Finding the Balance

Year: 2

Today is a Wednesday. We’re officially halfway through the week.

Within the last week, there have been seven fights in the high school of my district. In my school, there have been two or three fights. One student has been hit by a car. Two of my students have been sitting through in-school suspension. I’ve given four lunch detentions for behavioral disruptive. Generally, students have been highly fidgety, emotional, and disruptive.

Today is a Wednesday. We’re halfway through the week.

This is not normal for my school district, but if you were to spread out all of these incidents throughout a school year, this would not be normal for the average school district’s full year. I work in a district that is in an area of town with high poverty, high trauma, and all the cyclical symptoms of high poverty and trauma within families. This, of course, drastically affects students’ health and behavior.

One of the difficulties of teaching in a school like this is that, in addition to the normal difficulties of teaching generally, you’re confronted regularly with two problems: the problem of incessant worrying and the problem of normalizing. Last year, I had the problem of incessant worrying; I’d go home, thinking about the trauma my students held, feeling guilty about my safe apartment and my healthy diet and all the things I had that my students did not.

This year, I have the problem of normalizing all of these terrible traumas. I still worry about my students and still think about how I can help them, but I have stood close to some extraordinary pain. I have seen students wait for their mothers to be possibly deported. I have seen students under the stress of extreme poverty. I have a seen a student die. I am embedded in this world, this environment, every day, and I cannot help these students to the extent that I want to help them. I regularly have to remind myself, this year, that my students’ behavior is due to these terrible traumas. I have to remind myself that not every school would see this level of trauma in children.

It feels to me that these are two ends of the same spectrum. To worry constantly, and fixate on the pain my students endure, is to drain myself of the energy I need to function well on a daily basis. To normalize it is to dull the natural emotional reactions to witnessing such a trauma. I don’t know what the healthy balance is between these two ends. I don’t know where I should be in the spectrum, or how long it will take me to get there.

The Conversations We Have

Year: 2

My favorite part of teaching are the conversations.

Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the minute-by-minute monitoring of “are we going to complete this handout?” or “are we going to stay on schedule?” that I forget the conversations I have with my students are the best part of my job. So far, this week has been a reminder that I should be having more conversations.

Yesterday, I taught the essential question for Quarter 2. Every quarter, the classes follow an essential question – one big, open-ended question – that should be, hopefully, answered by the end of the quarter. This time, we’re asking the following: why is culture important? So much of my lessons yesterday were soaked up by conversations of students sharing about their cultures, asking questions about cultures with which they’re unfamiliar, wanting to know more about different holidays or traditions. It allowed for funny stories, students opening up about their personal lives, and a level of interest that carried me through each lesson.

Today, the tone was very different, even if the interest felt the same. I introduced the Holocaust and a brief understanding of World War II, so that tomorrow, when we begin reading the new class text, students will be prepared to read. This is a difficult lesson not only because of the content, but because, for many middle school students, this is the very first time they’re learning about the war or the genocide. I asked students at the start of every class to raise their hands if they’ve heard of the word ‘holocaust,’ and only about five or so raised a hand every class. It took a lot of emotional energy to be the first person to tell them what a concentration camp functioned as, or what the term Nazi truly means. Yet – despite that – at the end of every single class, a few students would hang around my desk, risking the possibility of a tardy to their next class, to ask me a few more questions about that time period.

The conversations I have with my students, especially ones like today’s and yesterday’s, are so impactful because they’re conversations about issues that matter. These conversations encourage real reflection and curiosity on the part of my students, and that is a sign that my students are growing into critically thinking young adults. Aside from the fact that it is so damn important to be a critically thinking adult, it just so impresses and inspires me to see kids like this so interested in difficult topics that matter in society. It reminds me of a something John Green said, after someone criticized his work for being too mature: “I’m tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren’t smart, that they can’t read critically, that they aren’t thoughtful.” Conversations like these in the classroom offer a safe opportunity for kids to explore difficult, complex, new ideas and issues in a way that encourages them to be more thoughtful of the world around them.

October: the month that lasts two years

Year: 2

It’s six in the morning, and as I’m making lunch for today, I’m listening to a Spanish playlist and wishing I were back in Chile. This week, I’m teaching an argumentative essay for the second time. I feel as though I’m moving through mud. It’s October, and I am feeling this month in every part of my day.

Writing anything about teaching during October, November, or December runs the risk of just being a string of tired (very tired) complaints. It is a very particularly difficult time of the school year because, as students get more comfortable and begin to act out, teachers are just wearing down their energy. We’re entering a part of the year when I have to become much more strict (I am already very strict) and I enjoy this job much less because of it.

My school’s fall break ended yesterday, and rather than feeling refreshed and ready to teach, I felt as though I were dragging myself through each class. After this week, the quarter should be much easier to get through, as writing lessons are typically less enjoyable for me than other lessons. The days following any break, but especially a break in the fall, are rough, and it will get better as I get back into the routine of teaching.  I’m trying to focus on that as I go into today. I probably sound like a broken record, having said this so many times, but self care is going to be even more important for me this week: to all the other teachers out there, I hope you’re taking care of yourselves, too.

