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.

Being the Better Person

Think about the best teachers you’ve known. Maybe they were your teachers when you were in school, maybe you have known them since becoming an adult. My guess is the person you pictured acts like a human Buddha: fairly laid-back (in personality, not teaching style), rarely offended by any comment or situation, friendly, and above all else, compassionate.

Now, that person may have had the foundations for that personality, but I’m pretty convinced teaching played a role in making them the person you know. Throughout my first year of teaching, I became very aware of something incredibly important, something that I’d heard few people discuss. Being a teacher is basically a practice in being the better person.

Kid throws a poster board at you? Be the better person. Kid calls you ugly to your face, or says you walk like a penguin? Be the better person. Kid walks out of your room screaming – in late March – that he’s going to get his schedule changed so he doesn’t ever have to see your stupid face again? Be the better person.

If I have to guess, very conservatively, I’d say there’s one time every day or two when I really have to work at being the better person. Kids are tough to be around sometimes; humans are tough to be around sometimes. They say mean things, and you’re supposed to care about them anyway. They insult you, or disrespect you, or defy you, and you’re supposed to do your best to teach them anyway. You always, without exception, need to be the better person.

There have been times that I definitely was not the better person. I am a human, like all other teachers, and I have definitely lost my cool. One very painful example is from last year, with one of my boys. This kid was very difficult to teach: he’d suffered extreme abuse before entering into the school year, probably had undiagnosed PTSD, and was bouncing from home to home until summer break. These traumas outside of the classroom led to terrible behavior in the classroom.

At one point in the year, he told me that he wanted to be my student aide when he moved to eighth grade. I jumped on that idea; taking him to the front office after class, I asked for an impromptu meeting with the assistant principal and the guidance counselor, pitched the idea, and basically spent a half hour rooting for him. We set up a goal: he change negative behavior and start trying more in class, and we’ll let him be a student aide, even if it was past the deadline.

He was horrible in class the next day. I mean, really, really horrible. He refused to do work, talked over me while I spoke to the entire class, talked to and bothered all students around him, threw pencils, the works. I held him back after class. As soon as the last student left my room, I turned to him, bitterly angry, and said, “Everything you just did in the last 75 minutes was bullshit.” 

Yeah, I swore at a kid. I then proceeded to yell at him, guilt him, and let him know how disappointed I was for 5-10 minutes before letting him leave. He sat on a chair near my desk, throughout all of this, quietly staring at his feet.

Now, some people might say he needed some tough love. (They are probably not teachers.) I say that could have been taken down at least five notches and the time cut in half. What my student really needed to hear was this: I’m disappointed with how you acted, especially after we just set up this great goal to work towards, and we’re going to continue working towards that goal even though I’m disappointed because I believe in you. I doubt that was the message sent. When I think about that interaction, a painful truth floats to the surface every time. I was bested by a twelve-year-old. I let my emotions run wild because a preteen, who was dealing with extreme trauma and dangerous levels of stress, behaved poorly in my class. I – I, personally, – felt hurt that he didn’t behave well after I vouched for him. Despite the fact that he was hurting deeply and would not be magically healed from one 30-minute conversation with an assistant principal, counselor, and teacher.

I should have been the better person. It’s not the only time I should have been the better person, but it is definitely the most painful memory like that. Learning to be even a decent teacher means learning from moments like that. It means that you need to learn to not take anything personally, to be patient and compassionate before angry and insulted. It is a terribly difficult skill to learn, and it is one you are expected to have immediately. But if you do learn that skill – one that you practice nearly every day in this profession – I think you just might become that better person.

The Report

Year: 1

My first mandatory report came sometime in early October. As my students for my fifth period class walked into class to take their seats, one of my students, Elizabeth, walked by looking as if she were crying. When I settled everyone down and ensured they were quietly working, I took Elizabeth off to the side and asked her what was wrong.

It’s always a bit of a coin toss when you ask a middle school student what’s wrong: either something is really wrong, or something on the “middle school” level of pain (breakup, friend troubles, etc.) is happening. When I pulled Elizabeth aside, I realized it was serious.

“I’m just worried about Bella,” she said, another girl in her class. I glanced over at Bella, who was writing down her homework for the day. “She told me something bad before we came into class.”

I was on high alert. I’d heard enough stories, had enough conversations with students and colleagues, to race ahead to the worst possible conclusions. I tried to speak calmly while I explained to Elizabeth that I could only help Bella if she told me what Bella told her; a delicate balance, to try and persuade a young student to betray her friend’s loyalty to a teacher. Elizabeth told me that Bella had begun cutting herself again, explaining that it hadn’t happened for some time but that she had restarted the practice last night.

I thanked Elizabeth for her honesty and sent her back to her desk, silently frantic about how to proceed next. I couldn’t let Bella leave my classroom and go home, on the chance that she hurt herself again, but I couldn’t bank on the possibility that a principal would be in the front office when the bell rang.

This class was my largest, worst-behaved class, always a bit rowdier because it was in the afternoons when students were ready to go home. I went to the librarian and asked her quietly if she could cover my class while I took a student to the front office, and she agreed. After the class began working on the assignment, I called Bella over to me, thanked the librarian again, and took Bella to the front office. We went to the front desk and were taken into my principal’s office to wait for him.

It was a painful few seconds of silence. Bella clearly knew why we were here, after having seen me talk to Elizabeth and then quickly taken her to the front office. She didn’t speak, looking at the desk in front of her. I didn’t know how to communicate to her how concerned I was; I didn’t know if it was professionally appropriate to tell her that, while in school, I had friends who had suffered with depression and self-harm. While we waited for the principal to arrive, I spoke to her quietly, trying to convey how much I cared about her and that she was not in trouble. 

My principal began asking questions as soon as he arrived. He made it clear that Bella wasn’t in trouble, like I had, and told her that we just wanted to make sure she was safe. Through that conversation, we learned that her mother was currently detained in a jail a few towns away from us. Her mother and stepfather had been driving, and were pulled over by the police; although her mom wasn’t driving, she was asked for identification and, having none, the officer eventually learned that she was an illegal immigrant. She was being held in the jail to learn whether she was going to be deported. Bella, in the meantime, was living with her stepfather. She and her stepfather, at that time, had only known each other for a few months.

I remember keeping Bella in class after the bell rang, sometime in late spring, to talk to her about focusing on schoolwork while in class. At the end of the conversation, I asked how her mother was doing, and she told me that her mother hadn’t yet been deported but was still in jail. In 7th grade, when kids should be worried about fitting in and figuring out who they are, Bella spent the school year worried that her mother was going to be deported and taken away from her.

How do you respond to a twelve-year-old who tells you she hasn’t seen her mom in over seven months because she may be deported?

This may not be the average 7th grade experience, but it is not an entirely unique one. Add other traumatic experiences – death of a family member, abuse, neglect – and the list of students goes up substantially. I never felt prepared for situations like these during my first year. Throughout the year, I became better at handling the situations in the moment and better at processing them outside of work, but I never became better at conveying to my friends and family what it was like to deal with that (or worry about that) regularly in my work.