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written Saturday, 11/19/2005
The last few weeks were rough, and I was struggling to keep the tone of my journal entries from becoming too depressed. Nonetheless, my plan for this week was merely to survive without a crushed morale. The overall student behavior has steadily gotten worse in my classes, and my attempts to rectify the problems have failed. At the beginning of the school year I declared that my “teacher persona” would be built on professionalism and respect, but many of the students haven’t responded to my approach. Monday didn’t yield much promise for improvement, but on Tuesday I experienced an unexpected breakthrough. I inadvertently adopted a new persona. The students’ response gave me hope and lifted my spirits through the rest of the week.
They just keep coming
Since the reopening of Bonnabel High School, we’ve lost two Physical Science teachers. A few weeks ago, one of the other Algebra teachers, Mrs. McCullough, volunteered to fill one of the vacancies. Her switch decreased our team of math teachers by one, and theoretically increased my chances of surviving the looming layoffs and transfers (more on that later). A new grading period began on Monday, and her students were distributed amongst all the remaining Algebra classes. Ten were added to my fifth period class, which brought all three of my class rosters up to 24 students each. Most public schoolteachers would envy the moderate sizes of my classes, so I can’t complain about the numbers, per se. However, fifth period has become more rambunctious in recent weeks, and I dreaded the possible effects of adding new faces and personalities to the mix.
Upon starting this week, I intended to further implement the suggestions made last Thursday by Bonnie, my TGNO Cohort leader. I had a hard time developing a clear vision of exactly how her good ideas would fit into my classroom. I accepted that some trial and error would be necessary. I’d do my best to hide my inexperience and confusion during the experimentation.
Monday was my third day of covering the Distributive Property (which states that a(b+c) = ab + ac). The textbook says this topic should only take one day to teach. Bonnie was right – I’ve been letting student sluggishness drag down the pace of my lessons. Therefore, I set an ambitious schedule that included a Chapter Test on Thursday. I had to wrap up this lesson on Monday. Singling out the students for questions did seem to keep a few more of them semi-engaged, but the discipline problems persisted in 3rd and 5th periods (2nd period, with all the ESL students, remains my relatively calm class). Conversation and clowning typically pour from the hallways into my room, and I’ve never felt able to completely subdue it. By the end of Monday, I still hadn’t gotten through everything I wanted to teach about the Distributive Property, but I needed to move on.
The latest scare
Tuesday morning, another Times Picayune article ignited the latest buzz among the faculty. Apparently, even if I don’t get laid off, I may very well get transferred to another school. The article starts off:
As usual, I didn’t know what to make of the latest scare. Bonnabel started back in August with 1800 students. Only 725 returned for the October 3 reopening, but I hear that we’re now up to 1100. Where does that all fit into the district’s grand scheme? I have no clue.
I tell people that I’ve gotten off the emotional rollercoaster, and stopped worrying about every sensationalist bit of employment news. Whatever happens happens. Some colleagues have claimed similar philosophies, but I think this latest story tipped a few teachers over the edge. By the end of the day, I knew of at least three teachers who had lost their tempers in class. Surprisingly, one of our school’s nicest, most mild-mannered teachers even lost his cool…
An alarm goes off (literally and figuratively)
A short recap: Two of my classes are out of control. My 5th period roster has just grown by 10 students. I’m wondering how to implement some positive changes in my class. I’m running short on time in preparing my students for the next test. The school district has just implied that many of us will soon lose our jobs or be transferred.
So, backing up to Tuesday morning, I had just finished rushing through Chapter 2 during my easygoing 2nd period. This was my last day to introduce new material, since I had a test review scheduled for the next day. Enter wild 3rd period. As I struggled to force-feed knowledge to students who weren’t hungry for it, the fire alarm went off at this most-inconvenient time. These hyperactive nutcases, 1/3 of whom are classified as Special-Ed students, leapt up and raucously streamed out into the parking lot to socialize with friends. Eventually one of the deans called an end to the fire drill and directed us all back to our rooms. My rowdy students had gotten even rowdier during the distraction, and I had lost about 10 minutes of instruction time. As I stood there amongst these heathens – a classroom succumbed to chaos – a second alarm went off in my head.
The tropical storm season officially ends in two weeks, but one more major storm was brewing. Hurricane Jerome was about to hit Bonnabel High School, with the eye centered right over room 111.
The New Mr. White
“PICK THAT UP RIGHT NOW!”
“SPIT THAT GUM OUT IMMEDIATELY!”
