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The Balancing Act

[Editor's note: Miss Brave is a third-year elementary school teacher in Queens in her first year as a classroom teacher. She blogs at miss brave teaches nyc, where this post originally appeared.]

Recently, my class had a very, very difficult afternoon. Julio had not had a good day: yelling, singing, humming, tapping, taking his chair wherever he pleased, pulling his jacket over his head, etc. (Julio is now on a long waiting list for a seat in a self-contained class after his mother finally and belatedly agreed that our class of 28 was not the right learning environment for him.)

During math, I gave this direction to the whole class: “Take out your slates and your markers. If you can’t find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead. If you can’t find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead.” Notice how I repeated this last part when I noticed kids starting to get up and wander around the room to look for extra slates or markers.

Julio had forgotten his marker. And I had forgotten to pick my battles. So as he got up from his seat to snag a marker after he had very specifically been told not to, I took the marker from his hand and asked him to take out his notebook.

Right around that time, Julio transformed into the Hulk. I’m familiar with Julio’s Hulk routine, so initially I wasn’t impressed. Basically it consists of rattling his desk back and forth as if he’s threatening to tip it over. Occasionally he does tip it over, and then he goes full-on Hulk, grunting and groaning loudly as he tries to pick it up.

So there I am, trying to manage (1) the Hulk and (2) the math lesson. Briefly, it seemed as though the math lesson would win out. To Julio, I said, “I understand that you’re upset, but you’re choosing the wrong way to get my attention, so I’m not giving you my attention until you can choose a better way.” To the class, I said, “If this dime is one whole, and two nickels can make a dime, what fraction of the dime would one nickel be?” The students are also familiar with Julio’s Hulk routine, and although some of them were kind of eyeing him suspiciously out of the corner of their eyes, they were on the whole admirably focused on math.

Just as Lonny was about to offer a well-reasoned answer, the Hulk brought his desk crashing down on top of his leg. At which point the Hulk transformed back into Julio, a 7-year-old boy rolling around on the carpet clutching his leg and screaming and crying about how he had just chopped his leg off.

I immediately called the office and asked them to send someone upstairs, and then I told the class that we would have to change direction for a few minutes. I asked them to take out their math journals and work on math boxes instead. Lonny dropped his head back and said, “Aw, man! But I knew the answer!”

Eventually Lonny did get to offer his answer, after the security guard and the assistant principal led Julio away to the nurse, before I had to fill out the incident report and accident report and make the phone call home to Julio’s mother. But I’ve been left grappling with all the questions raised by the Hulk, chief among them: What can I do to make the rest of the year bearable?

When I call his mother to tell her what he’s been doing in class, I’m not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. My assistant principal is sticking to her “Document everything and call his mother” mantra; I have a five-page single-spaced document of Julio’s transgressions on my computer, and no one ever looks at it but me. Obviously I need to be more proactive and do a better job fighting for my students — all of them — but I hate casting myself in the role of agitator when at the moment I just feel overwhelmed.

Am I dooming my students to a lifetime of fearing impulsively violent classmates and being cast aside while emergencies like this one continue to build? Why, in a school where we’ve had to call the police and ambulances for disruptive students, do we still not have a crisis plan in place for these situations? Why does my assistant principal call me to nitpick the reading levels of my students but not to find out if my desk-flipper is flipping any desks over today?

Too many questions. Not enough solutions.

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2 Comments:

  • 1 TeacherParent
    · Mar 29, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Bravo for Ms. Brave! What a great post and what great questions it posed. When such good questions as hers are asked, they’re usually answered with ‘not enough money.’
    For what? For someone to call and ask if the Hulk has made an appearance today? How much money does such a phone call cost?
    School has become a process of problems and paperwork that ‘documents’ the problems. We’re asked to include critical thinking into our lessons but there’s too little of it at the administrative level.
    I try to avoid the blame game at all costs but to fix the problem of the Hulk requires that more personal attention given to him. The phone call over reading levels should be given over to a personal call and a daily visit to the classroom by this school’s administrator to child Julio on his bad days and to praise him on his good days. Julia needs to feel a part of a community and needs to be helped to feel that what he does in the classroom matters not just to his classroom teacher but also to his Principal and Vice-Principals.
    Ms. Brave is almost brave enough to say it – there’s too little real leadership in our schools. Yet every study that finds a school that’s different because it’s better also finds just that – a real leader at the helm who reaches out to the several constituencies of the school community.

  • 2 Bob Calder
    · Mar 31, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Your assistant principal has taken classes to learn this behavior. Unfortunately.