Friday, February 18, 2011

Interesting Insight

So it's been an interesting week.  I recently found out at least 100 positions could possibly be cut at my campus because of the state's budget shortfall.  It's like one huge campus-wide freak out.  And rightfully so.

In contrast to this, I've had one of the most productive weeks of my entire teaching career-- teaching my kids to think critically and to express themselves intelligently on paper, many of them for the first time in their lives.  It's been an exhausting task, but after much whining and complaining and so many "Miiiiissssssssss, I don't getttttt iiiiitttt"'s, I can confidently say, things are looking up.  These kids are starting to sound like pros on paper.   As tenth graders.  Even my "special ed" kids.  And that makes me PROUD.

But today I had an interesting interaction with a student.  We'll call him Tony.  From the beginning of the year, I knew he was going to be one of my rambunctious, challenging students.  AND he just happened to be in one of my largest classes that contained the most "special ed" students, whom I love dearly but notoriously take a little bit more energy to wrangle, to keep from bouncing off the walls, and to encourage to focus on the task at hand.  Tony by NO means was special ed, but his behavior fit right in with the crowd.  However, his abilities are off the chart.  He's an excellent writer and really has some great thoughts when he can be coerced to express them.

At the beginning of the school year, I called his dad and set up a parent conference, just to nip in the bud any bad behaviors that might have been becoming a norm for Tony.  We met before school.  I talked with dad, while Tony, with his head down, didn't say much except my class was "boring" and then he glared at his dad for even attempting to correct him.  I was sixteen not that long ago.  I remember what that felt like.  I didn't completely fault him for it.  Things looked a little better in the classroom for a while.  While I still had to redirect him every once in a while, after I separated him from his friends who distracted him, he generally got his work done.  No, he didn't participate in class discussions, but he wasn't causing a distraction, and he WAS getting his work done.  I didn't push for more.

But today things came to a head.  I knew right off the bat, something had changed.  He came straight into the classroom, sat down and got to work without me asking or prompting him at all.  This was not the norm.  When I asked him about some missing work though, he got upset and told me  he had turned it in and that I had lost his paper.

I've been teaching for five years now.  I have yet to lose one paper.  However, I have made my share of grading mistakes, and I am the FIRST to admit it to my kids and make the appropriate grade changes. 

So I told him that I had not received his paper, and if he had in fact done the work, he must have forgotten to turn it in, as many of my students do on occasion.  I also pointed out that there was a stack of his papers stashed in his desk that were not supposed to be there, but in his binder.  His lack of organizational skills could have impacted his ability to turn his assignment in on time.  I asked him to check the stack of papers and then to put those papers in his notebook in their proper places.  He grumbled, but didn't say much.

About twenty minutes before the end of class, he walked up to my desk and handed me the missing work, which he had just redone apparently.  He said, "Here's my paper.  AGAIN.  Because you LOST the first one."

I responded, "Tony, I understand your frustration, but I did not lose your paper."  And then he started muttering things under his breath.  I heard "f---ing bitch" about three times.  So calmly, in a voice only he could hear, I responded, "Tony, if you have something to say, I'm sure it's worth saying out loud."  Again, he mumbled the F word about three times.  Then he proceeded to the back of the classroom, stormed out, and slammed the door behind him.

I was surprisingly calm.  Normally, when students exhibit this kind of behavior, teachers (at the very least) write them up.  This would ensure he spends at least a day or two in ISS.  But as I was standing in his wake of furiously storming out of the room, I took a minute to contemplate what had just unfolded.

I didn't write him up.

It was clear to me when he walked into the room that day, something was different.  Someone had gotten to him before he came to my class-- maybe his dad or another teacher.  I could tell.  He walked in with his head down and immediately got to work.  This wasn't normal.  So when he got frustrated and went off, I knew it wouldn't be productive to continue the conflict by writing him up.  And here's why.

When I see him again the next time in class, I'll smile, snicker a little, and say, Hey Tony, having a better day today?  And I'll tell him how great I think his writing has been lately. And he'll look down and hide his face, so I don't see the smile he's cracking (like he always does).  But I'll see it.  And he'll try to pretend he's not going to do the work, but then he'll get it done.  And I'll know I've done the right thing by our relationship.

It's not always about protocol.  Sometimes it's about doing what works.  And that was the lesson this teacher learned today.