Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Human Car Wreck

Given the level of difficulty this year has presented, as previously mentioned, it has dawned on me that the only way that I will get through it with my sanity intact is tons of good humor.  Thankfully, I have a few characters who have afforded me the opportunity to go duck into a corner to laugh hysterically, then run to my computer to e-mail my co-workers the stories. Here's one such example.

As far as the typical middle school social life goes, Ali's existence could be likened to a car repeatedly careening full speed into a brick wall and bursting into a ball of flames.  His undiagnosed, but very apparent Autism, has removed all filters, all common sense, and all good judgment from him while leaving--fortunately, or unfortunately--the complete ability to speak, learn, and function in the same educational environment as his peers. In the good moments, it can lend to some very fascinating, fun, and rewarding work from the teacher's standpoint. Because he is so black and white, and has a very high moral code, Ali can make things ridiculously and refreshingly easy on everyone. 

For example, he approached me a couple weeks ago about the difficulty he was having with one of his teachers in a class, and I told him in so many words to "suck it up". He listened to me in quiet contemplation, the typical look dawning over his face that told me the wheels were turning full speed up there.  Minutes after our conversation, Ali approached this particular difficult teacher in the hall. "Ms. A," he declared. "Though your class is my hardest, I have decided that I am going to cooperate with you this year." 

Then, there are those Kamikaze-esque, car exploding into the wall moments that leave us all with our heads in our hands.  Ali has no greater desire than to be accepted and liked by his peers, and his new appreciation of the finer sex is very apparent, but he has zero and I mean ZERO idea how to go about making positive connections with other 6th graders.  At best, an exchange with another peer may sound like this. 

Ali: "What is up, my homie?"
Peer: "Ali, I told you not to call me homie, and stop touching me!" 

At worst, he is recklessly tossing around extremely inappropriate phrases or threats at girls which seem to be derived from a combination of rap song lyrics, and quips from R-Rated movies, that I have very seriously told him, WILL end him up in trouble with the police if he keeps it up. Even then, the long, tearful, and absurd processing he goes through to confront the situation in the principal's office often causes all of the staff involved to stifle a laugh. To himself, in a quiet mutter: "No, Ali. Stop it, Ali. Don't go down this road again, Ali. You're going to get yourself in even bigger trouble."

Thankfully, the car crashes have lessened some in recent weeks, giving the hopes that I'm doing some real, tangible good this year in helping Ali survive middle school. But, at my wit's end with everybody and everything on the last day before Christmas Break, Ali had to remind me that there's still a lot of work ahead. 

It was the end of the period in the Science class which I push in to with some of my students.  I was standing at the door chatting with two of the prettier girls in the class with which Ali had already gotten into scads of trouble attempting to woo. 

As we three girls chatted, Ali approached slowly, the starry-eyed grin on his face that told me we were all in trouble.  "Callie," he said to one of the two 6th graders. "I am going to miss you so, so much."  Callie just graciously smiled at him, but having the opportunity to modify this interaction in the moment, I objected.

"Ali, you're going to see her in two weeks.  You only see her once a day as it is." 

But, no, he was going to miss her terribly and didn't know what he was going to do with himself.  A couple minutes later, a bigger group of boys and girls had congregated as the bell was just about to ring. 

"You know," Ali started up again, directing himself to the original two pretty girls.  Uh-oh. "There's a new term that's being used these days: ladies man. That's what I am--a ladies man." 

KABOOM! Up billowed the flames from the wreckage.  The girls giggled wildly.  Several kids looked at him in shock. One boy mumbled, "I'm actually embarrassed right now."  I simply shook my head slowly and didn't hide my disdain from the rest of the students. 

Just before the bell ring, Ali had just a little more fuel to add to the inferno. It seems, as usual he had taken all the shock and awe from his peers as the positive attention he was looking for.

"I'm sure making a lot of friends this year."

