Saturday, March 16, 2013

They Never Told Me Teaching Would Be This MESSY

*Warning - long read and many grammar mistakes ahead.  Don't judge. ;) 

I’m a nerdy girl.  A book by the name of “Trauma and the Child Brain,” - I’ve read it.  In fact, I read it in place of 50 Shades of Gray and all of the other New York Times Best Sellers over my Christmas Break -because I’m that kind of girl.  A heart designed to help people heal, to seek out justice, to connect with others – I just never knew it would look like THIS. 

I don’t really “do” mornings and yet, as I awake, squinty-eyed every morning, I find myself asking God to be my strength.  The only reason I leave the house on time is because I know the longer I wait, the less chance I’ll have to both grab my coffee AND make it to school early enough to make copies before the copy machine overheats or the line is too long.  I haven’t seen this many sunrises in a long time, but they bring me hope.  Sometimes it’s a silent drive because the weight of the day is already settling in and other times it’s the truth penned by others and set to music that sustains me in those early hours.   “I know Who goes before me…I know Who stands behind…the God of angel armies, is always by my side.”  I repeat it over and over.  It lays a foundation of truth that I vow to stand on…and I’ll cling to each word in just an hour or two.

I’m the first one in the parking lot (sans one fellow soldier who gets there just before me)… she must not wait in the Starbucks line.  I succumbed early on to the “rolling teacher cart” – and it’s a good thing, it carries my physical tools and lightens the load from my arms, but it is nothing in comparison to the toolbox in my heart and mind – I’ll use this one much more frequently.  I hit the ground running now. Carpe Diem…If I’m going to do THIS, I’m going to do it well.  It’s sentence frames and printed lesson plans, and put my lunch in the fridge (and pray I’ll get to actually eat it today), and change the schedule, and get the morning message up, it’s send the e-mails and update the data wall, and place the “return” papers in each mailbox…and it’s only 7:15.  Technically, I don’t start work until 7:45 but time…it’s elusive.  As the minutes trickle down and my tasks mount, I feel my own anxiety rise and I remind myself, “you can do this!”  7:45 and I made my copies, barely.  Then pitter patter of the feet already at school.  They crave interaction so they enter the room early…

Ms. M, can I show you this book? 
Ms. M, can I play on the computer? 
Ms. M, I….

And it’s me feeling an immense desire to soak in the last 20 minutes of silence I’ll have until 6PM.  And I turn to them and I answer as presently as possible and then, 8am I give them the speech…how I’ll pick them up in 5 minutes and scurry off to the playground to enjoy just a little time in the fresh air.  And they run out and I look at my still looming list and I embrace my team with a, “Let’s do this day!” type attitude, though I know we are all weary.  And as we look at the day we all realize life is messy – because it’s happening to us and we bare one another’s burdens.  It’s the two of us on the team realizing the third has been distant, and it’s the boldness to say “We are concerned about you.” and boldly ask, “What’s wrong?”  And it’s the messy answers and the transparency that leads us to say, “We’re going to do this alongside of you.”  And then, the bell…and so the encouragement must cease temporarily because 71 one of THEM need 3 of US.

The kids tell me I look beautiful…like I’m going to a prom.  “And Ms. M, your hair is so fancy!” they say of the messy bun pinned up and half wet because I just couldn’t bring myself to wash, dry, AND straighten my hair this morning…or the past 3…the flower pinned in it is just a cover for ulterior motives.  “Good morning!”…to each one, as I walk down the line…and as much as I’d love to fuss over  a perfectly straight line each morning, it’s a bit hectic, and I settle for a “just ok” one…it’s one of the many battles I’ll choose not to pick because fighting them all…I can’t even imagine. 

I can already see the type of day we’re about to have on many of their faces…the “I’ve had enough rest” and the “It was chaos at home last night.”  Rumors of one of our tribe moving…with no warning. Upheaval and instability…it’s part of the poverty package.  You don’t say goodbye to your friends or your teachers….it’s just there one minute and gone the next.  Oh my heart. 

