Self Imposed

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Dec
  • 15
  • 2008

The book plopped to the floor. “I’m done,” my voice as flat as I could manage. Pivot on the heel and walk to the desk. This was the end of Friday’s Support class.

We worked on a reading response that day. Given fifteen minutes to write one hundred words, there was nothing left for me to say about it and students needed time to work. So, I sat down and observed instead of floating from desk to desk. I need to change how I do things in there and pestering doesn’t work for all students. I’m going to do this more often because it almost made me feel like I was visiting this classroom and that’s a nice way to notice things you otherwise miss.

It took the class five minutes. Five minutes of comments, insults, jokes, and other distracting actions. Five minutes of those who didn’t want to work having a great time. But five minutes of those who did building up frustrations. Yes, those five minutes were bad and a waste. Here’s the thing, though: after those five minutes, there was a self-imposed silence that nothing could break. Someone sneezed (extra loud, for “comedic” effect) and hardly more than a “Bless you” was uttered. No fart noises. No text messaging. No whispering across the room. In those ten minutes, just about everyone worked. Seventeen papers completed, seven papers not. But of those seven, at least three were reading silently the entire time. That is success for now. We’re still improving.

After that, we had a reading passage to make it through, a section from Luis Rodriguez’s Always Running. I read the passage aloud and students discuss ideas as we move through, that was the plan. We made it to paragraph six before I stopped, the constant talking and wandering off topic preventing us from understanding what we’d already covered or making it any further. This is when I let go.

With ten minutes left in the period, I proclaimed, “I’m done.” I walked back to my chair, put my feet up on my desk, and took out my copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album. Another self-imposed silence reigned. “Not to worry. I’ll get back with you on Monday, but I’m done being your punching bag for today.” Even crickets wouldn’t have chirped.

I didn’t yell. I didn’t get angry. I didn’t scream. Even if a student was filming this, it wouldn’t make for good YouTube fodder, something that’s come in my head to be a measuring stick for my behavior. And as I leafed through the book in my best pretend-read expression, I heard students upset that I had given up on them. I saw students reading through the passage on their own. Sure, I saw students staring at the ceiling or just watching the clock. I didn’t see anyone put their head down to go to sleep and I didn’t see anyone smiling.

I am not ashamed of this. I think it was well timed. Any sooner and this kind of reaction would have completely flopped. Now I know that I’ve gotten through to these kids on at least some kind of level. Somewhere, it matters to them that I walked away. How can I use that? How can I manufacture more self-imposed regulations?


1. Donna says:

[12/16/2008 - 8:12 am]


How can you use it? I’m not sure, really. I know I’ve witnessed lots of teachers throughout the years do similar things. Maybe it’s okay to do once in a while, but not on a regular basis? Maybe you can follow it up Monday (already too late for that I realize)with a discussion that will help them put what you did into a context so they can learn something about themselves from it?

I am wondering what grade you teach and if you are male or female.

I am a substitute teacher, middle-aged, female. Not sure why I’m asking (or telling), but there it is.

Yesterday I was substituting in a health class and there was a group of about six girls that had congregated around a double desk who kept talking about another girl who wasn’t there. They were saying horribly cruel things. I had already gotten into it with them a little bit, and then they started saying things about me (I think). I asked them if I was that funny and they said they weren’t laughing at me (of course). Then I said I guess it’s better you laugh at me than talk about a fellow student who’s not even there to defend herself, etc. And we kind of got into a bit–a little back and forth about gossiping and talking about people behind their back. I felt like I had to say something. I wonder: Do regular teachers witness this?
(Also yesterday: first period T.A.’s were talking about “kicking someone’s ass” and “she’s a dyke”, etc.) Some of these students should *really* be ashamed of themselves. They sound like rednecks.
Do you, as their regular teacher, hear this kind of talk? Also, as a sub, I shouldn’t tolerate this either, should I? Though, I feel somewhat that I’m crossing the line confronting them on it. Am I crossing the line?

(I’m in a teaching credential program and am wondering what I’m in for. Maybe I’m in for a constant battle because I refuse to tolerate this meanness.)

2. Damian says:

[12/16/2008 - 1:48 pm]

Assuming the final questions aren’t rhetorical, I’d offer that some classwide reflection/deconstruction might be a good thing. Nothing formal, just some frank discussion between you and the students. I haven’t met a teenager yet who couldn’t benefit from a little more self-awareness, even the good ones.