Shame on me for my total lack of professionalism, I just couldn't take it any more. 

"You know, Ali. With that previous comment, I think you might have just lost a few." 

Saturday, November 16, 2013


I've been spoiled rotten.

What I initially thought was going to be a doozy of a year in 2012-2013 turned out to be my easiest group of kids to teach in the 6ish years of my career.  For the most part, they never refused to do work (besides homework; that's another beast all together.), were funny and lighthearted, didn't attempt to challenge me on a personal level, and most of them were pretty darn cute.

I suppose it's refreshing and well-deserved to have years like that in my line of work, but there is a major downside: waking up to reality the next year. 

Well, hellloooo reality.  I'm looking at my biggest caseload to date, and growing by the day, I might add. On Day 5 of the new school year, I was told by one of my students to go away and that I was causing him to fail.  On Day 12, I had an unmedicated student lying on the ground trying to write in his planner, moaning miserably because he couldn't focus for more than 5 seconds. On Day 15,  a student was switching between quiet, maniacal laughter and flashing me a look like he was contemplating slitting my throat.  Teachers talk about their students "honeymooning" in initial weeks of school: coming back acting like a lamb, and slowly morphing into a lion.  Yeah, I didn't get that honeymoon this year.

But, I suppose I had braced myself for this last spring when I found out what I was up against.  Before summer break even came, I walked around saying that the 2013-2014 school year might shape up to be a little less academic and scholarly than other years.  Still, nothing fully prepares you for the first time a kid launches a trash can half way across the room with his foot in a fit of anger.

What I suppose it's got to come down to, if I'm to survive the year, is reframing.  Last year was a real treat, a sort of respite from the typical absurdities this job entails, and  I've had to say a sad farewell to that crew (though, I still wave fondly at them through the window of their new 7th grade class) and head into the trenches.  But, it's okay.  My situation isn't necessarily any worse, it's just different, and will require a different approach.

Last year, it was about helping a student combat anxiety to perform better academically. This year, it's about getting a student to stop crying hysterically and blaming me for everything when the work gets a little too challenging for his tastes...while trying to corral another student whose meds have warn off for the afternoon...and let's not forget the student who is melting down at his desk for no apparent reason in a really scary, tortured, Gollum-esque way.

Last year was a great one for diving into the content and developing my pedagogy.  This year, it's a return to behavior modification strategies and crisis intervention.

Perhaps it's less likely you'll find my classroom pictured on the front of an educational journal this year (because that was super likely last year), but I'll be darned if I'm not going to make the best out of what I'm working with. And to be honest, my little darlings have been much more productive and educable than I anticipated, so that's a win.

For the past few weeks, I've enjoyed the luxuries of my first student teacher, which has allowed me to sit back and see my class from a different perspective.  It's nice not having to be "on" all the time.  But, the experience has also given me a new found appreciation for my crew. The inevitable difficulties of an inexperienced pre-career teacher instructing a three ring circus has me huddling in the corner wringing my hands just dying to be at the front of the room "working my magic" with them again. They're a real challenge, and I've accepted the challenge.  There are no boring days this year, and the smallest of victories can be found in simply surviving a period with no meltdowns, office visits, or being told I've ruined somebody's life.

This may be the year I finally lose what's left of my sanity, but bring it on, I say!

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Case for 6th Graders

I don't know what shocks people more when I describe my job: that I work with students with emotional disorders, or that I work with 6th graders.

Try as I might to express how great 6th graders are, there are plenty of "qualities" of 11-year-olds working against them.

They're learning how to challenge authority, but they still lack rationality and logic.

They're forced to be more independent, but they can barely keep track of the shoes on their feet.

They're discovering body odor for the first time, but they have yet to discover deodorant.

Yeah, you've got have a wicked sense of humor, endless patience, and a strong stomach to be subjected to this population of people on a daily basis, but it's their awkward and painful journey to being fully functioning human beings which makes them so great.