Announcements and attendance.  “Please get started on your morning work,” as I drink my coffee – wait, it’s already gone?  And I suddenly become the multi-tasking queen, and the mom, and the teacher, and the psychologist all at once…and I’ll switch hats every 10 minutes if I’m lucky – but most likely every 5.  Redirect and redirect and redirect and one last time…I redirect.  The phone – ALPS…the bus is here and the students forgot to go…scramble and they are off and I semi-shout, “Have a wonderful day”!  Now I’m down to 22 students times Maslow’s entire just my homeroom. 

The God who goes before me?  I need him now and it’s only 8:30.  It’s lies about homework and making a mental note of my once role-model student who’s behavior is tanking.  It’s a chat about responsibility, and calling out what’s been noted…and it’s his tight throat and teary eyes that speak, “I’ll fix it…I promise, but I can’t tell you that right now because I’ll cry…and I don’t want the world to see me.”  And it’s an admonition to pull it together…and a nod and he’s off to his seat.   In this class, it’s high expectations, and boundaries where no other boundaries exist because within boundaries people flourish.

In the coming days, he will begin to flourish and I’ll have made him student of the week because I celebrate progress and the commitment to obey.  And it’s a commitment on my part not to let my students slip through the cracks – I’ll be more diligent of every. single. one. of. them.  HE sought the one who was lost…and I’ll do the same.

By 8:45 we are starting our academics…It’s been almost an hour and that seems so…lengthy… but I’m committed to setting this ship on the right course early on in the day and meeting every need.  Needs…there are SO MANY. 

I started something new today – I’ll use the term respect frequently.  I want my kids to respect me and ultimately respect themselves but they have NO idea what it looks like.  And thus, I’ll model it and infuse our day with it.  “Please respect me by following instructions.” and  “Your talking while I’m talking is disrespectful.”  “Respect your friends by listening as they share about their week.”  Surprisingly, things are taking a turn.  It’s small…but I’ll take it.

I keep many of them close because proximity reminds each one, “I’m safe here.”  I prompt good decision making, I prompt responsibility, I prompt difficult choices to a 3rd grader running in safety mode and I stay close in case the skills fail…because they will, and they DO, and the recovery needs to be swift or the entire empire may fall.  Sounds dramatic? Hardly.

After our fluency I decide that today I’ll set aside what we “should” be doing for what we need to be doing…which is connecting with each other.  We sit on the carpet and we spontaneously talk about loose teeth…the one that fell out last night, and the one lost in the apple…and SO many voices wanting to share their story because rarely do they get to tell it and even more seldom is there anyone who wants to listen to it.  I don’t notice as the minutes slip by and we begin to talk about the reasons I have high expectations.  I often wonder if they see me as mean...we have a good discussion and just about everyone has an opinion…but in the end, we decide that boundaries are good and that ultimately, we’re going to grow into people we are proud of.  And as quickly as we began we have to get moving – I’d love to suspend this moment in time. 

In just a few hour we’re all headed off for 9 days of Spring Break and I’m no longer concerned with anyone walking into my room with their clipboards.  We take a brief assessment on grammar – it’s done and over and I just have to remember to grade it, enter it, and graph it on our data wall...both data walls actually. I’ll do that tonight…or if I’m honest with myself…this weekend. My e-mail dings and I realize it’s already 9:50 am – we have PE in half an hour but the PE coach is out… which means I’m covering my own special.  We begin our silent and sustained reading time and I mention to the kids that a kind person sent us a new set of books. Though the kids were never interested in the tattered Boxcar Children books I’ve had on the shelf since January, the shiny covers of the new set have them clamoring for copies 1-4.  By 1PM two of them will run up to me to tell me that they are “already on chapter 5”  and ask “if they read the whole book over break…can they trade with each other?”  Intrinsic excitement?  I haven’t seen this before regarding reading. My heart is SO full…there is hope.