“LUNCH DETENTION! 5 MINUTES! (protest from student) 10 MINUTES! (more protesting) 15 MINUTES! (the protest stops)”
After 6+ weeks of trying to model respect and professionalism, the old Mr. White lost his cool. The old Mr. White, who once wrote that he could never pull off the “drill sergeant” persona in his classroom, found a new level of fury and meanness that he never knew existed within him.
“I WILL KEEP THIS WHOLE DAMN CLASS IN HERE FOR LUNCH DETENTION IF I HAVE TO!”
The room went silent, except for a few startled mumblings about my minor cursing. Oops. Even I was caught off-guard by some the words flowing out of my mouth. Did I just cross the line? Do I need to backpedal and apologize for my outburst?
Lemme see where this new path leads me.
The initial surge of anger subsided a bit. Every single student, for the first time that I can remember, was attentively facing forward without uttering a word. The unfamiliar occurrence of absolute silence was a bit distracting. I paused to regain my focus, took a deep breath, and proceeded to bark out orders.
I resumed my lesson, but the yelling didn’t stop. I slammed down my book and clipboard throughout the remainder of the period. The sound of chalk clashing noisily against the chalkboard while I wrote reminded everyone that the new Mr. White was on the edge. I didn’t finish the lesson, but I gave them the full homework assignment anyway. “Learn it from the book,” I commanded, “since you weren’t willing to let me teach it to you.” From this point on, I would no longer let student sluggishness slow down my lessons. If students choose not to pay attention, I will not stop for them. “No Child Left Behind? Huh! I will leave you behind in this class!”
Something in the air?
Next door, Mr. Ruth also lost his temper later during his 3rd period class of Special Education students. We could clearly hear him cussing out one of his bad apples out in the hallway. Part of me enjoyed the timing. My students were clearly startled, but still too stunned from my tirade to gossip about Mr. Ruth. Have all the teachers in this building gone crazy?
I kept three students in for lunch detention and handed out two behavior reports (which need to be signed by a parent and returned to me).
My rampage continued in 5th period. I posted myself by the door at the start of the period. Eating, drinking, and socializing were not allowed into the room. “GET OUT AND COME BACK IN PROPERLY!” The new Mr. White swiftly wrestled the power away from that class too.
I spoke with another teacher after school, who commented that she chewed out one of her troublemakers earlier in the day. Were all these tantrums a coincidence? Was the latest job news proving to be the last straw for some of us? I don’t know, but in my view, the combination of bad news and a disruptive fire alarm turned out to do me a huge favor. I finally was gaining control of my classes, and it felt goooooood!
Usually I start off my classes with brainteasers three times a week. For the next two days though, 3rd and 5th periods were greeted with a new sign on the overhead projector, directing them to act appropriately or leave. I explained to them that one of my classes still gets the old, nice Mr. White, but two classes will continue to get the new, mean Mr. White. I apologized to the students in those classes who have never given me any problems, but stated that the old Mr. White will not return until their rowdier classmates learn to demonstrate respect and good behavior. Maybe I can get peer pressure to work in my favor.
Once the shock wears off, will the students gradually slip back to their old rowdy ways? I don’t intend to let that happen. I’ve never stopped praising their correct answers and good work, and will still treat them with respect when they’re behaving well. However, I will not hesitate to get ugly, and issue lunch detentions and behavior reports when they let me down. Hopefully, even the knuckleheads will get tired of me barking in their faces.
Thankfully, my non-disruptive students seem to understand that they are not in trouble with me. They still greet me in the hallways and voluntarily participate in class. In fact, I get the sense that some students are grateful that I’ve finally gained control. One student even stayed after 3rd period and offered a handshake, commenting, “Man, those kids are wild.” Another asked to stick around during lunchtime on Friday, and I gave him an origami lesson.
Thankfully, I hold no hard feelings against any of my students. I honestly don’t dislike any of them. As individuals, I enjoy their personalities and spirit, but many need to learn suitable behavior for the classroom. Yesterday, on the eve of our weeklong Thanksgiving holidays, I told all my classes that I am thankful for them and proud to see them learning. (I did have to order a few of them to shut up and listen while I delivered my positive message!) I still care very much about advancing their educations, and I think most of them know that.
On the journey to become the kind of teacher I ultimately want to be, I’ve inadvertently taken a detour. I see veteran teachers at Bonnabel control their classrooms without resorting to yelling, so I know it can be done. Someday, with a little more maturity and experience, I’ll get there. Someday I’ll be able to focus more on bringing fun into my lessons and sharing my enjoyment of secondary math. Until then, the new Mr. White is in charge.