Allow me to offer a tickling situation from this past week to illustrate what I mean...

Stevie is a 6th grader in the section I supervise for lunch a few times a week, and he has been a thorn in my side all year.  Presumably suffering from undiagnosed and unmedicated ADHD, I spent most of the first part of the year teaching him how to simply stay in his seat during lunch.  About half way through the year I had a mind boggling incident with him where I literally watched him hurl a bunch of crushed up chips into the stairwell, yet he vehemently denied it was him and pegged it on a child with the complete opposite physical features of him (clever, huh?). He's just one of those kids that, upon mention of his name, will ignite a series of grunts, eye rolls, and head shakes from the adults who know him.

But now that May has rolled around, Stevie appears to be picking up on the whole being-a-human-being thing.  It just struck me this week that I didn't even realize he was still in my lunch section; that's how well-behaved he has been. So, in the spirit of "catching kids being good", I decided to acknowledge his improvements to him during lunch.

"Hey, Stevie."

When I approached, Stevie spun around with his typical deer-in-headlights expression, wondering what he was getting into trouble for this time.

"Stevie, I almost forgot you were in my section, you've been doing so well.  The past few weeks have been great! What changed?"

"I am so sorry, Ms. T."

Poor kid. He was so used to getting lectured and reprimanded, he didn't even know praise when he heard it.

"No, no. I'm telling you a good thing. You are doing a good job!"

Stevie responded with a half-hearted, mostly confused smile.  Perhaps he didn't believe me, or perhaps he was so overwhelmed by this compliment that he was crying happy tears on the inside. Either way, I didn't feel like my point was getting across, so I opted for some positive peer pressure. Out of good humor, I asked the 5 other boys at his half of the lunch table to give him a round of applause.

Gladly, they obliged, and for many more seconds than was necessary.  Unsurprisingly, the table next to them--a very loud and boisterous group of girls--caught wind of the clapping and instantly joined in.  Within 5 seconds, about 75 kids in my section were clapping and hooting.  I knew it wasn't going to stop there.  I winced a little as I watched the monster I created sweep across the other two sections in the lunchroom, until roughly 400 kids were on their feet wildly applauding.  The head lunchroom supervisor looked at me with bewilderment as I tried (and failed) to hold back laughter.  The "STOP!" he yelled into the microphone to end the shenanigans was just barely audible.

When I went to explain how this had all come about to the other supervisors, one of them razzed me pretty bad. "Come on, Ms. T! You work with 6th graders every day. You should  know better!" Yes, I did, but I realized it a little too late.  Yet another case against teaching the 6th grade: one wrong move and you could have 400+ kids hanging from the ceiling in 5 seconds flat.

In the moments after the chaos had died down, the hand of a flushed and beaming girl a few tables away from Stevie's shot into the air.

"Miss T! Miss T!"


"What were we clapping for?"

"Oh, it doesn't even matter, does it?"

In the life of an 11-year-old? Any old excuse--or none whatsoever--to be giddy and happy and carefree? Nope, it doesn't matter one bit.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Another life lost to Gingervitis

Credit goes to Mrs. U. for providing the material for this post.

Emily is one of my former students, now in 8th grade at my school. She's come a long way from the days of hating all her female special services teachers: blaming us for all her life's ills, coming in late to school daily just to avoid having to see us, telling us we are useless and horrible teachers.  When you get past all that jazz, you discover a rather lovely young woman with a wonderful sense of humor and an affinity for cats.

This past week, in Mrs. U's English class, Emily had the task of writing a paragraph using the root words they were studying at the time.  This is Emily's finished product. You're welcome in advance.

