Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching. He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011. Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries. He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University. He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.
While the title for this post does not always ring true, in my few years teaching at Title I schools, it often reflects reality. In fact, rarely does a day go by where no student disrupts the classroom learning environment for one reason or another. As a fifty-something, I knew this going into teaching; what I did not know was how deleterious these disruptions are to continuity, sanity, and in the limit: opportunity, for my students, not me. As someone in the classroom every day, hoping above all hope that my students can break out of their behavioral binds, it challenges my every fiber of existence to keep the class focused on our learning objective(s) for the day.
Troubled youth make for troubled learning, not only for themselves, but also for everyone in the classroom. It is a huge force multiplier of the negative type. In spite of what is heralded as the balm for these troubles, compassion, empathy, and other soft moves are frequently insufficient to overcome years of ingrained indifference, frustration, anger, resentment, or a host of other emotions, feelings, or attitudes that have overtaken an adolescent overwhelmed by his or her circumstances. The older the youth, the more deeply embedded the issue or issues. Now, extend these to one or more adolescents in a classroom, and you get a snapshot of teaching in a Title I school.
A few days ago, for instance, I taught three block periods: two of which are split into two sections apiece of algebra 1 and remedial mathematics, and one AP Calculus section. The split sections are my attempt to support students who do not possess the arithmetic skill or understanding needed to succeed in algebra. Fortunately, my administration and the district office support me in this effort.
The AP Calculus students are rarely “egregiously” troublesome, aside from the fact that they have yet to realize that frequent side conversations among the eight groups of four students each frequently distracts others. At times, when teaching these students, it feels as if I am an onstage performer at a dinner theater with the audience commenting back and forth to each other about their meal, the show, or what not. Periodically, I tell them that the classroom is not their living room, or a movie theater, where they freely watch or chat as they see fit during “the show.” They seem a bit startled when I make them aware of their behavior, which puzzles me even more; it is as if I am the first and only teacher to ask them to consider their impact on a classroom. Notwithstanding their surprise, I persist, as I do not believe college professors will tolerate their behavior any more than I do, for the majority of my calculus students are college bound this fall.
Yet, this is not a post about my privileged students, who make up most of my calculus students. For they, mostly, are buffered, or far removed, from the intense psychosocial trauma faced by many low-income families. Simply put, they live free from most of the burdens of poverty. Burdens, which manifest themselves in low-income families, that inhibit attaining outcomes at the same level as those more privileged for the same level of effort.
My most challenged students, behaviorally and academically, frequent my algebra sections. Their presence cannot be missed: whether visually or aurally. While it only takes one student to derail the trajectory of a class, it is a rare day, indeed, when only one student in a class acts to call attention to themselves. The duration, intensity, and frequency of the derailments vary based on the class composition.
In the face of these ever-present disruptions, I have to: keep students’ attention focused on moving forward with their learning; address the momentary outburst and its subsequent ripples throughout the classroom; all the while doing my best to stay passionate, motivated, and encouraging without having a mental breakdown. I say that somewhat tongue in cheek. However, it is not too far from reality. Whoever mentioned that a teacher has nearly as demanding a job as an air traffic controller was pretty close to the truth.
Which brings me to the student who inspired this post. John rarely participates positively in class. He seems to possess a boundless ability to draw negative attention to himself throughout a class period. He failed first semester and is on track to do the same this semester. I hope with all of my heart that he wakes up soon and understands how important it is to his future that he pay attention in class, attempt some of his homework, and learn as much as is humanly possible, for he is quite intelligent in spite of what he may believe.
John reminds me of how my younger brother, now deceased, might have been in school. My brother was often truant. He ran with the wrong crowd, experimented with things I never knew existed at his age, and dropped out of high school shortly after starting. My brother may have been one of the silent ones, the student who attempts to disappear among the thirty or so classmates. He might have giggled frequently chatting away with his classmates. Regardless, he did not learn. He missed out on that opportunity, as he was deeply troubled. I will not go into details except to say that his burdens were too much for him. They may have been too much for his teacher, if they manifested themselves while in school: I simply do not know. What I do know is that I became a teacher, in part, to help those like my younger brother, of whom this one student reminds me. .
I will not hold my breath for John. I will encourage him as often as possible, in between addressing his behavioral shortcomings, for they do impact the class. His mother is at her wits end and unsure what to do about him. I believe my parents felt similarly some thirty plus years ago. Life is amazingly complex. Teaching is crazy hard. It drains me nearly every day. Yet, there is rarely a day I leave home headed to my classroom not eager to teach. Yes, some troubled youth await me; they are whom I most hope to help. Yet, I only can do my part to work toward keeping them on a path to graduate; they need to do their part as well. Time will only tell.