Joe, along with six other of my seventh graders, has a two-week old behavior plan. At the end of each day I complete a sheet outlining his homework, assessing his behavior on a scale of 1 to 10, and providing any explanatory notes on behavior, either positive or negative, from a stock collection of phrases translated for me. A parent is supposed to review and sign the sheet everyday. Of all my kids, Joe is the most challenging. He talks almost incessantly and flings rubber bands across the room. He and another boy make porno-quality moaning sounds when my back is turned. Joe has massive goof potential and speaks to me in a loud silly voice and echoes me when I say “thank you” to him or one of the other students. His hair is light brown and styled with gel, he has long eyelashes, and like almost all the other boys at school, he is obsessed with football. He rarely does his homework. If I chastise him about anything he claims that I’m treating him unfairly because he’s a boy. He loves girls and has a good imagination. His attention span is fleeting. I like Joe quite a lot.
Many of my kids have stories of poverty, abuse, and violence. I don’t know if there’s a story behind Joe’s behavior. He’s known as being particularly problematic for all his teachers. At the recent parent meeting, which included the parents of the other students on behavior schedules, his dad (or uncle? This was never clear.) gave a bit of a speech about how tough things were at home. His parents are divorced. Joe throws school notes away or stuffs them under the seat of his busito.
My seventh graders remain a troublesome class, but (and because) I’ve been reluctant to impose punitive measures, probably because they weren’t necessary for me. I don’t have any stories of talking back to teachers or cutting class (The one class I did skip was on my 18th birthday and approved by my teacher, so that doesn’t really count.) or sneaking a smoke or drink in the bathroom. I took notes, raised my hand, did my work. I wanted to succeed and understood that I would have to do the work for this to happen. So I keep thinking that my kids will have the same understanding and that if my lessons are creative and interesting enough, I will tap into their latent desire to speak better English or discover the origins of the universe rather than gossip with each other and style their hair. My co-volunteers, more daring and rebellious, understand the kids’ perspective much better than I. They all have encouraged me to put names on the board, give detentions, because actions have consequences and the kids have to learn that. I know this is right, but it’s just so…negative. And these kids often get a lot of that negativity at home because yelling and hitting aren’t taboo here. Some parents tell us to smack their children if they’re acting up. I like giving out stickers and saying “thank you” and making people happy. I dread conflict; it makes me nauseous. I have too much self-doubt to hand out detentions. What if I’m being too hard? What if I punish the wrong kid? And what if they get mad enough that they stop talking to me and become even more disruptive? What if I’m wrong or unfair?
What finally pushed me onto Team Detention was someone pointing out that my reluctance was an unwillingness (my word) to work within the culture. The kids are used to the negative reinforcement approach from their Honduran teachers and parents. It’s what they know and expect; it’s their school culture. One of my TEFL books noted that it would be necessary to learn how to work within my students’ culture. The example it cited was Chinese students’ discomfort with volunteering answers and calling attention to themselves. They were used to attending lectures and taking notes. The teacher in this situation compromised her cultural expectations by letting the students compare answers in groups first and then calling on a group representative to give an answer. While all the other advice I was given on the issue was wonderful, citing my cultural inflexibility helped the most.
Not that it has been easy summoning the God of Names and Tallies on the Board for assistance. Every name earns a “Whyyy, Miss?” whine and a “Why aren’t you writing her/his name down?” and, if it’s Joe, desk banging on the floor. The students continually tattle on whose name belongs on the board because of something I didn’t see. I prefer the school of self-responsibility, but they also don’t understand that and, I admit, it isn’t much supported by the school, where kids throw their food wrappers on the ground for the cleaners to sweep up, ruin school property, and are promoted, even if their grades are poor. Obviously, they aren’t ready yet. Maybe we can get there.