The best part of reading this was that, for the first 8 lines, I thought I was supposed to be something profound and heart-warming Emily had produced. When I got to line 9, I simply said, "Ahhhh." From Emily, who responded to my complimenting her beauty last week with, "Go on...", I would expect nothing less

Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Dreams May Come (will inevitably be about school)

I am fairly certain that every night for the last two weeks, I have had a dream about my job.  Maybe I should be surprised that it hasn't happened this frequently in the past given how colorful a typical day is in my classroom.  But it's becoming rather exhausting when I can't even escape the teacher life at 3 AM on a Saturday.

There are two main categories these dreams fall into:

1) The Anger-Inducing kind

Remember this episode of "Friends" where Phoebe is super mad at Ross, but she doesn't know why until she recalls a dream she had about him the night before? Yeah, this happens to me a lot in regards to the people in my classroom and workplace.  To get all psycho-analytical, I suppose the dreams are often an extreme manifestation of some negative feelings I'm harboring towards students or co-workers that I haven't quite worked out in my mind yet.  But then I wake up illogically angry at them for something they didn't even do in real life, and I walk into school, and I inwardly snarl at them a little.  Don't worry, the loathing passes pretty quickly. Most of the time.

2) The Paralyzing-Fear-Followed-By-Overwhelming-Relief-When-I-Wake-Up kind (it just dawned on me I could have summed that all up with nightmare. Well, too late now.):

To continue my Freudian trip, these dreams are most likely the by-product of unresolved worry or fears related to my job and they usually come in the form of finding out I have had 15 new students added to my caseload, my classroom has gone completely out of control, I'm teaching in my underwear, or, the motherload of all nightmares: I've been reassigned to my first teaching job--which you can pretty much imagine as Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds". Except, nobody really learned anything in my school. Just imagine me on my knees, crying out, "Why God, Why?!?!" right before I'm startled awake in a cold sweat (okay, a little exaggerated). Then, I breathe a sigh of relief with the realization that it was all just a dream, and a cat--miffed that I have rolled over on him--huffs and goes to find a more peaceful place to sleep.

How much more lost sleep and angry cats am I going to have to endure before my recurring nightmare dissipate?  More importantly, how can I get back my recurring dream that Justin Timberlake is my best friend and we have the best conversations ever?!

Please advise. 

Monday, January 28, 2013


On behalf of my entire generation, I would like to apologize.

We, "Generation Y", are the kids of one of the most disastrous eras of recent times, right up there with the feminist movement in my book (put your bras back on, ladies. Yeesh.).  We were among the first to be told that we were "special" just for blinking, and our parents drove us around in cars with bumper stickers that said, "My child is a good citizen at Such-and-Such School". It's no surprise a lot of us ended up getting the notion we were God's gift to humanity without ever even lifting a finger to earn it.  We are the pioneers of the "Age of Entitlement".

There's a lot of nasty by-products that come from this upbringing: lack of responsibility, no work ethic, selfishness...And let me be clear before moving forward that I don't consider myself risen above all the ills of my generation.  Guilty as charged.  But, there's one particular character flaw customary to this generation that I would like to fight tooth and nail:

Commitment Phobia

We sure have a lot of options these days, don't we? Cellphone brands, car makes, clothing lines, restaurants.  Making a choice can be pretty darn overwhelming, and just when you finally get your hands on the latest version of some flashy technology, the new generation is already on its way to the shelves. You have to admit, it's a pretty exciting time to be alive.

The problem is, I think many of my peers have become so accustomed to the "flavor of the week" mentality, they've been led to believe it applies to all areas of life: job, social circle, church, marriage...who can think about signing away 5, 10, 20, 50 years of life away to the same place, people, responsibilities when the iPhone 6 will be out in 6 months?

And what about our personal happiness and satisfaction?  If our cable companies are overcharging us and customer service is rude, we switch our subscription to its competitor.  If our wardrobes are getting boring and outdated, we go buy a new set of clothes.

So, naturally, it stands to reason that if our jobs are getting to be a real drag after 8 months, we start searching for a new one.  If we promised to hang out with some old friends to catch up, but something better surfaces, we break plans and ditch 'em.  Don't even get us started on committing to marriage. Why bother when the generation before us has taught us we'll cut and run at the first sign of things getting really bad?

