Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Here's What I'm Dealing With. . .

My students have many, many obstacles in their way. Most of them live in substandard housing. Most have been educated in substandard schools, so they don't have the necessary academic skills to aid in their success. And most have family lives that are unstable.

But there is another obstacle that I think is a huge detriment to their lives. They have no idea how to handle conflict. Their lives are riddled with conflict, and they respond in the least positive manner possible.

I have thought for a while now that if I had really wanted to be a successful teacher in CPS, I should have gotten a master's degree in social work instead of one in secondary education. I think every teacher in an urban district should have to have a social work background. We deal with so many issues that have nothing to do with the curriculum, but they take over everything else in the classroom. At least with that kind of training, perhaps some good could be accomplished.

Two incidents today reminded me of this need for conflict management skills. Both incidents happened during the same class period. It was, as usual, a long day.

My fifth period class is definitely my best class on my new schedule. It's a junior class, and there was a science teacher covering that class for five weeks. The teacher actually gave the students meaningful work to do and so the class was not just chaos for the first few weeks of the year. When I got them, they were glad to have a real teacher.

We were supposed to go to the computer lab today, but there was a mix up in the scheduling, so we had to go back to my classroom. As I had not prepared a day's lesson (I really should know better than that -- that's another issue), I was scrambling to find something for my kids to work on.

I'm sitting at my desk taking attendance on my computer. Suddenly these two girls in my class, Ebony and Ashley, start yelling and screaming at each other. Ebony was my student last year, and I know she can be quick to fly off the handle. She was suspended for fighting several times last year. But she's a good girl, and she had talked to me about how she wants to work hard this year, get good grades, and not get into so many fights.

Ashley I don't know well, but she seems like a nice girl. This was one of the first times I had heard her say much. She usually just sits at her desk and does her work. I should mention that Ashley is eight months pregnant.

So these two continue to scream and shout and curse at each other. I'm yelling at them to stop. It looks as if they are going to start fighting. I have a policy of not breaking up fights, because I have seen too many teachers get punched or knocked over, and I just don't think it's worth it. Plus, as long as I have yelled "Stop!" I have fulfilled my legal obligation. I yelled "Stop!" at least ten times.

This goes on. Kids are milling outside my door trying to get a view of the fight. Another teacher walks in and tries to get the girls to stop. He gives up fairly quickly. There is no security guard on the 3rd floor -- according to some of the kids in the hall watching my girls, there was a big fight downstairs, so all the security has been diverted.

Finally I walk over to Ebony and grab her by the shoulders. I keep saying, over and over, "Ebony. Ebony. Ebony. Ebony. Just stop. It's not worth it. You don't have to have the last word. Stop it."

Ebony is yelling at Ashley that she won't hit her, because she doesn't fight pregnant girls, that she won't go to jail for assaulting Ashley's baby. Ashley keeps yelling back to not worry about her baby -- that she is going to kick Ebony's ass.

(One thing about my kids, they respect pregnancy. Since becoming pregnant, no one will let me carry anything, and the kids are a bit less likely to curse at me. I often hear things like, "If you weren't pregnant Mrs. Fuji, you'd get it," and the like.)

I keep chanting in Ebony's ear. She stops and looks at me. I repeat that it's not worth it, just to let it go, and that this is stupid. That I know she's trying to have a good year.

After about five more minutes of this, Ebony sits down. Ashley yells a bit more, then she sits down, too. Another student, Kiara, sits between them. She is friends with both of them, so she decides that she will keep them separated.

Now I'm trying to figure out what to do next. I decide that we are going to take a little field trip. I still don't have the books I need to teach my new schedule. I get the key to the book room, and make all my kids (minus Ashley, who is still mad and shouldn't be carrying books in her advanced stage of pregnancy) go to the book room with me and carry books to our classroom.

We get to the book room on the first floor. The room is pretty small -- it's basically a big closet. So most of the kids are outside the room in the hallway while I sort through the books and figure out which ones to get.

I'm doing that, when I hear loud male voices yelling and cursing. I'm thinking, "Now what???" I hear someone cursing out one of my students. I walk out, and it's a security guard calling my student many, many inappropriate names, and acting like he's going to punch my student in the mouth.

My student, Clarence, is yelling back, although I don't think he cursed at the security guard. The security guard (who is also the assistant football coach) is getting more and more agitated. He's called Clarence a pussy and a bitch and a motherfucker. Clarence is telling him that he can't say that stuff to him; he's just a security guard. The guard yells that he is a man and Clarence is a bitch and he will call him whatever he pleases. On and on and on. He keeps getting closer to Clarence, as if he is going to hit him.

I'm yelling at Clarence to just walk away, just come into the book room with me. That again, this is not worth it.

At last Clarence comes into the book room and the guard walks away. We get our books and get back to the classroom.

In the classroom, I ask Clarence to explain to me what happened to start this encounter. He said that the guard yelled at Clarence and some of the other boys in the hall to be quiet. Which was definitely warranted. Clarence replied that the guard was just mad because his football team keeps losing. Clarence says he was just playing around when he said that, but obviously the guard was unhappy about that remark.

