“New” Teachers

            When I was in middle school I started acting up. I couldn’t sit in one classroom for too long without getting extremely antsy and unfocused. I began getting into fights and disrupting class. I was quick to curse people out and did not care who it was. I specifically remember a day when my 7th grade English teacher took me out of the class and asked me what was wrong with me. She said that I used to be a good student and now she couldn’t tell the difference between me and the rest of the troublesome students. I had no explanation for her.

            The reality was that I was under an unimaginable amount of stress. At home my parents were addicted to substances and I was being abused and neglected. I began acting out because I was constantly angry, scared, and on the defense. My middle school career began to turn around in the 8th grade when I became acquainted with a woman named Mrs. Lindsey. She was the teacher in charge of managing behavior and also ran in school suspension. Instead of sitting in my classes I would grab my work and do it in Mrs. Lindsey’s office. I did that because it was a much quieter and calmer environment than my normal classes. Being alone in a quiet environment was good for me because interactions with other people gave me a lot of anxiety. Mrs. Lindsey would make sure I got my work done and spent a lot of one on one time helping me. She allowed me to sleep if I didn’t get enough that night and even let me sit and cry some days.

            The simple things that Mrs. Lindsey did for me really changed my school experience. Instead of forcing me to sit in classes where I was not comfortable and not succeeding, her and my teachers went against the grain for my success. The problem with many schools, teachers, and classrooms is that teachers label kids bad or disruptive but don’t ever try to understand what is really going on with the child. It’s not about being nosy into a child’s life, but being able to recognize certain “disruptive” behaviors as indicators of a larger problem. When a child is disruptive or unable to focus, teachers have to be willing to be creative in the way they deal with that child. Maybe the child did not get breakfast or dinner; maybe the child lives in a shelter and is not getting any sleep; maybe the child is afraid to go home and does not know how to deal with their anxiety. There are a million different factors that can effect a child’s life and it is a teachers job to learn what they are and provide the proper support.

            A large part of providing specific support for a child is making sure that you shape the classroom (and school) for the child and not try to make a child fit within the mode of what you think a classroom should be like. Last summer I worked with 5-8 year old scholars as a Freedom School teacher at North Community YMCA. Many of my young scholars had a lot of mental, behavioral, and home issues that shaped the dynamics of the classroom. On the first day I had the classroom set up with chairs in a circle. It did not take long for me to realize that chairs can be used as distractions and weapons, so I removed the chairs. I had one child who had sensory issues so not only did I stay in constant contact with his mother (calling her everyday to report how his day went) but I also made sure to learn the specific language she used to talk with him in order to calm him down. I allowed him to take walks around the building with another staff member throughout the day so that he could relax and get some energy out. I also noticed that he had built himself up as the class clown. So, I encouraged him to answer questions in class discussions, let him present his work in front of the class (even if we weren’t doing presentations that day), and also made a point to laugh hysterically at his jokes.

            Another one of my students was one of the youngest kids in class. He would often throw fits when it was time to move on from an activity. He didn’t like to play with other kids and would get into fights every week.  He didn’t sit still in the circle and would run around class, throw chairs, and jump on tables. After looking over his work, reading with him, and having conversations with him, I learned that he was the most advanced kid in my class. As a six year old he could read, write, draw and articulate himself in ways that I had not seen fifth graders do. It was obvious that he was getting board by our lessons. One day I found a notebook and wrote his name on it and gave it to him. I told him that he could write in it during free time and even during some of our easier lessons. He lit up and began writing very elaborate stories with illustrations and everything. I also learned that whether or not he slept and ate last night played a big part in his behavior. I set up a pallet in the back of my class with yoga mats just so he could take a nap if he needed to. Sometimes I would send him downstairs for a snack if he didn’t get breakfast.

            I give those two examples because they both fit within a very common stereotype: two black boys who were extremely disruptive in class. They frequently got into fights, often refused to do their work, and did not follow directions. Without digging further into the student’s lives, a teacher could easily mark them off as problem children and send them out of class every time they got in trouble. I had to accept the fact that my classroom setting and work level did not fit for these kids. I also had to dig deeper into the reasons why they were acting out and come up with constructive solutions for them. Even though I wanted the kids to learn specific things throughout the summer, I had to realize that sometimes just being able to provide a safe, loving, and supportive environment was more important than whatever I was teaching. The reality is that kids are dealing with an incredible amount of stress that manifests in many ways. Teachers have to be taught how to use a child’s story to shape their classrooms. Teachers also have to be given the freedom to do so. 

By Natasha Moore

Scott MeyerComment