Teaching in the D

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 12 2011

Frights and Forwards

Talk about a roller coaster week (and it’s only Tuesday!). I went into the classroom on Monday feeling pretty confident – I had made a connection with my kids on Friday and they had been relatively well-behaved for me. Surely they’d behave pretty well from now on. Apparently no one told the kids.

From the moment they entered the hallway, it was like the first day of school all over again (except I know their names). We had to send the kids into the hall three times (and some of them four times) before we got them into their seats quietly. It was still a bit of a mess, but we let them start class anyway because we had a specially written text for them about the importance of respect. The kids in my reading group (we split up the class) seemed shocking receptive to the script and very reflective about how their disrespect on Friday probably caused some of the problems in my co-teacher’s class.

Unfortunately, once we got them back into the regular classroom (I pull my kids into a nearby vacant room for reading), they were wild again. Like, first-day wild. Finally, it was the last straw for me when a bunch of kids began complaining about how bad a fart smelled and ran out of the room. I demanded my students stay in the room, but they kept leaving in waves. It was like a wave of absentia that passed through my room.  The runaway kids clustered in the hallway, yelling. Finally, the smell hit me. That was definitely not a fart. It was painful. My eyes started watering as I began coughing. I opened the windows and assumed it would pass. A minute later, I quickly realized it wouldn’t. A staffer who had been observing my teaching (eeek!) confirmed that we needed to evacuate. I got the kids into a vacant classroom (the same one I used for my reading group) and attempted to hold class, despite the wheezing and general terror. The administration went to figure out what was going on in my room. Eventually, it was determined that one of my students had sprayed a canister of pepper spray into the room (not at a student or staffer, thank god). Police, fire, and paramedics were called and those with breathing difficulties were taken to a local hospital for treatment and monitoring. Those with breathing difficulties included myself (I’ve always been sensitive to particulate in the air and also gave a shouting lesson for an hour before I got tested) and seven students, at least two of whom were treated for conditions related to the incident. At least two other students were released to the care of their parents to seek treatment.

I have, needless to say, very mixed feelings about the entire incident (not to mention some sore lungs, which has mostly abated). On the smallest hand, I’m sort of terrified that this is what goes on a relatively well-run, effective, charter school with bright 13 and 14 year olds. What on earth goes on in remedial classes for high schoolers in Detroit? On a much larger hand, I feel terrible for the student who did it. The student isn’t a bad kid, not even one of the “bad ones” in my class. The spraying was clearly the equivalent of pulling the fire alarm to get out of class with no malice intended. But this student will now have a criminal record since pepper spray is an illegal weapon (especially for a minor!), and is considered a weapon brought to school, and other students were recklessly endangered.

Perhaps most powerfully, I feel intensely guilty. Not because I should have known this would happen – there was clearly no way that was possible. Instead, I feel wretched because the kids who are the best behaved, who stayed in the room when I told them to, are the ones I had to take to the hospital. The kids who don’t care what I do or say ran out of the room and were fine. The highest scoring student in my class wound up hooked up to a nebulizer in a computer lab because she couldn’t breathe (she has asthma, which made the exposure worse). Another student wound up with an allergic reaction all over his body because he was closest to the spray and stayed in the longest. TFA emphasizes these kids’ achievement is our responsibility. Somehow in all that focus on achievement and learning, I failed to internalize the somewhat overwhelming fact that I am also responsible for the health and safety of 24 children. I can’t help but think that I could have prevented some of the medical emergencies, including my CMA going into shock (which I haven’t mentioned since pulling him out of my makeshift room to be evaluated), if I had been thinking with my normal crisis management brain instead of my “teacher brain”.

I walked into my room today convinced that it would be a disaster. I still hadn’t decided whether or not I was going to talk with my kids about the incident directly (I had received conflicting advice). We got off to a rough start, having to skip our literacy block in exchange for getting them in the room in a quiet, orderly fashion. However, the kids then settled down. Not perfectly, of course, because they’re children and have gotten used to having their way. But we got through the material. For the first time, I was able to actually let them do the group activity I had planned instead of just fighting to get through the new material. We accomplished everything we needed to for that lesson (more or less, I did have other activities planned, but they weren’t all that important).

My co-teacher and I have decided we need to stay during each other’s classes to help out with behavior. My kids threw an actual fit. I know it makes me terrible, but I sort of love knowing that they like me better than my co-teacher even though she’s a better teacher. My co-teacher and I were a bit nervous about this new arrangement – both of us want the room to be our own during our hour-long block, and we don’t want our authority or decisions changed/overturned/destabilized/etc. However, it was brilliant. The ability to get down on my student’s level and speak quietly with them while they’re disrupting instruction (instead of having to address behavior publicly or wait til after class) was great for behavior and my relationships with the students. I watched several of my students warm up to me (several of them are already warm), and it was so empowering to see their transformation. In a moment I would never expect, I called the parents of one of my “too cool to care” students tonight to tell them he had been great after we spent 5 minutes talking in the hall about learning and how much his parents might appreciate a positive phone call about his behavior. I would never have gotten to do that if I hadn’t been in the room during that class.

3 Responses

  1. Pepper spray is nasty stuff. Glad to see you’re OK.

    Keep being positive! It will help you with everything and make the experience that much more rewarding.

    And I can’t wait to see you on Sunday!

  2. G rammy

    Honey, my heart aches for you. You have so much to offer, its just eighth graders aren’t wise enough to accept it. Hope things are more uphill for the remainder of this let of your journey.

  3. Kurt (Community Manager)

    Congratulations! Your post has been featured on the Teach For Us homepage. Check it out at http://teachforus.org/.

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One Girl's Teach for America Detroit Experience

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