with him alone, with no one to show off to, no one to impress, I could teach him. Because that IS what I am, a teacher. But I can’t be his mother, his father, his counselor.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t save this kid. All I can do is make the room a place of learning. If he shows signs he’s willing to try, I’ll leap and bring him in. But, until then, I focus on everyone else. I’d rather be a bad teacher for this one, than a bad teacher for all 21.

Yellow tags

ImageWhen I took over as the teacher for Room 102 just before Christmas, this behavior chart was on the wall. It is linked to the Behavior Plan for the whole school, providing a series of warnings for a student. After three yellow tags go up for a student, they need to take a break in the Peace Corner and write or draw a reflection sheet naming the bad choice and suggesting alternative behavior that would be more appropriate for the classroom. If poor behavior persists after that, we ask the student to take a break in a buddy classroom. If things go awry with the Buddy Teacher, she calls the office for support. The Buddy Classroom is designed to diffuse the tension between teacher and student and is usually the farthest it gets.

My students have been through a great deal of chaos and transition this year. After their classroom teacher had to unexpectedly leave her position in September, they had a few different substitutes. Each substitute did great work, but the reality is no two teachers are alike, so there was always change. Since second graders thrive on routine, this sort of change was obviously difficult.

Which brings me back to the behavior chart. I use the chart sparingly, and give lots of verbal reminders before a tag goes up. Still, tags went up every day. EVERY. DAY. It was disheartening. It was exhausting.

One day last week, we were having a good day. I felt well rested. There seemed to be a lot of work getting done. Near the end of the day, after we had just started to get packed up, one student called my attention to the empty chart. “Mrs. L. A., no one got a yellow tag today.” The joy and excitement in his voice was inspiring. I called everyone over to view the empty chart. I pulled out my phone to snap a picture. I showed them all the photo on my phone. I made a big deal about it, and so did they.

The chart has not seen another empty day since, but I have put a significantly lower number of tags up. And today, as one of students (who struggles most with behavior) handed me her agenda so I could write the daily note to her Mom, she said, “I must have had a good day, I have no yellow.” I smiled big at her, and said, “I’m writing about your good day right now!”

I don’t love this chart, and I am trying to focus more on noticing good behavior, but some good things have happened because of it. And I feel like we can build from here.

Marcus and Sandy Hook

At the end of my third day as the new teacher in Room 102, I heard the news of the Sandy Hook shootings. My first thought was for my daughters, home after school, preparing for their big show. My second thought was for Marcus (name changed), the little boy I had struggled with all day long.

Marcus has “issues.” From what little I could tell in my three days with him, he has a mother who loves and cares for him and wants to see him succeed. He is well fed, properly clothed, and goes to bed in a warm, safe place each night.

Still, Marcus spent the day testing me. I was the latest in a long line of teachers his class has played host to this school year. Each teacher did her best to provide what these students needed, and by many measures, each did just that. Half of the kids are reading above grade level and their most recent Math benchmark tests showed good progress.

But, no matter how good their intentions, those temporary teachers couldn’t give them everything; they couldn’t give Marcus what he needed most.

My first day with Marcus was fine. He needed a few reminders, but for the most part, he was on task. Day two, however, a new Marcus walked in to class. He brought his attitude, and it was not good. He refused to complete work, refused to stay in his seat, refused to acknowledge rules even existed. He got on every one of my nerves, and I raised my voice more than once. I was glad to see that day end. But, the following day was worse. I was thoroughly annoyed with him.

Then, a crazy person shot up a school, and all I could think of was, “What have I done today to help Marcus choose a different path than that?” I did not like my answer.

I am a human being. I make mistakes. But, Marcus can’t afford for me to make too many more. I need to find a way to work with him, and he with me, so that his anger and frustration with school doesn’t turn violent.

Yes, it’s a long way from misbehaving second grader to psychotic grown up, but it was so clear to me that day how the little things can build up. Right now, Marcus is a troubled kid; the way I treat him has real consequences.

And yes, I understand that I am only one influence in his life; that there are many factors determining his future and many of them are much more influential than I. Still, I’m one. And that’s a responsibility I take seriously.

This week after the shootings wasn’t much better with Marcus. But I am slowly learning what I need to do; slowly building my patience and learning good strategies. My end goal for Marcus is that he see himself as a valuable citizen; see himself as a positive force in the world. What I do each day needs to support that goal.