Failure is not the worst feeling in the world. Trapped is. Edward was the most manipulative 3rd grader I had ever met. He was supposedly a regular education student without any known diagnoses, but my year with him was awful. He would hide among the backpacks waiting to hit and shove kids. He “forgot” that he was supposed to walk laps at recess. He “didn’t hear” the whistle to line up and kept us all waiting while he stayed out at recess with the big kids. He ran an incessant stream of belittling comments under his breath so I couldn’t hear them, but whoever he was bullying that day could. He “accidentally” knocked his desk onto other children’s feet. He stole from other children’s desks. All of that I could handle, but what made me crazy was how he disrupted everyone else’s learning.
He always started with something small, like tipping his chair far past the danger point, then putting it down millimeter by millimeter while I watched and waited to start teaching again. The second I looked away, the chair would go back up. He would slam his books down on his desk, then shout, “What?” when I asked him to do it again quietly. He’d stand up, then take forever to sit down, while again I waited. He’d “lose” his work on the bookshelf next to him, then loudly pull every item out of his desk and slam it on the floor while he looked for it. He’d lay across a neighbor’s desk and shout, “What?” when they protested. He’d start making motor noises in class, then yell, “Okay!” every time I told him to stop. He’d scribble all over his work and yell that it was stupid. If I moved him right next to me so I could watch him, he would bounce erasers off of the walls a hundred times (he counted out loud) or keep a running dialogue or start insulting the kids in the front row. Despite all my skills, texts to his mom, and best efforts, he didn’t improve for the entire year. And he wasn’t the only child in that class who behaved that way.
It got to the point where I actually considered quitting. The thought shocked me. I love teaching, and have never once, for one single day, considered quitting, but that child and that class, had me on my knees.
There are children that will make you dread coming to work. That job you worked so hard to get, took extra college for, get paid so little for, spend most of your waking hours thinking about, talk about to all of your friends, and spend your own meager salary on, can suddenly feel like a cage.
You might be lucky enough to be at a school with strong support and a clear discipline plan. You can stop reading this chapter. For the rest of us who are overwhelmed by the number of challenging children crammed into our small classrooms (this particular year, I had 11 behavior diagnoses in my 25 student class), keep reading. You will call parents who say, “He’s worse at home. I don’t know what to do,” or “She’s not like that at home. She says it’s because she sits next to the wrong kids.” You will talk to your principal who will say, “Yep, that’s a rough class you have there,” or “Tell me what you want me to do.” You will call your mom who will say, “Sweetie, you have got to get yourself to a better school,” or “You can make a lot more money in real estate.” Your spouse will tell you for the umpteenth time, “Can’t you get home earlier?” or “I don’t know what to tell you anymore. Just quit.”
Here’s the problem. You are talking to the wrong people. None of these people, with the possible exception of your principal, can help you solve these problems. And if your principal could help you solve these problems, you would have stopped reading this chapter.
Talk to the other teachers in your building. Some will commiserate, which doesn’t help in the long run, but some will have real ideas that you can use immediately. Jen Vogt, my 3rd grade teaching partner calls me a master teacher, but sometimes she is the genius. When I was near tears, she came up with the solution. She said, “Look, these kids don’t need a morning recess. What they need is study hall. They aren’t doing their work in class and aren’t doing their homework either. We can take turns holding study hall and watching the playground. Let’s make kids earn recess by finishing all of their work.” Even though there were only six weeks left in the school year, it felt like a lifeline. We quickly worked out the rest of the plan. All students would get lunch recess to comply with state law and to give us a break. We would put up matching charts with two columns, complete and incomplete. Only students on the complete side each day would go to morning recess. We lined up recess on both of our schedules for 10:30-10:45 every morning. I would take study hall Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She would take yard duty. We would switch on the other days.
While we were at it, we matched up our honor levels and privileges and posted them in each room. We had both started using ClassDojo in November, and agreed to set a field trip / assembly requirement of 80% positive. Any child who didn’t meet the threshold had to have a parent come with them. This may sound low, but it left five of my students home from the next field trip, and the host still remarked on how a couple of my students were challenging. I didn’t mention that were five even more challenging children back at school.
It worked like a charm, both for the students and for me. It gave me hope, a positive direction. On that first day, one child got recess. A large pile of work appeared out of backpacks and desks that students had been forgetting to turn in. More earned recess. Students began using their missing lists as checklists instead of losing them in their desks. I began getting texts from parents asking how their children could catch up. Reading logs began appearing with tons of extra time on them. Those first study halls were a little frenzied because students were searching the classroom for extra copies of missing pages. Many finally broke down and bought copies from my teacher’s editions with class cash. Ten students from our classes missed the next assembly because their honor level was too low and it gave me a chance to do some much-needed one-on-one work. The missing lists got shorter and shorter and getting that last item completed became a point of pride. I began to enjoy study hall with the very children who used to frustrate me to tears. I was out of the trap.
I joke with Jen that genius should be spelled with a “j” in her honor. But what’s really important here is that any teacher might have the idea that gets you back in control and puts the wind back into your sails. When you are feeling trapped, complaining will not change who the students are or how they treat you. The only thing you can change is yourself. Find a colleague and ask for new ideas. The beauty of teaching is that you can start over whenever you need to, even if there are only six weeks left in the school year. Refresh, recharge, change the context, and try again.