10:30 and I finally have the straight line that didn’t quite come together this morning.  We walk out to the playground in place of PE that wasn’t meant to be for today.  My teammate is already out with his kids and I sit next to him as he struggles to reinforce some math concepts with a handful of struggling students.  The kids play and we chat about life being messy.  Speaking of messy… I remember the CPS report I need to make – I e-mailed about it yesterday but, as with many things, timely communication just isn’t in the cards.  The kids continue to play while we talk and I listen and I affirm and we discuss concepts like deflection and displacement.  20 minutes isn’t enough for this kind of messy.

It’s time to line up and those last few students just HAVE to continue to play basketball which results in a bloody nose.  And I prompt, “You see his nose is bleeding and you walk away without seeing if he is ok?”  And we have a lesson in empathy because it’s not innate when you’re in survival mode. And “You’re not showing respect when you continue to play basketball after we blow the whistle.” Infuse.  Every. minute. Of. every. day…it has to be strategic and consistent. 

In my book – this is one of the best days we have ever had…and there is SO much more to come.

Our first rotation begins and I immediately have a barrage of  “ So and so is doing….” and I lock eyes with  and state very firmly, “Figure it out.”  And the tattling continues and I say once again, “Figure it out.”  The message is heard loud and clear and everyone sits down.  And once again we discuss transitional expectations…come in quietly, sit down, and wait for instructions.  I suppose we’ll discuss these expectations every day until the end of the year.  Progress…it takes time and I’m OK with that.  Twenty minutes later and we’re lining up for lunch and again I’m reinforcing expectations.  Strategic and consistent.

Today is an important day as I’m meeting with a small group of boys at lunch about anger management, about messy feelings, about boundaries and respect…I’m praying for the best but expecting the worse.   Before I can even go to the restroom my student teacher notes that “F” stated he’s not coming and is going to lie about “forgetting.”  We laugh at the absurdity of him thinking she would “keep his secret.”  I walk out to the lunch line and make firm admonitions to attend…my admonitions are heeded and in just a few minutes I have all four boys in my room. 

It is honestly about to be the highlight of my day.  

 After some small talk I ask them each to share their versions about recent incidents of anger and violence they had engaged in – I ask for honesty and not excuses or blame and then I leave the floor open to a brave soul.  To my great surprise the boys are open to sharing honestly.  There are big gulps, no eye contact, and many pauses…but they are brave and bold and honest.  We discuss what anger in our bodies looks likes…and the flood gates open.  We set boundaries for our discussions so that everyone is heard and respected.  We use an M & M therapy game to discuss things that make us angry and ways we can control our anger.  We talk about the ALERT method (How is your engine running?) and feelings using the “I feel________ when______” sentence frame.   We talk about doing what is right when no one is looking…and it led us to talk about guilt and shame.  There were low gazes and many quiet, reflective moments.  “When I know I’ve done something wrong I get dizzy and a fuzzy feeling,”  “I feel very bad when I know I’ve done something wrong,”  “I feel sad when I know I am guilty…my eyes get blurry.”  We talk about mistakes and righting wrongs.  I am absolutely blown away by the healing power of our talking.  The bell to signal the end of lunch rings but not before genuine apologizes are offered.  Restoration.  I’m realistic in knowing this is just the beginning of a long road, but I’m committed to their journey.  In my haste I spill some of the M&M’s and rush out the door…the boys scoop them up and while I’d like to run back and remind them about integrity…well, let’s just say they ate a few more M & Ms.  It’s only 12:15 and I’ve already poured all of myself out.

Out at the playground the students are lining up after more prompting, more reminding of expectations…and then I realize, I never ate lunch.  It’ll have to wait until 3:30 now. 

