Saturday, October 31, 2009

Quietly Lost

It’s nearly the end of October, and this year is so much better than the last in so many ways, and so challenging in so many new ones. I’m no longer a first year teacher, so I need to hold myself more accountable for the way that things go. And yet, things do go better than they did before – even if they remain far from perfect.

I teach ELA, Math, and Social Studies to 30 kids who spend 5 periods a day trapped in the same room with myself and Ms. Jimenez. Half of them have IEPs, some for cognitive disorders, but the vast majority for emotional disorders – a trend in the South Bronx. It’s a crazy thing, spending this many hours every day with the same kids – I see them as much as their own parents do. I get to do all of the things that I couldn’t do last year – have the time to teach them to read and write, get to know what they need academically and how they each learn and become engaged. It’s a gift. And when things go wrong, I have another teacher in the room with me at all times who I can share a look with or pass a note too – someone to keep me sane and keep me from feeling like it is just me and it is all my fault.

As ever, special education rooms are a dumping ground for behavioral problems, and we are no exception. There are chronic cutters – people who walk in and out when they feel like it, undeterred by the number of times in a single day that they are escorted to their destination by an administrator. There are those who are disrespectful, cursing, and making comments that are inappropriately sexual, or racist, or prejudiced in some creative way that I would never have considered before. There are the catty girls who gaggle through the room like they own the world, reminding me of how invincible I felt at 13, as they roll their eyes and suck their teeth and talk back with all of the attitude in the world until I pull out my phone and hit their parent’s speed-dial number.

Having them all day teaches me to forgive quickly, and to take things less personally. We are all in this together, stuck with each other, whether we like it or not. And we are not friends. We are not equals.

In this school, where the administration is fearful and cautious with the kids, granting them rights that they certainly are not ordained by our government, and the teachers operate with the general maturity level of a 9th grader- giving them just a SLIGHT air of superiority to dangle over the students, it can be hard to remember who is your peer and who is your charge. It is a blessing to have another teacher in the room to remind me of my age and position. So that when students tell me to ‘shut up’ because my ‘voice is mad annoying’ I remember that it’s not a friend of mine saying that to me, but an angry little child who doesn’t know how to express her feelings about the injustice of the hand that life has dealt her.

Then there are the good kids – the quiet ones without the sparkling personalities – though they are accepted by those whoa re popular – they carry their books for them – who sit in their correct seats and don’t cause trouble and work hard. Those are the ones who are forgotten. Those are the victims of the school system. More than ever I realize that the people who lose out are not the bad kids, who dominate 90% of my time, attention and energy. And not those who are loud and confident and cool – though they too suffer by holding themselves to an insultingly low standard that is set in this environment. But they too, get attention from adults who try to tame them, or channel their energies, and students who long for their approval. It is the nice quiet workers, who sit there plugging away at whatever work has been assigned, not having their questions asked or having teachers sit and ask if they need help. I ignore everyone to discipline one child, but rarely can I ignore those who act up to teach. That’s my biggest goal.

Day 1

Day one. I try to deny that I am excited to see the kids, but when I glance into the courtyard and see all of the sweet ones from last year, I find myself smiling. When I walk into the auditorium, a grim look plastered on my face, I am swarmed by the students I had last year, who tackle me with questions and hugs and force my smile to surface. I gather my class and eventually we head up to the classroom which was assembled by Ms. J and myself the day before. We sit them down and explain to them that the two fo us, as teachers, wanted to work together in order to make things happen that we hadn’t been able to do in the school in the previous year. We explain that they were our hand picked students – and looking around the room you see that most of them believe it. They are filled with energy, opinions and ideas on this first day.

By second period it’s as though there never was a summer – everything feels like a familiar routine. Even standing in front of a class, asking David to raise his hand feels like something I’ve done every day for my entire life. The kids are so familiar that it’s as though we never parted, and I wonder if summer has less of an effect on adults than on kids. When I was their age, a summer away turned teachers into strangers and evicted all knowledge of the previous year from my head. I likely couldn’t even list the members of my previous class. And yet as an adult, the first day back eclipses the months of rest, leaving me feeling mysteriously well-rested but no less submerged in the day.

I was worried about having the same kids 2 years in a row. It’s a challenge, to be sure. I had a close relationship with my students by the end of the year – close enough that they find it completely believable that they were chosen by me to be in my class this year. But also close enough that they come to tell me about the things that are happening in their lives that have nothing to do with class.

Some of them are very concerned about being in a class that is ‘special education’. I try repeatedly to reassure them that it is not special education, that their mere presence is evidence of as much. They pull me aside and tell me that they think that I should take the general education kids out of the class and just go – take them to a new room and teach them. I assure them that this won’t be necessary.

In fact, I really believe what I am telling them. They are upset about the math being too easy and I explain that we are giving something simple in order to see what level everyone is at. ‘Is it fair that last year in every class every person got the same work?’ I asked them, pointing out that the most advanced students sat bored for a lot of the time while the least advanced spent most of their time lost and hopelessly confused. They acknowledge that this wasn’t a good system. I assure them that we will be having level work, and groups that match their ability in every subject – that this is the advantage of being in this class, where they have the same teachers in the same room for ELA, Math and Social Studies.

The kids are great – energetic and interested. Of course, this is how they were at the beginning of last year, and I was lulled into complacency and being their friends. This year, I am more attuned to the things that rub me the wrong way, and less inclined to go with the flow. They don’t walk well in line from class to class – this is a problem, this must be changed. Someone is out of his seat unnecessarily, this must be changed. And so they won’t escalate into the problems that they were last year, because I can see them right now as what they might become.

I also realize that I have learned to listen in a new way. Last year, any noise or talking felt like an affront. I have come to be able to distinguish productive noise from unproductive noise, and pick my battles, which keeps my blood pressure much lower.

New Year

Tomorrow is the first day of school, and I am not afraid. Tonight I’ll sleep through the night. I have no packets made, no lesson plans printed. For all of the time that I put into planning last year, before school even started, I have learned that you have to know your students before you can plan for them. I have the same kids as last year, and yet need to get to know them all over again.

This year I will be teaching a CTT class (half special ed, half general ed) all subjects. I will keep them in one room all day with myself and another teacher who is certified to teach special education. I am going from 180 students whose names I didn’t know to 30 students whose special talents I can list in my sleep.

It will be a new challenge – but I don’t feel afraid – if I survived last year, I can do anything. Summer really does have a anesthetic effect. I remember the end of last year, the feeling of drowning and suffocating when I was asked to stay for even a minute longer than I had to. I can’t even begin to make myself feel that way when I think of school now. Now I think of the craziest moments of last year and I laugh. They are ridiculous and unbelievable, but it’s a relief to laugh about these things and to realize that we are all still standing.