Teaching is so much like parenting. Some days everything just flows along like a beautiful river, and I end the day feeling successful and confident. Some days I know what I am doing and I am sure that my efforts are paying off.
But sometimes life just gets in the way of my best intentions. The weather turns hot in March, and no one can concentrate. The computer decides to freeze and I have to try to reboot, restart and reorganize while keeping 25 eleven year olds from getting crazy. Some days I go home wondering what on earth I am doing here.
Sometimes I have days like the one I had on Wednesday. I got to school at 7 AM, needing an hour to get ready for state testing and to set up the classroom of a colleague who was unexpectedly at home with a sick child. At 7:05 another colleague came into my room to discuss a child needing support services, and we talked until 7:30, when yet another came in to ask some questions about the testing. The students arrived, the testing began, and dragged on until lunch. I had a meeting during my lunch “break”, and when I went to get the students from recess, I was met by three adults who were up in arms about the terrible behavior of many of my students.
My heart sank, and I just wanted to lie down and cry. You see, I pride myself on the social interactions of my students. Fifth grade is a very tender time in the lives of children; they are just beginning to understand the impact that they have on those around them. They are just beginning to spread their wings and try out their personalities. They are on the cusp of figuring out where they fit in the greater community around them. We work on these issues every single day in our classroom. Every single day.
Fifth graders can be sweet, kind, caring, cruel, insensitive, selfish, loving, funny, warm, demanding and exasperating. They are human!
On Wednesday, it seems, they discovered the power of mob mentality. One boy made a joke, which their vulnerable classmate misunderstood. The joke was then passed around and repeated; with each repetition, the target reacted more strongly, until he suddenly lashed out and hit. Adults were alerted, the group was rounded up and soundly reprimanded.
Then they were sent to me, the one in charge.
I sat them down, minus the target, who was at a separate lesson with one of the special education staff. As I looked around the circle of faces, my heart really ached. Like a Mom, I took in each familiar feature and felt a surge of conflicting emotions; love, sadness, worry, resignation and a big pile of anger. I am SO tired of dealing with the social lives of children! I am SO tired of repeating over and over and over again that we are a community, and that we must all feel valued in that community. I am out of ideas, out of gas, out of energy, out of patience.
More than anything, I wanted to look out at all of them and just say, “What the HELL?” But, like a Mom, I held myself in check. Instead I asked, “Do you know what it means to be vulnerable?” I asked them what they knew about feeling different, feeling alone, feeling unsure. I described what I had been told about the recess events, and asked them to think about how if felt to be on the receiving end of that “joke”. Then I said more than I meant to say, and my voice shook with the emotion I was feeling.
“I can’t make you be a good person.” I told them. “Your parents can’t do that. No one can do that for you. You are the only one who can decide who you want to be. You will face a thousand choices a day, and every time, you have to ask yourself, ‘How do I want the world to see me?'” I looked slowly from one face to the next. Eyes were averted, tears were evident, hands were held over mouths. I waited in silence, letting the lesson sink in. I wasn’t sure what to do, how to react. I hadn’t been out there, I hadn’t seen what had happened. The adults who did see and hear the teasing had different descriptions of the events. I wasn’t sure about where to place blame. I wasn’t sure of what the consequences should be.
I decided that if I was going to stick to my theme of personal responsibility, I would put these decisions in the kids’ own hands. I wanted them to look at the truth, to accept responsibility, to take ownership of the hurt feelings that they had caused.
So I gave them all my “business card” (when teachers get their mandatory pictures taken in the fall, the photo company gives us 200 complimentary cards. Why on earth would we need them?). Each student now had a way to email me. I told them to think carefully about what had happened, and if they felt that they should have a consequence, they should tell me privately, either by email or in my “mailbox” in the classroom. I wasn’t sure what would happen, and I worried that there would be no punishment for the bad choices that had been made.
Today is Friday. It is 75 degrees with a perfect blue sky. The trees are budding and the playground is filled with laughing children. I sit here typing this post, while nine fifth graders read silently at their desks. They made the choice to own up to what they had done and to try to make amends.
Like a parent, sometimes a teacher can be surprised to find that her lessons really are being learned!