As we enter the classroom two boys begin to bicker…and from nowhere I hear the little angel from earlier turn to the boys and very firmly state, “Boys, Figure. It. Out!”  I want so badly to laugh but instead admonish her to be in control of herself and not others.  The boys get the message…and apparently she had too.  The second half of our 1st rotation goes fairly well and with little incident as the kids complete their assessment and work on centers.  While they work, I write my four “anger management group” students notes expressing how proud I am of them and their willingness to be open and honest – I’m committed to positive reinforcement…or at least I’m going to try…strategic and consistent.

As we line up for the last rotation of the day I can feel the heightened sense of Spring Break excitement.  My teammates and I all look at each other with sympathetic eyes as we silently encourage each other that we can, indeed…make it to the end.

I have not sat at my desk for a single second today and I run over to check my e-mail.  The vice principal sent me a note which read, “I love reading the displays of your student’s work in the hall.  You are doing a fabulous job… we are very lucky to have you.”  Affirmation?  My weary heart REALLY needed it but before I can let it sink in…it’s rotation time.

My last class is my most difficult class.  It is a group of students reading at Kindergarten (and some Pre-K) level, of homeless students, of students with IEPs, and 3 of my 4 behavior management students. The needs are MANY and they are GREAT.   The needs are so great that I have both a student teacher AND an 8th grade student to assist me.  Today, my 8th grader didn’t show.  The students pushed into the room like a tornado and again I remind them of their responsibilities and the expectations in THIS classroom.  Our established routine was interrupted by the Special Ed teacher giving the students an assessment – an assessment that neither I nor the students were told about.  These students have a HIGH need consistency and predictability and unfortunately the hecticness of the assessment, a Friday, the day of Spring Break, and the change in the schedule began the downward spiral… I could NOT meet all of the needs.  The students had begun the assessment in another class and were at various stages in the process.  I had no idea what the assessment was even ABOUT.  I also have a high need for consistency and predictability – cue the beginning of me scrambling to dig into my own toolbox!  

As the kids work, I hand out the notes I wrote to my anger management group (K, F, & J).  Their faces light up and they cling to their notes with pride. 

And all at once the rest of the class…
“Ms. M, I don’t know what to do!”
“Ms. M, I need to use the restroom.”
“Ms. M, How do I do this?”
“Ms. M, I’m done.”
“Can I get a drink?”
“Ms. M, I have a rash and it’s really itchy” ……and we’re spiraling…and spiraling as the SPED teacher runs around the room helping kids with their questions.

I do my best to control the chaos created by someone else.  I give the students options of what to work on and I begin to catch my breath… when my student teacher hands me an assignment that one of my anger management students (K) had written a note on. 

On the bottom of the assignment is a note to (J) which discusses inappropriate touching by multiple parties and a single girl.  I am well versed in child sexuality but my kids have seen and know too much.  They are the pictures of innocence lost despite their love for dinosaur coloring books, Pokemon cards, and Disney Radio.   

And my heart SINKS as I look over at (K) and (J).  Both boys look away – well aware of what is about to occur.  Strategy and consistency and keeping kids close…this moment is more important than any grammar assessment I have planned and I forget the 99 to focus on the 1.  Time ins…not time outs.  Without even asking my student teacher to take the reigns (I know she’ll do it) I call both boys out to the hallway, along with a third student who was also involved… and eventually (F) who also ended up being involved.  And out in the hallway at a table I again have 3 of my 4 anger management students…and I’m not surprised because their wounds are deep but my heart is aching.  Again, I see the guilt and shame in their eyes and I open the floor to whoever wants to talk, because ultimately, responsibility is not about me demanding answers…it’s about one’s own acceptance for their actions.  (J) mentions that he is only the recipient of the letter and has played no part in touching “Girl A” – he is relieved and so am I.   K and S sit quietly and are both visibly tense.  I wait…and the words don’t come and I know they are both on the verge of tears.  We discuss the seriousness of their actions and a myriad of implications…and I’m sitting here thinking, “3rd grade?  The road ahead is long!”  And as I look up, the principal walks by with a confused look as to why I am out in the hall rather than in my classroom – and for a brief moment I consider changing my course and then for ONCE I don’t fall into the trap that someone else knows what is best for my students other than me.  I hold firm and I stay in the hall as I relay the sacredness of our own bodies.  The guilt is too much and they boys need time to make the decision to come clean or not…I ask them to consider their actions and to come to me in honesty when they figure out what to say. 