Weekly Review: The Teacher Response

Year: 2

In the category of “sentences I never thought I’d have to say,” I say at least once of those sentences a day. I’m presenting them without context this week, because, really, you don’t need context.

Monday: “I don’t know what is on your face, but it is literally all over your face. Please go wash it off.” Five minutes later. “So, it’s all gone from your arms… but you decided to keep it on your face?”

Tuesday: “I don’t care what your reason is, put your shoe back on and focus on your work.”

Wednesday: curriculum day, with other teachers. So I said normal things today, because I was with adults.

Thursday: “How did you fall out of your chair without moving at all?”

Friday: “Please stop making bird sounds.”

On Being Mean

Year: 2

Some weeks in teaching seem to have themes of a sort. This week, I’ve been reminded multiple times of how mean kids can be to each other.

One of my students has been suspended for getting in a fight, and when I saw him in the front office, he told me that he was defending himself. Another kid limped past my classroom because someone shoved him into a basketball pole during lunch. Another student said something so terribly mean about one of his classmates that I had no choice but to send him up to the front office; and this kid, I’ve already had a very recent conversation about respect and being kind to others.

I heard once that everything a person does is an echo. If a person is behaving kindly, they are echoing the kindness that has been shown to them in the past. If a person is behaving unkindly, that person is echoing the pain that has been shown to them. I’ve always thought this to be a powerful analogy to explain general behavior: you react to the people around you, often unconsciously, and it is often a mirrored behavior.

Kids can be mean. It’s so easy to forget until you come into contact with that kind of malevolence. It feels like a kick to the gut, to me, when I see viciousness, like in the behavior I’ve seen done to my kids this week.  I’m never not bothered by it. Kids echo the behavior they see around them, and when they are shown pain, they throw pain back. It’s really difficult to be a witness to that process. As someone who spends their life trying to teach children, and care about them, you just want to protect them as best as you can, but there won’t always be an opportunity to do that.

I wonder if we’re doing something wrong, something that we could be teaching our young ones and aren’t, or if this is a natural part of human behavior that can’t be rerouted. We could teach kids to think about their actions and emotions more, teach kids to reflect more. I don’t really have an answer or opinion. I just can’t help but ask that question when I see a week like this.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the teaching of things, because that’s our job description, that it’s easy to forget that kids have so much to deal with only a daily basis. It is that same lesson I have learned, and will learn, again and again, in teaching: kids are just kids, and you should have compassion above all else.

 

October: Or, Mile 5 of the Marathon

Year: 2

Last year, when I first began teaching, I didn’t understand why everyone kept hinting at October like it was a monster lurking around the corner. August and September felt pretty considerably difficult to me already, so I didn’t understand how October could be much worse. After my first October, I understood why teachers spoke about October the way they did. It is the first truly difficult month of teaching.

October came, and cleared my head of all doubts.

It is the month that first tests your mental endurance as a teacher. You’ve finished two months of teaching, and you won’t get a full break to rest until the end of December; while the first two months may be overwhelming, you complete them quickly (and largely on adrenaline). I’ve been told this is the honeymoon period, when you’re still getting to know your students and you’re still mentally adjusting to the school year that it doesn’t quite feel like it’s really happening yet. That feeling vanishes in October. When October rolls around, you become unavoidably aware of how long there is before you’re able to take a break. Consider this mile 5 or 6 of a marathon that you’re running: you’re not tired yet, but you just finished the first few miles – which went by so smoothly and quickly that it didn’t even really feel like you’ve been running – and, although you’re not to the exhaustion phase yet, now you’re very aware of how many miles you have to run before you finish.

It is also around the time of the school year that you begin to see students feel comfortable in their classes. This means that you know your students better, which can be great, but it also means that your students feel comfortable enough to act out. So, at the same time that you’re beginning to understand the mental endurance you’ll need to reach even the halfway point of your year, you’re just now reaching the difficult stage of teaching.

This was my first week of October, and I felt the shift immediately. I spent the week pulling a student or two aside with every class of almost every day to discuss their behavior. Nothing terrible happened – it’s still been notably easier than last year, partly, I think, because my students this year are just a calmer bunch – but it felt like a more tiring week than what I’ve seen so far. I’ve had to micromanage just a little bit more. I’ve had to shift to be just a little more strict. In a job like this, when it requires such energy and such attention just to do the bare minimum, small shifts like this can feel significant.

Going into this year’s second quarter and some of the more difficult months of teaching, I’m making it a goal to focus on self-care. I’m meditating regularly, exercising several times a week and (hopefully) sticking to a serious training schedule, balancing my time with friends and my time with myself. It’s so shockingly easy to forget to take care of yourself as a teacher, and I don’t want to forget this year.