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My Precious Students (Labels included)

written Friday, 10/28/2005

Stupid kids

Oh how I long for the good ol’ days, when men were men, and kids were just “stupid.”

Of course the good ol’ days were pretty miserable for those stupid ones, but how great it must’ve been as a teacher. Am I wrong? Wouldn’t it have been so much easier to just write off a student as “stupid,” without having to question whether the child has a learning disability or fits in some other class of “special education?” Wasn’t it easier to never question whether your teaching style sufficiently stimulates every child’s individual learning style? Wasn’t life simpler before lesson plans were expected to accommodate visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile learners?

Okay, okay, I’ll stop complaining about all these stupid kids in my classes. This is part of the challenge that I signed up for. We’re four weeks into this shortened school year, and we have only two weeks left in the first grading period. Under normal circumstances, grading periods are nine weeks. So how many weeks in the period did we lose to Katrina? Some of my students wouldn’t be able to answer that simple math question – and that’s my dilemma. A majority of my kids are currently passing my pathetically-low grading curve, but too many are still barely scraping by, or, are outright failing. I’m trying to figure out which of the low performers may be learning disabled, which ones are misguided or unmotivated, which ones just need a little extra individual help, and which ones are just plain… umm, stupid.

When I was diagnosed back in college with ADD and dyslexia, I found those labels to be a refreshing replacement for the s-word. Finally I got a little understanding and sympathy from professors who would otherwise have issued me failing grades. Finally I was able to muster up the motivation to complete the make-up work required for a passing grade, rather than throw up my hands in defeat. My ongoing difficulty with reading keeps those old school-day frustrations fresh in my mind, and I’m sympathetic to all my students who struggle to grasp any academic subject. Furthermore, I know many of them are struggling with much weightier issues in their lives outside of school.

Unfortunately, with so little time left in the grading period, I’ve had to start deciding how thinly to spread my limited personal attention. I want to reach out to the ones who will accept my help and demonstrate some effort in return. Over the last couple weeks I’ve been looking up some of my students’ schedules, and talking to their other teachers. I’ve referred several to the on-site social worker and discussed a number of them with the head of Special Education. I’ve urged a few to come see me at lunch or after school to prove that they’re interested in digging their way out of a failing grade. I held one student after class, and asked him to tell me whether I should try to help him, or just give up and let him flunk. I was seriously willing to honor whichever option he requested. He vowed to come work with me during lunch next week. I hope he does, because he’s in a deep hole right now. However, there are a couple students who have shown no indication that they want or deserve my time. They do no more than occupy space in my class on the days when they choose to attend. In the unlikely event that they ever show any desire to work, they’re always welcome to participate in class. In the meantime though, they will fail my class, and I will continue to sleep just fine at night.

Butthead kids

It’s so hard to sympathize with the butthead kids, who talk incessantly throughout class, rob their classmates of learning time, and lack respect for my role as their teacher. I sent Bigmouth #3 to the discipline office again this week, where he got suspended for three days. It turns out he’s carrying the “Emotionally Disturbed” label too, just like another one of my primary troublemakers. Nonetheless, I’m not inclined to keep reaching out to them once my hand has been bitten two or three times.

I realize though, that the buttheads already command a disproportionate amount of my time in class. Why should they command any more time in my journal writings? As tempting as it is to vent, I feel I ought to spend a little time focusing on the kids that I like. Despite my gripes, most are really pretty cool. Believe it or not, there are some who I actually look forward to seeing every day.

Kids I like

It’s taken me a while to realize how much I enjoy teaching a few of the black girls in my second period class. They sit in the front right corner of my class. One has a sharp, demanding tone in her voice that initially sounded lacking of respect, but I’ve come to realize that’s just the way she talks. She’s one of my better students, and participates frequently (and respectfully) in class discussions. The other two don’t draw much attention to themselves, but they exhibit the following qualities which are scarce in my classroom: 1) They work hard, 2) They ask questions when they don’t understand the material, and 3) They don’t complain about the workload. One of them is the student who recently revealed that she’s pregnant. I hope her baby (due in March) doesn’t lead her to sacrifice her education. The third girl has been trying to help the Russian student who was added to my class last week. In a region of the country where race relations can be so strained, I appreciate any moments when I see a student rise above all that foolishness.