And as I walk back in the room…chaos.  I give a pep talk about being 40 minutes away from the end of the day and I hand out the grammar assessment.  “Girl A” finishes early and I call her over to hear her account of people touching her inappropriately.  We have one of “those” talks and as we talk my head is swirling.  I consider that maybe it’s not my responsibility, but ultimately, I know my students aren’t getting these talks at home and I’d rather it be me than no one. 

The assessment period gives me time to check in with “K” – I see him struggling with the assessment and the events of the day as a whole.  His story is one of instability and responsibilities too heavy for his small frame.  His eyes are filled with shame and I sit down next to him as we talk more.  We discuss self-fulfilling prophecy…although we don’t use those words.  We chat about how I am committed to helping him be a person he is proud of.  I can see him taking it all in.  I’m committed to keeping him near.  Strategic.  Consistent.

“S” walks up to me, “Ms. M, can I talk to you?”  He’s thought long and hard about what he’d like to be honest about.  We talk about the events that occurred and he fights back tears as the seriousness sets in.  I praise the honesty and we have a serious chat about consequences.

And as I send him back to his seat, I scrape the bottom of my tool bag to find something to sustain me for the last 15 minutes… just as “F” walks up to me.  “Ms. M, I think I know what I need to tell you.”  And another serious conversation ensues as honesty is poured out.

And with 5 minutes until the end of class, my student teacher and I jokingly embrace as we lament “I just want to cry…” only both of our eyes fill up with real tears momentarily as we realize that this job is MESSY.  We laugh it off before the kids can really see that we’ve poured all of ourselves out.

I start a quick game of, “I have never” to fill the 5 minute gap.  “K” is leaving early and I walk him into the hall where I look him in the eyes and remind him that I am here for the long haul of healing.  We discuss making Spring Break successful…and a hug and he is off. 

I run back into the room and wish the kids a glorious Spring Break as I have them line up for the end of the day rotation. 

My homeroom class pushes into the room full of excitement and joy.  I hand “O” the note of praise I wrote him early and we discuss him respecting his grandma and making good decisions over Spring Break.  It’s eye contact and high expectations and “I believe in you.”  And one last hug.  Connection.

And as we walk out to the ramada for our goodbye I think about the God who goes before me and how He stands behind and how for some reason he chose me…for these kids, for this place, for this time. 

And then, it’s double high fives today, and eye contact, and “Have an AMAZING Spring Break”…24 times. 

Looking around, my co-workers and I are visibly tired… we are ready for break but strangely lamenting that those 71 lives wont be in our care for 9 entire days.  I realize I still haven’t received word on the CPS report, I need to take PM attendance, my room is a disaster, my to do list is longer than when I began at 7am… and I remind myself there is always another day.  As we walk back to our rooms my co-worker says, “ ‘J’ was SO proud of the note you wrote him, he came in the room and immediately showed me…I swear he is already a new person!”  A small success for today.

I pack up my computer and head for the door.  As I get in my car and turn the key I hear familiar lyrics.  My heart is simultaneously completely full and entirely empty…and I realize I’m just too tired to process it all.  I drive in silence.  At home I immediately lay in my bed, still in my work clothes, and breath deep.  I think back to my program and how I learned about pedagogy, and classroom management…and politics, and core subjects…but no one EVER talks about how MESSY and PAINFUL and JOYFUL and HEARTBREAKING it can be.  It’s every one of those things and so. much. more.

They never told me that teaching would be this MESSY.

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