Good for you for keeping your cool, though. Reminds me of when I was a kid – mom and dad would scream and yell, and we’d keep on doing whatever we were doing, but when they got quiet… that’s when we KNEW we were in for it.

3. Todd says:

[12/16/2008 - 3:07 pm]

Donna, you’re right on for saying something. I hope you left a note for the teacher, too. You certainly should not tolerate this kind of talk and the teacher should be aware of it. Yeah, I notice those types of comments, though likely not as egregious as you indicate since students do censor themselves a little bit more around the regular teacher. But I try to call them on it every time. I know I miss it sometimes, though.

Damian, after this year, nothing will phase me. I’ve kept cool all year long so far and have faced some pretty rough situations in that class.

Not rhetorical at all. Thanks for the feedback, you two. I ended up just pushing forward. We’ve already lost so much time to this kind of frustrated metacognition. I think I have varying degrees of that frank discussion every day, so the impact of my actions on Friday would have been lessened by revisiting it.

4. Ben says:

[12/17/2008 - 7:43 am]

@Todd: I’ve always had this internal struggle between giving students the space to choose to work on an activity and actively walking around to make sure that they’re on task. With multi-day projects, I often feel that once I’m sure students fully understand the task I shouldn’t have to constantly patrol the classroom to ensure they’re staying on task. At that point they know what has to be done and how much time they have to complete the task.

On the flip side I feel negligent when students perform poorly because I gave them the freedom to choose. In my view students should be given freedom to work without constant supervision and prodding, but I’m not comfortable with allowing students to fail where some intervention would have helped keep them on task.

5. Michelle says:

[12/18/2008 - 5:53 am]

I was helping my students with their process writing yesterday, and after two excellent, on-task days, my fourth period decided to get rowdy every time my back was towards the majority of them. The off-topic talk was distracting, and I found myself unable to fully help the students I was working one-on-one with.

So I announced that I was going to take a three minute break. I didn’t explain why; I just sat and watched them. Several students raised their hands or called me wanting help or approval on thesis statements, topic sentences, embedding quotes, etc. I told them they would have to wait until my break was over. Frustrated, students started walking up to me with their papers asking questions, and I again told them they would have to wait. This was all within three minutes, mind you.

After the three minutes were up, I explained why I had had to take a break. I pointed out that they clearly wanted me to continue walking around and helping them because they kept asking me to come over, so on some level, at least, they value my opinion and my expertise, yet they were behaving in such a way that showed me they did not care. I was calm and careful not to rant. I let them know that I was going to begin circling the room again, but that I was going to take another break if I heard people go off topic (students are more than welcome to help each other during process writing in my class, so talking itself is fine). I didn’t have to take another break, AND students seemed to need me less because, by being on topic, they were solving their own problems either by themselves or with the help of their peers. It was a definite win-win.

This is not the first time I have had to stop teaching for a brief period in my career. Sometimes I think it is necessary to remind students that they do need me. I have learned that just a few minutes is enough, and that temporarily “quitting” is really only effective once or twice a semester at most. But the effects, when done well, are lasting. It has to be done when the students actually want help, when they are capable of helping themselves or each other (so my mini-lesson better have been good, or it is MY fault that they can’t move on and are getting off-topic. Yesterday, it was good, as was proven when they hunkered down and focused and realized that they could move on while they waited for a conference with me), and when I am positive that I am annoyed by their actual behavior and not some other frustration. I have made mistakes in all of those areas at some point (I wish I could say only in my first couple years of teaching, but that would unfortunately not be true), and if any one of those criteria is off, the break does not have its desired effect.

6. Ben says:

[1/8/2009 - 7:07 am]

It was wise of you not to revisit it, Todd. Too often I’ll bog myself down with unnecessary reflection with a group of students, which it’s really just me that needs the reflection piece. One of my downfalls in teaching.

However, as educators we quite often find ourselves in that strange realm of having to being supportive (it’s what we’re getting paid to do), but running into the lack of respect/recognition/acknowledgment, because many of the students know that it’s simply our job to be doing this (whether or not we’re showing our passion for teaching). Many students don’t consider it to be important for them to be engaged or active in classroom participation because they don’t recognize the time, effort, and importance of what’s going on around them; they liken it to a mechanic doing his job; just make sure to do the job right while I sit in the waiting room for my “learning to be fixed.”