The international diversity of my second period class expanded even further when an Arabic girl joined the roster this week. Her English is very limited, and she had the misfortune of entering the class on the day of our first chapter test. I asked her to attempt the test, but assured her that I wouldn’t count the grade. She apparently didn’t understand. Halfway through she started crying when she couldn’t answer many of the questions. She seemed to have difficulty, even with the problems that required no English skills. Hopefully the rest of my English as a Second Language students will support her as much as they can during their common “resource” class (This is a period during which they receive extra help in all their mainstream subjects). That’s what I’ve liked about my mostly-Latino ESL students, whose homelands include the Honduras, Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico. They’re very close and helpful to each other. Of course that’s partly out of necessity, since most Bonnabel students don’t speak their language. Seeing students support each other academically, and not just socially, is a pleasant sight to see. Accordingly, most are doing quite well in my class. During a “Math Jeopardy” game we played as a review for the test this week, the ESL team handily beat the other two teams of English-speaking students. Hopefully they’ll empathize with the Russian and Arabic girls’ plights and extend their circle to be even bigger.

There’s a tall lanky white boy in my third period class who isn’t fond of math, and has difficulty with it, but he tries hard. After some students were laughing about my tendency to get covered in chalk dust by the end of each period, I jokingly remarked that any students are welcome to come in at lunch to help me clean my chalkboards. This student actually took me up on the offer. I think I must have offered bonus points for such a service. Regardless, I appreciate any student taking enough interest in his or her grade to come help with such menial tasks. Whether or not I really offered extra credit, I threw some points his way.

I’d been asking for the past week that one student be transferred out of my class. He’s one of my most polite and pleasant students, but there was no way I could justify giving him a passing grade. He’s quite slow, and try as he might, he’s not even able to perform single-digit addition. A glimpse at his homework indicates severe disability, and algebra is way over his head. He came in at lunch to clean my chalkboard right after the tall lanky kid left. At that time I asked him how he felt about the class, and whether he would prefer to be in a less challenging math class. He acknowledged that algebra was too much for him. The head of Special Education has been very helpful to me and receptive to my suggestions. It took rearranging the student's entire schedule, but she got him into a more appropriate class. I ran into his new teacher today, and she said he fits in very well.

One student who’s at risk of earning “butthead” status showed me some signs of hope this week. He’s one of the relatively-few transfers we’ve received from Orleans, and has mostly slept and talked back during class. Early this week his mouthing-off and liberal use of the ol’ N-word earned him a lunch detention with me. He defiantly claimed that he would not be joining me at lunchtime, because he already had a lunch detention with another teacher. I informed him that my invitation would cordially be rescheduled for the following day. Perhaps because he had come from the infamous 9th Ward, I took a different approach with him than I had used with other troublemakers. I asked him to tell me about his old school (ironically named “Lawless High School”), and life in the ghetto. He shared some of his hardships, the complete loss of his family’s home from Katrina, and difficulties of relocating to an unfamiliar neighborhood. Despite his earlier misbehavior, he then listened respectfully as I told him about my hopes for my students, and why I chose to get into the education field. I showed him some video of the computer models I helped make at Lockheed Martin, and told him about one of the programs I had worked on. What was intended to be a 10-minute detention turned into a 20-minute conversation. He behaved much better through the rest of the week. I suspect it will take continued individual attention, but I saw some promise that he might actually be receptive to learning something in my class.

Another student who had caused me some concern showed signs of motivation. The “moody and emotional” girl who I mentioned last week mentioned that her 28-year-old brother has about one week to live, and her stepmother is also seriously ill. The stepmother, who is a math teacher, has apparently scolded this girl to focus on her studies. She now claims that she’s ready to work, and came in at lunch today to receive some make-up assignments. I was quite nervous that I was breaking my rule about never being alone with a student, and especially this student. I need to find a more public place to meet with students at lunch, or at least get some assurance from other teachers and administrators that I’m not being too careless. Many other teachers have students in their class at lunchtime, but most of those teachers are female and/or significantly older than I am. I was just glad to see this one girl finally demonstrate interest in her education. I can only hope that she keeps it up.

What I was looking for

For now, at this time in my life, this is the type of experience I was looking for. I heard a rumor that the school district is inclined not to lay off any teachers. My fingers are tightly crossed. With each week that goes by, I’m becoming more attached to this role. I can’t claim to love it yet, nor can I predict how long I’ll want to stay here, but for now it’s definitely the right place for me to be. I belong right here amongst all the likeable kids, the buttheads, and even the stupid ones.