Thursday, April 2, 2009


The year of the final phase of my student teaching was one of those years that I could not wait to be over. I was managing the design store, teaching classes at the alternative school as well as working as an instructional aide there. I lived alone for the first time and started a new relationship. He quickly developed resentment for my first love, which was the school. Towards the end of the year, my energies were spread so thin that I started to break down but I was hired on as a full-time teacher for the following year.

Working with the at-risk teenagers was really like nothing else I had ever experienced. Maybe a little like pledging for the high school sorority. Before working at the alternative school, I knew myself to be a mellow person who hardly ever lost her temper. But I would crack like they all do. Once going through it, it became amusing to see all the varieties of untried, do-gooder personalities come into the school with all their hopes and dreams, then descend into the dark sides of their personalities.

The reason the school was so stressful is that we only accepted high school students performing in the bottom 30% from the local school district. In the first few years, we had room for about 50 students. Each of these students had some combination of challenges that affected school performance. We brought these kids together on a university campus for what we described as a prep school education. Supporting students to meet high academic expectations required a high teacher-to-student ratio, counselors, administrators, probation officers, police, court-appointed advocates, child protective services and anyone else who was willing to help.

Having so many dysfunctional students together was a sum that was greater than its parts, yet it was well-known that any one of these students could ruin your day at any given time. The skill that almost all of these students shared was the uncanny ability to locate and press your personal buttons. They were expert observers of human behavior, often because of unpredictable home environments. They learned to read adults carefully as a survival tool.

You could explain this to new teachers . . . part of the process of these kids learning to trust you is that they are going to take you down first. They will send you over the edge and realize you are going to lose it. Just know that we've all been through it, there is a way to be successful, and we're here for you. And although the new teachers might be able to understand the techniques that we offered intellectually, it took a year or longer to implement them. It's sort of like learning how to snowboard. It's a really simple concept to understand but your first attempts will be punished.

My turning point meltdown consisted of two words: blow me. I have no idea where that came from. I was the only female teacher at the time; my male colleagues seemed entertained that I had gone with that phrase over a wide assortment of other expletives. I don't believe I had ever said that before, but I did say that to Chuck in study hall.

Chuck was assigned to my advisory group, and he hated me from the first day we met for good reason. On the first day of school, I was to lead my first advisory meeting. We were doing some cooperative outdoor activities for orientation. The other new teacher that year was an experienced outdoor educator, and he had created the plan.

We found a place for my advisory group to stand on the grassy area, picturesque woods in the background. The scowling teenagers were in stark contrast to the beauty of our surroundings. I commenced with the plan and despite several attempts, could not get students to do anything but stand there and complain. I could see Mr. Outdoor Educator over there in the distance confidently leading his group through the cooperative exercises. Whatever. I didn't realize it at that time, but this was just not my teaching venue. I've had some of my worst student experiences doing outdoorsy things and eventually learned to avoid it.

I finally found an exercise that sparked student interest . . . the scenario was that we found ourselves stranded in the desert. What were we going to do to survive? The answer to that question was that we were going to eat Chuck, which was delivered by several students at once in a spontaneous moment of excellent comedic timing. I am deeply ashamed to admit this but in that initial moment I smiled. The reason why this was particularly bad on my part is that Chuck was The Fat Kid of the school. It was also his first day.

From then on, Chuck had it out for me. He made it his personal mission to take down my classes. When he wasn't being openly defiant, he would sit there with his eyes narrowed, whispering weird little comments that I would catch only once in a while. I don't remember exactly what he said that sent me over the edge, but it probably would lose its impact in translation. It's like any time someone is driving you crazy over time; if you were to describe just one incident, it could never reflect the depth of the annoyance.

I do remember that we were sitting next to each other on one of the study hall couches. Chuck was verbally harassing me, and instead of my usual warning or directive, I used the much more effective "blow me." First, he was stunned, silent, expressionless. Then, he laughed hysterically, "Did my teacher just tell me to blow her? I LOVE THIS SCHOOL. That's great. It doesn't get better than that. I LOVE THIS SCHOOL."

The strange thing was that my meltdown actually improved our relationship. Now, he smiled whenever I saw him and started to confide in me. I guess that's the other thing about working at the alternative school. I never really cared that much about my teachers when I was in high school: I didn't literally love or hate them. But at the alternative school, we provided a consistent structure that made some really hurting people feel safe, and they would literally hate or love us, depending on the day. The intensity of their feelings was too much at times, but eventually, I realized that I had become a co-parent to 50 teenagers.


No comments:

Post a Comment