The further this generation progresses, the harder it is to remember that life wasn't always this way.  Our grandparents endured decades in the same run-of-the-mill job and remained in problem-ridden marriages to their deaths.  True, there were much fewer options for people then. Women couldn't easily obtain financial independence, and job opportunities weren't a dime a dozen like they are today.  But, the children of the "Silent Generation"  didn't hear too much about being *special* while growing up.  If they made mistakes, they atoned for them. If life wasn't going their way, they sucked it up.  And I think that counts for something.

It may be too late for us "Millenials" to overcome our fear of battening down the hatches, though it is one of my crusading points when it comes to helping keep friends accountable. But, there may be hope for the generation coming up behind us, and teachers play a big part.  It's tough to coach an 11-year-old on the virtue of honoring commitments given a 9 month period and their stage in life.  However, it seems to me there are countless other character qualities I can help cultivate in them that play into being able to commit in life:  selflessness, integrity, perseverance, gratitude, motivation, and more.  If I threaten a consequence, I follow through even when they turn on the water works; if an assignment is three weeks past due and worth 0% credit, they're still going to finish the assignment and hand it in; if they're fearful of something, I make them at least give it a try instead of folding.

 I imagine that tough situations such as these were turning points for commitment-phobes of my generation, but they took the path of least resistance and, now that they've arrived at adulthood, they know no other route. As I heard in a news segment called "The Myth of Praise" today, there is a big difference between loving children and trying to protect them from bad feelings. I'm sort of grateful for many of my past hardships today, and my hope is that, with a little guidance from me along the way, my students can one day look back and say that, too.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mr. Incognito

Mark is a newbie to the world of Miss T. as of December, but he certainly fits right in.  He's the real silent type accomplishing most of his communication through a series of head shakes, nods, and shrugs.  Investigating into what took place during his weekend can be quite the chore, but has turned into a bit of a game for all of us.

Teacher: "Did you see any movies?"
Mark: Head shake
Teacher: "Did you play video games?"
Mark: Head shake
Teacher: "Watch TV?"
Head shake
"Go out to eat?"
Head shake
"Play with Legos?"
Head shake
"Read a book?"
Head shake
"Build a 747?"
Lip twitch.
"Eat a starfish?"
Bigger lip twitch.
"Save a beached whale?"
Split-second, legitimate, but quickly muffled smile. Followed by a head shake.

If I couldn't even evoke a conversation about the free moments reserved for fun in his life, I didn't hold out much hope for forming some New Years goals with him today. Surprisingly, the boy jotted down some realistic aims for the rest of the school year, namely completing homework assignments each night. I was impressed. he's silent, but self-aware.

Now came the time to determine an incentive for reaching his goal. In theory, this would be the easiest part of the task.  But, Mark doesn't do easy. It seemed there was no pleasing him.

Teacher: "Would you like to work toward something from the prize box?"
Mark: Head shake
Teacher: "How about free time in class?"
Mark: Head shake
Teacher: "Lunch with a friend?"
Head shake
"A handshake?"
Head shake
"A pat on the back?"
Head shake
"Thumbs up?"
Head shake
"Round of applause?"
Head shake

It was about this time that Leon stepped in with a suggestion from far left field.
"Hey, what about if he makes his goal, he gets to wear the mustache glasses for the period?"

Ahh, the mustache glasses. The best $11 investment I've ever made to break up tense moments in class and to be completely moronic (per usual).  Yeah, they were great for a laugh and will inevitably come in handy many times in the future. But there was no way that Mark--Mr. Introvert, Mr. Serious, Mr. Blend-into-the-scenery--would go for that.

Just as I went to thank (but no thanks) Leon for his proposal and continue brainstorming rewards, I caught Mark out of the corner of my eye.  Wonder of all wonders, he was nodding.