So the guard became unhinged and that's when the yelling and cursing began. I reminded Clarence that when a student is in a situation like that, he is not going to win. No matter what. Our security guards get away with murder. They often pick fights with the kids they don't like. They goad them into fighting with them, so they have an excuse to send them home for a few days. I told Clarence I was proud of him for not letting it get to that level.

Then I'm trying to decide what to do about this guard. On the one hand, I want report him to the administration. His behavior was completely out of hand and inappropriate and unprofessional. No way should that be ok.

However, he is a security guard, and more importantly, he is a coach. There is no way on this earth that I will win this battle. Were I to report him, I would be ignored (at best) by administration, and for the rest of the year the security guards would go out of their way to torture me.

The security guards are a tight knit bunch. They have been known to sexually harass some of the female students and staff, but with me, they are good. I talk football with them. They all know that I went to Arkansas and am a huge Arkansas fan. Many of them are fans of the SEC, so this works in my favor. I talk football with them, they are nice to me, and if I have a student who is a problem, I can usually count on them to take him off my hands for a class period until things calm down.

This particular guard has always been nice to me. I know he played football at Illinois for at least a season, although I thought he had told me that he had a degree from there. He absolutely seems more educated and together than many of the guards. I decide that I will talk to him myself.

The next class period I realize that there are still some books I haven't gotten. I take those kids to the book room. (See how I exploit my students?) On the way there, we run into that security guard.

The kids walk on, and I ask the guard if I can talk to him for a moment. He stops and I said, "Look, I know Clarence made you mad, but you just can't respond like that to a student. You are the grown up here. I try so hard to make these kids understand the correct way to deal with situations like that."

He said that the kid was mouthing off about things he shouldn't have. I told him I understood. That I know the kids can push your buttons. But that I have to remind myself, often, that I'm the adult. That I have to try to set a good example.

Then I reminded him that these kids have no examples of people who handle conflict positively. And that they have so few adult male role models. That they need to see him, a grown man, behaving appropriately. Please, next time, just try not to lash out like that, because it is just not helpful.

He said that he was over it, and was done. He said, "But I bet that kid is still upset about it." I said that I thought that kid was still upset about it. And that that's part of the problem.

Then he said it was no big deal. That he gets this kind of shit from his woman at home all the time, that he sure doesn't need it at work. I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but I thanked him for his time and went to get the rest of my books.

At this point in my career, I have changed my measure of success. I used to think I'd turn my kids on to the beauty and magic of literature. Now, if I can get a few kids to think that reading is not the worst thing in the world, that's something. But if I can get even a couple of kids to see that you don't have to make everything into a fight, that is a bigger accomplishment.(I'm not sure if that has happened.)

My kids always ask me if I've been in any fights. I tell them never in my life. They ask if I ever get mad. I tell them, all the damn time. But I pick my battles. When my boss makes me change a kid's grade, or talks down to me, of course I get mad. But unlike my kids, I don't feel the need to put her in her place. I say, "Yes ma'am" and I move on.

The smartest thing I have ever learned in my life, and that I tell my students regularly, is to just shut your mouth. When in doubt, don't say anything. I tell my students that this policy has saved me so much time and kept me out of so much trouble. That that is pretty much the secret to my success so far. They never believe me, but it's true.

I try to make them understand that they spend so much time and energy on this perception of how tough they are. I don't care what people think of me. They'll say that my boss might think I am weak. I tell them that why should I care? I know I'm not weak. I'm getting my paycheck, doing my job. I'm not going to waste valuable energy on crap like that. Life is too short.

There was a shooting on a Chicago Transit Authority bus a couple of weeks ago. A CPS senior girl was killed. She was just sitting on the bus. Do you know why she got shot? Because an idiot walked past another idiot on the bus, and accidentally brushed the other idiot's arm. This led to an argument, and both idiots had guns. The one idiot got off the bus, but shot into the bus as he left. And now a 17 year old girl is dead.

How is it worth it? I ask my kids that all the time. I don't understand why something that trivial takes on life or death meaning. Having to have the last word should not create a life or death situation. You are not very tough when you are dead.

I worry about my kids all the time. So far, I only know for certain that two of my former students (this is my 6th year teaching in CPS) are in jail, but there are probably more than that. I don't think any of my former students are dead, but I don't know. I know that the reason such a huge deal is made out of eighth grade graduation, prom, and high school graduation is that these are three of the only milestones many of our kids achieve.

But maybe if our kids could learn how to deal with conflict, they could accomplish more milestones? Maybe then I wouldn't get yelled at or cursed at so much. Maybe then my kids could ride the bus in peace. Maybe they could live much longer lives, and fewer of them would go to prison. There would certainly be fewer fights. Maybe I should spend more time on that, and worry less about grammar. I wish I had more answers.


Rachel Burton said...

Wow. What a great post. It's good to know their are teachers like you trying to be an example to your students (and adult security guards) in a rough situation. Thanks for sharing.

Alannah said...

Wow. A lot to process here.

You're doing an amazing job, Amy. you really are.

foxxychica said...

I feel your pain. I often wonder if it is worth it. I mean, I have a thankless job and I want to try and help the students, but it is difficult when you enounter ssituations like this. Today, I had a good day. I was able to explain everything I wanted/needed to and the class was fine. I think there is so many other issues chidren face we couldn't even begin to fathom it. I guess our lives would be much easier if we didn't care.