Saturday, March 05, 2011

Guilt Trip

One of the reasons I originally pursued teaching - and went for the upper grades of the elementary/middle school spectrum, is that I've always felt like I'd be able to relate to kids. I have very specific memories of my life as a kid in school - and when I was younger, I truly believed I'd never forget what it felt like to sit in those little desks myself.

So, I tell stories when I first meet a class. I try to "connect" immediately - to get those kids invested into me, and hope that that will lead to them not trying to take advantage of me as a substitute. Most of the time it works, at least to some extent. At least they end up having specific ways of remembering me when I return ("You are the one with the twin, right?" "You have that funny dog" "Your son was so sick he was in the hospital and you had to watch something funny together to get him to laugh so that he'd cough more").

This happened on Friday when I returned to a sixth grade class that I'd had once before. The first time I was there, I was called late in the morning, the teacher had not anticipated her absence, and I left the school with a migraine so bad (at the end of the day, I did make it through), that I ended up on the couch with two icepacks for the rest of that evening.

In light of that earlier experience, and in light of the knowledge that the reason for the teacher's absence was that her father had just died - I employed another technique I'm known to use....GUILT. For the first half of the day, it wasn't really necessary - the kids were generally great and very sympathetic towards their original teacher, passing around a handmade card to have each class member sign. (I had to question their grasp of the situation, though - as over half the class wrote "Get better soon" on the card....maybe she had also been sick earlier in the week, but I think they missed the concept!) HOWEVER, the second block - which was reduced in number by a third - as all of the "responsible" kids had earned a field trip that afternoon - was another story all together. They wanted to goof off - and engage me with all sorts of questions, and then let it devolve into shout-outs in response. When it got to the point of being out of hand, I dived into my tirade:

"I just can't believe you guys, and your total lack of respect and thoughtfulness towards your teacher. How do you think she's going to feel when she returns, grieving the loss of her father, to find my report on you guys, noting how disrespectful you have been. Do you think that's what she needs right now? How would you feel? Not only was the first block able to get through this assignment without resorting to four year old behavior, but they also managed to create a beautiful card for her - hoping to make her feel better with their sympathy - and what you are giving her is a list of your bad behaviors. I feel really sad for you guys...."

You know what, it worked. I got lots of "we're sorries", "we should have been better". And, I'm so hoping it will inspire those kiddos to an extra dose of sensitivity when she returns.

I first really employed this art when I was student teaching. I was assigned to a class of "hoodlums". I am not exaggerating when I say this. My "star student - Martha" was arrested during one of the weekend town festivals for pulling a gun on someone (she was 12). The class was supposed to be a 6th-7th grade mix, but most of their ages were a least a year older due to them being held back in year's past. Thirteen of the kids in that class were "ESL - English as a second language" - and many of them had IEP's (Individualized Education Plans) - meaning they had some sort of disability. The majority of the class were either Hispanic, or "Old Believer Russian" - from a community that had settled nearby of that culture.

To this day, I have no idea why we, as aspiring teachers, were assigned to this school. I guess it was a trial by fire, but really, you just wonder if they were trying to cut the class in half by greatly discouraging the student teachers. It was awful. The first day I was introduced, and was given the opportunity to take over one of the subjects, a small 6th grader named Eduardo (with a HUGE attitude), stood up and said in his very Spanish accent - "Miss Alexander (maiden name) we're gonna make you cry!" I went for the Oscar performance at that point, by responding immediately that they may cause that to happen, but they'll never see it occur in class. And, they never did. Not while I was student teaching, anyway. The majority of the class ended up falling in love with me - culminating in a victorious day at the end when we took them all ice skating and they all took turns (boys and girls) holding my hand as we skated around the ice. I ended up getting my ultimate revenge on Eduardo by letting go of his hand at a pivotal moment and sending him careening toward the wall.....of course, he wasn't hurt - but it was a feel-good victory for me!

So, when I became certified officially a few weeks later, I agreed to drive the hour and twenty minutes to substitute for that class when planned ahead. And, after a few occasions of doing that, I ended up pulling the class into a circle after lunch - and cried in front of them, I honestly couldn't help it. I relayed to them how they had threatened me in the beginning, but I held my ground. How we had established special relationships, and because of that, I was willing to drive all the way up to take care of them for a day. But, they completely took advantage of me - and it hurt my feelings - and I let them know it. It was sad - and I never returned again. I think it made a point in their hardened little hearts to know that their actions really can have that big of consequences.

A few years later, after subbing (by choice) all over my hometown district, I was offered a maternity leave for a sixth grade class in the middle school where I had gone when I was a kid. It was, and still is, the best class I've ever had - a dream group of kiddos. It turned into a lovefest for us all, and we all wished the original teacher would adore her brand new baby so much, she'd opt to never come back. She did, though, and very sadly I had to say good-bye to those incredible kids. Luckily, it was relatively short lived, as I got a call two weeks later to come back to the school to cover a medical leave for the math teacher I'd had when I was there.

When I arrived in the classroom, I read two week's worth of sub reports from various teachers who'd been called in at last minute when Mr. Fraley had to leave due to his health. They were scary reports - apparently Mr. Fraley's class load was not pretty.

While Mr. Fraley wasn't an all-time fave of mine as a student, he was a very nice guy and a teacher I respected. So, when I came in to face off against the classes of delinquent low-level math students, I decided to bring in the arsenal - as clearly the other subs had not left victorious. I went for the jugular by telling them from the start that their behavior led to Mr. Fraley's absence - as it was due to sky-rocketing blood pressure that he had to leave. I'm not ashamed to tell you that, for the worst class, I might have said something to the effect of, "Do you guys realize that you were on the path of killing this man? MY former teacher!"

I stayed with that assignment from January through the end of the school year - which led to me becoming employed at that school the following year until I left a couple years later after having Brayden. Those five months were among the hardest of John and I's marriage. John's car stereo business was crumbling and failing, I had to deal with some rough health issues, my twin sister had a miscarriage - and the stress of that class was quite a load. I do think the guilt trip lecture from the start helped me out - as I did make it through - but not without being called some choice names, writing numerous referrals, and even "accidentally" being stabbed in the hand by a flying pencil.

In the world of teaching, there's no cut and dry answers, and each student and class are uniquely different. I decided long ago that teaching skills of empathy, respect, and character are much more valuable than any lesson on the Pythagorean Theorem or what osmosis is. So, sometimes I don't play fair - and sometimes it's worth it in the long run.

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