In the meantime, while tallies have invoked more quiet, they have also invoked glares and whines, and my poor lonely heart wavers. I love making people happy, I want my kids to have fun, and, despite my protestations of not needing to be liked, I do want to be liked. How could I not when I see the other teachers getting breakfast and stickers and candy and hugs and devoted affection from their kids, while mine are generally too cool for that sort of thing, and I have masses of second guesses and continual longing for reassurance that this is a battle that I am qualified to slog through? The logical part of my mind knows that my lessons, at least for English, are interesting, that I’m approaching everything with compassion, and that tough love really is necessary. I also know that my kids like me. I do get hugs, smiles, and “Goodbye, Miss” at the end of the day. But…. There’s always that but, that nasty little whispering earworm.
Back to Joe. Tuesday, I made tallies and Joe collected the unlucky three. Also, some girls left class without permission to get in the recreo snack line early. That earned them detention, too, and some pretty impressive yelling (thank you, vocal training), which two girls didn’t much care about. (One girl, perhaps my sweetest, Yu, left early for the snack line but without my observing; she gave herself detention. I wanted to waive it just for her honesty.) Joe fumed and yelled about unfairness. He wrote that he was in detention because I favored the girls and that he wouldn’t be doing this again. We sat through detention. Another student apologized. We parted ways. I felt exasperatedly invigorated.
Seventh grade class doesn’t much improve, but Joe and I finally connect on Thursday. That afternoon, the kids let me know they are having no more of this sitting quietly for taking notes nonsense (and in retrospect they were right to disagree) and I divvy them into groups for some World’s Longest Sentence competitions. Joe refuses to join a group and asks to sit where he is, in a little desk island in the middle of the classroom (that day’s punitive measure). I reluctantly agree, but only if he practices Subject + Verb + Object sentences. A deal is struck. I circle the room, inspecting sentence competitions. I return to Joe and his sentences. They are perfect, even complex. The best sentences I’ve seen from him, from almost anyone. He names the S, V, and O. I ask for more, circle the class, and return to more beautiful sentences. I give him stars, pats on the back, and praise. A lot of praise. I say he can write more or just sit quietly. He chooses the sitting quietly. His behavior report says 6/10 that day, his highest score yet.
Friday is a short day for us. I have seventh grade for only two periods and one of them is filled with an assembly. The class works outside in the afternoon on a mystery game. Joe is not only the first one done with the initial part of the game—drawing a picture and interviewing his classmates—but he writes up his accusation and 14 present progressive sentences regarding what the suspects were doing when Miss Theresa’s cows were stolen, and is the only one to finish. His report that day is 8/10, a Dr. Seuss sticker, and some garbled Spanish comment in praise of his participation. After school, I want to tell the world about his work, host a parade in his honor; I have to confine myself to a few fellow teachers.
My best teaching moments so far are these, when I’m able to meet with my students one-on-one and give them the attention they crave. At 14 students, my class is small, but they are all needy little buggers and the classroom is tiny and cramped and so loud because there are no full walls in this row of four classrooms. No wonder no one can focus. All of my troublesome kids love the spotlight of my attention. Unfortunately, one-on-one moments are rare unless I have an assistant or I’ve happened upon an activity that my kids will do independently for a whole minute before calling out, “Miss. Miss! MISS! MIIISSS!” They need more.
I have another story similar to Joe’s, a girl named Kim, who spent her time giggling and coloring and was too embarrassed to answer questions. Her friends would tell me she didn’t know English. But I had my doubts as to the veracity of this after our first written test when her mark was surprisingly good. It turns out, after separating her from her fellow colorer and having her mom review the behavior plans, that Kim has some of the best written work in the class; she’s started participating. She loves getting stickers and I love giving them to her.
Sometimes, no, often, what doesn’t work in class overwhelms me and I feel pretty hopeless. It’s these moments with Joe and Kim and Krissy and Fred and Antonio that keep me going. My kids drive me batshit crazy, I doubt daily that I’m going to survive the next eight months, and I wouldn’t exchange these moments of connection for anything.