No Child Left Behind…
That Can’t Bring His or Her Own Self Forward
(RBU join date 03/06/2010)
“We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”
There was a time last year when my patience was whittled to its tender core, its raw, throbbing nerve; exposed until it one day collapsed in the throes of death.
Allow me to provide some context.
Three years before my patience died, I began my career as a high school English teacher after leaving the finance field. It was a challenging first year of self-doubt and pining for the safe confines of my cubicle, questioning if I’d made the right decision in sacrificing money and lifestyle to pursue this entirely different path.
But I persevered—it was a shift in identity, but one I’d chosen, and it taught me that it isn’t all about me after all, helping teenagers recognize their abilities and become the best versions of themselves is a calling and a blessing.
Three months before my patience died, I moved to London as a newlywed. It had been a summer of transition—of ending a school year, of beginning a marriage, of packing…of resigning. After a few months of settling in, I registered with a London teaching agency, interviewed, and found a long-term substitute (supply) position on the outskirts of the city, to commence just after the New Year.
Three weeks before my patience died, I was touring Ireland with my husband on our way back from visiting the States for Christmas. That rolling landscape, unfathomably green for January, helped to quell what was steadily curdling within me: panic. Panic that I’d accepted the job within hours of flying home for the holidays; panic that I was now only days away from starting; panic that the school provided me with no materials so I could plan my units. For those who haven’t taught, I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to plan out lessons in advance. Sure, you end up having to modify on the fly depending on what’s working and what isn’t any given minute, but that’s exactly why you need the game-plan coming into it. The unpredictable is inevitably going to happen, so having an organized, logical basis to work with is all that will give you some semblance of control when the day sucks you into its current, taking you where it may as it tosses and tumbles you on its foaming pedagogical waves.
Three days before my patience died, I was poising to quit, and the next day I phoned the teaching agency to request a replacement. My patience was already on its deathbed, you see, and it was time to call in the sick nurse. A unique intersection of factors (which I endearingly call “The Perfect Storm”) had gotten me down—the emotional trauma of relocating as an accompanying spouse, the aforementioned lack of resources/support from the school as I tried to adjust to a new national curriculum and procedures, the guilt that my lack of UK training could possibly sabotage student achievement. But the one factor that proved to be the last straw to break the proverbial camel’s back, however, lasted right up until…
…three seconds before I banged my Tiki stick on the floor and spontaneously decided on a new methodology.
(FYI, the Tiki is a carved wooden stick I bought in New Zealand and use as a pointing tool and “zero noise” signal—no, not for corporal punishment or conjuring hexes…yet).
Right. It was time for a change in tack. Why? Because after breaking up three fist-fights my first week and continuing to enjoy that privilege over the next, I was a bit tired. I came from a suburban school district in which a light congratulatory pat on a student’s shoulder could’ve gotten me sued, and here I was practically shoving my foot against one student’s face to gain better leverage to pry the other off and grip him (or her!) in a bear-hug, thereby preventing another pounding. And when they weren’t fighting, they were incessantly hopping out of their seats and jabbering off topic, as students will do.
As a result, lessons never reached fruition due to behavior I admittedly couldn’t manage effectively (despite learning I could be quite the physical powerhouse when need be). The advice I always received from the toughened urban teachers was to yell and yell loudly, which I really did try. But aside from hurting my throat, it really didn’t make a difference and only left me not liking who I was by the end of the school day. Ultimately, I knew I had to stay true to myself, and if that wasn’t enough, well then, I wasn’t meant to be in this position.
Nonetheless, I still had to survive the last week. And, as an educator, I needed to teach! So my patience finally died when I handed my Years 9s a worksheet and asked them to silently read it and write their responses. On seeing that only six students had, in fact, followed the directions, I was done.
It was time to leave children behind.
“Okay, if you, you, you, and you, you, and you could please gather your things and come up here to the front of the room, please,” I asked as I pointed to each of the six diligent students. Might I add that these were also my quietest kids, thus the most reluctant to participate in class, especially when their shy ideas were squashed by their more unconstructive, attention-seeking peers.
I could tell the chosen students were confused, but I warmly encouraged them to continue toward the front. As for the disengaged kids already sitting there:
“All right. You guys’ll have to move back.”
I’m still surprised how no one really questioned me at this point. The obedient and disobedient alike followed my instructions and got up. They loved being out of their seats, after all.
