Teaching in an inner-city school can be heart-wrenching, as many of my colleagues can verify. This year, my second, the students at my school seem so much more disengaged. Their behavior is atrocious. I advocate constantly for my earnest students, but the bad actors take up all the air in the room.
Every TFA video on classroom management shows a teacher in a charter school where the kids are compliant and on task. If one kid’s eyes wander for a second, the teacher redirects and the kid complies. Just once I’d like to see a TFA example video where fully 20 percent of the class is bent on throwing paper, talking among themselves, and generally misbehaving. I’d like to see the teacher in the video’s strategy for correcting one student, only to have five or six others doing the same thing across the room. I’d love to see the teacher struggle to merely get through writing the referral to send an argumentative, hostile, belligerent student to the office with three others coming to their friend’s defense and harassing you while you are trying to get the first student’s ID number copied down on the form. And I’d like to see the teacher reach the day’s learning objective after 15 minutes of lost class time writing up students.
I’d like to see the video show what to do when the kids who you just wrote up decide to wander around the school instead of going to the office. The video should show how to resolve the problem of a student who goes out into a downpour and returns to class soaking wet as if they had jumped in a river–who says, “Hey look at me, I’m a wetback!” (The offending student is Mexican, as are 97 percent of the students.) Then the video should show me what to do when the office sends that same student back to the class, soaking wet, without so much as a phone call home.
The TFA classroom management should show you how to deal with six to eight really determined bad actors in a class of thirty. Narration doesn’t work. Class points don’t work. You can’t instill a vision in children who have absolutely no connection to anything else in the world. They don’t respect their parents. They don’t fear authority figures like the police. In one class, I have had to write two or three referrals a day for the same group of about six kids. Right now, the only thing I can imagine that might work is sending them to a Guantanamo-like gulag where every single aspect of their lives could be actually controlled. Yes, they’re that bad. It tears me up.
Yet, in the midst of this, you’ll find one kid who is somehow finding a new path. Out of over 100 students, I have one boy who was in my remedial reading class in the second semester of last year. Every day with him involved a ritual. He’d come to class with bags full of chips in his pockets or some money he got from his grandmother. He’d flash the money around. He’d open up a bag of chips and start eating. I’d take the chips and redirect. By the time I got back to the lesson, he had the second bag out, eating them. There were always three or four bags. Then he’d tease others or cut up in class, always drawing the spotlight to himself. It was impossible to teach with him in the class. Sending him to the office didn’t help. Giving him Saturday school didn’t help. Talking to his family didn’t help. He lived in foster care with a person who volunteered at the school. Those conversations simply didn’t yield any solutions.
Eventually, we came to an agreement. I told the kid, “Look, I can’t force you to learn. If you’ll just be quiet and not disrupt the class, you can do whatever you want. You can draw. You can sleep. I don’t care. You just have to shut up and be quiet.”
“I don’t have to work?” he asked.
“Not unless you want to,” I replied.
A couple of weeks went by. Sometimes he was missing because other teachers suspended him or put him in ISS (in-school suspension). Every day, I’d give him the assignments and he’d simply ignore them, testing me to see if I’d break my agreement. I didn’t. Eventually he got kind of tired of loafing. He’d do a little bit of work, but never finish anything that would get him a grade. He’d read along with part of the text we were working on each day, but he’d rarely participate or contribute. One day he asked if he could go outside and sit. I was wary. He said, “I’ll do my work.” Thus, I took a leap of faith and let him go. At the end of the period, he brought me some work. The kid sat out on the sidewalk in front of the portable building where my class was and did the work.
He was so far behind and missing so many assignments–and even then the work he turned in wasn’t good quality–but it was something. He ended the year with a skin-of-the-teeth “D” for a grade. He moved up to 7th grade and ended up in my class again this year.
The curious thing was, when I gave him a reading diagnostic, it showed that his reading level had increased by almost two full years in the one semester he was with me. When he started the same shenanigans this year, I simply renewed our agreement. Now, since my class is inside the main school building, he asks if he can go sit in the hall. He takes his book, does his independent reading, and writes a decent journal entry. He does the assigned reading in class and does exit tickets. Yesterday he turned in a five-paragraph essay on the Titanic and got a 90 on it. Incredible.
I feel like that Bible parable about leaving the 99 sheep to go find the lost one. The difference is that I have almost 99 lost sheep to begin with and it’s frustrating to only be able to reach one of them. I have resolved; however, to write a letter for this one student at the end of this year. When I leave TFA and this school to go on to other ventures, I’m going to give this kid a letter to take to future teachers, telling them exactly how he works and how they need to work with him. He needs space. He needs to work alone. He needs to be able to move around and work at his own pace. In class, he might not ever be a straight-A student, but he’s learning. His end of year state test last spring placed him solidly in the “Proficient” category. When he came to me, he was in the “Unsatisfactory” or “Far Below Standard” category. What was my strategy that worked with this one kid? I gave up! It doesn’t make any sense.
Maybe I should give up on the rest of them. (Just joking!)