Anyone who has had to deal with the public as part of their job knows how impossible that public can sometimes be to deal with. But there are moments in teaching—and, oh my, are they numerous—where I think, “Only in this job . . .” Last week was the third week of the year. Here’s a peek into one class period:
I entered the classroom and heard, “There’s a new kid and he’s sitting in my seat!” The new kid, Ray, announced at my desk that he just moved from three hours away because his mom tried to commit suicide. His grandparents wanted him to live with his father from now on. Within the next 90 minutes, I would learn that Ray struggled with appropriate social interactions, targeting his peers for conversations in ways that made them uncomfortable. Since his peers aren’t adept at things like manners or empathy, they lashed out at him, bonding in their criticism of him while forcing me to stop the lesson and verbally ream them out in the hallway.
Answering this question is often a lose-lose situation. I want him to understand the reason behind my request so he knows I’m not just being bossy for the sake of being bossy. I also want him to understand that this behavior, in his case, isn’t conducive to learning. He deserves to know why, other than simply “Because I said so.” However, answering this question opens the door for him to argue: “It’s not distracting anyone! Zack, are you distracted? See?” His seeking justification also gave him time to stall. He had moved his hands under his desk, presumably so that I either couldn’t see it anymore (did he think I’d forget?) or so that I couldn’t snatch it.
Long story short, we engaged in a power struggle for about 45 seconds over a piece of putty. In the end, I won (there is no way I wasn’t going to win this early in the year). The putty was sitting, sweaty and solemn, on my desk. About eight minutes later, I saw Jorge playing with a glob of putty. It was a replacement glob. Blue like the last one but not the last one. Here were my thoughts:  How resourceful of him to have a backup glob!  What a moron to have it out where I can see it and will have to respond with a consequence.  I have to respond with a consequence.  He wants a consequence. He doesn’t want to read, and he’s hoping he’s sent out of class so that he doesn’t have to.
When we step into the hallway and I talk to Jorge about how I’d like to trust him and how that relationship is now in jeopardy, he replies about his putty reappearance: “But it was a different piece.” Seriously?! Does he actually think he has a clean slate because he’s not playing with the initial piece of offending putty? He might. Or he might think I’m so dumb that I’ll be swayed by that excuse. Either way, it’s sort of cute and super irritating.
When we reentered the classroom, Ray was furious because Abe had called him a fag. He was pointing across the room and yelling at me to “do something about him.” I had already addressed, in no uncertain terms, the appropriateness of using this language in class. Few things make me more furious than students casually using “gay” as an epithet for anyone or anything they consider stupid. Because of this, and because of Abe’s fervent denials (he’s the cocky type who, I’ve learned already, tends to own up to his transgressions), I thought I should get to the bottom of this. Both boys came over to my desk, and for the first time, the class was actually quiet on their own, collectively leaning in to eavesdrop.
Me: Abe, did you call Ray a fag?
Abe: Yes, but that happened last period, and he’s acting like it happened now.
Me: How did the teacher last period handle that?
Abe: He talked to me about it and I apologized.
Me: And you haven’t used that word since this morning?
Abe: No, I swear.
Me: Ray, can we agree that in this class, we should focus on what happens in this class?
Ray: [Nods.] Yes. [Sticks out his hand to shake with Abe. They shake for what I can see is an uncomfortably long time because Ray won’t let go. Abe feels awkward.]
Abe: You shake like a girl.
Educators know that our job is always part teaching, part management. The ratio of each varies depending on the clientele, but we always long for something at or above 90/10. Because, in case you had forgotten while reading the tale above, I still had teaching to do that day. Supervising a reading test, helping students select books, monitoring their progress, reminding them how to react in writing . . . all while teaching them how to behave around fellow humans—a lesson which, although it’s not in my agenda, will not wait for an opportune time.