“Okay, so you six, let’s bring these tables a bit forward, and if you two don’t mind just bringing those chairs round so we’re close to the whiteboard. There, that’s great.”
They got themselves situated, and, within close range of the Chosen Six, I proceeded to explain in a normal speaking voice (i.e., not the teaching one that speaks over students instead of bringing their volume down):
“Okay, so this isn’t going to be easy, but what I need you guys to do is concentrate really hard on listening to me. Just ignore those yahoos in back. Let them screw off; we’re not going to care. I can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn, so I’m letting them choose for themselves whether they want an education or they don’t.” At this point, I wasn’t even looking at the outlying students, only my Chosen Six. “I refuse to raise my voice—we should be able to speak civilly, so just stay with me, and we’ll be okay.”
With their modest, smiling faces nodding in assent, I proceeded to ask the same question that minutes earlier had met with blank expressions because four-fifths of the class hadn’t read what they were supposed to. This time, my quietest students had the confidence to answer.
“Yes, very good!” I said, promoting their esteem further by writing responses on the whiteboard, transcribing their intelligence for posterity (at least until I had to erase it for the next period…).
Their smiles grew and their eagerness to share more ideas flourished in multiple raised hands. There was no question they felt the buzz of receiving individualized attention and having earned status among an elite few.
The Unchosen Ones were quick to pick up on this. And, after a time, some of them wanted in on it, too.
One girl who typically looked at me with a deadened stare from the back of the room while sucking her thumb was never one of my allies in successful lesson execution, usually only pulling her thumb out long enough to share in the smacking and unruly chatter that prevailed back there. This day, though, she collected her bag and stood to walk to the front of the room. She politely asked for another handout, as hers had been balled up and thrown elsewhere by then.
I should probably address at this point what, precisely, was going on in the back of the classroom while I was conducting this little experiment. Well, brazen tomfoolery, that’s what. A little over half of the other students were up on their feet and throwing paper wads into the rubbish bin that they’d positioned on top of a table. They were yelling and jabbing and singing with Dionysian abandon given this new, unusual liberty. The seated ones, however, eventually turned to face the front again, and from their eye contact, I could tell their ears were straining to hear what was transpiring among the Chosen Six.
Or should I say Chosen Seven now that the thumb-sucker had joined us and started offering up her ideas—very good ones at that. A minute later, two other girls left their seats to drag them up front as well.
One by one, some boys made the move, too, including the one who’d started to yell to me, “Hey, Miss!
Hey, why aren’t you teaching us? Miss, why won’t you look at me? Hey!”
I handed each newcomer a fresh handout and welcomed them with, “In coming up here, you’re choosing to learn. If you can’t participate in this lesson, I’d honestly prefer you go back and do whatever else you want. I won’t get mad; you won’t get in trouble. It’s entirely your choice.”
They stayed with me.
By this time, given the loud ruckus in the back managed well enough by only a few boys, the Chosen Seven + Several More (who shall henceforth be named The Ones Who Chose Education) had felt the need to abandon the tables altogether and pull their chairs closer to the whiteboard, forming a tight semicircle around me.
By the end of the period, only three boys remained in the back.
“This was our best lesson, guys! Awesome job; I’m really proud,” I congratulated as The Ones Who Chose Education exited after the bell rang.
But as my day continued, other challenging classes had to be endured, and I was yet again demoralized by the time I returned home that evening.
Consequently, the next day as I walked back to the classroom to confront my Year 9s again, I had already given up on the experiment and figured I’d just resume instruction (or lack thereof) as usual and engage in survival mode for the last couple days. In trepidation and defeat, I approached the classroom door. I passed through the threshold, and almost audibly gasped at what I saw…
* * *
There was a day I had believed my patience died, but I lived to tell the tale. And live on I did with a renewed sense of satisfaction and confidence, as well as a question on my mind:
Had my patience died that day, or did what didn’t kill it only make it stronger?
* * *
I passed through the threshold, and almost audibly gasped at what I saw: a group of Year 9 students who arrived earlier than me. I had caught them out of their seats and right in the middle of…
…pushing tables back and dragging chairs forward. They were rearranging the classroom into exactly the way we’d left it the day before. They were making the decision for me.
I followed their cue, then, and conducted the lesson in this way again.
Two students (only one from the day before while the other had been absent) shot baskets between empty tables filling the open expanse of the rear two-thirds of the classroom.
Twenty others squished together with their notebooks on their laps in a semicircle around the whiteboard, choosing Education.