I remember the first time I saw The Freedom Writers (2007). Based on a true story, it stars Hilary Swank as brand-new high school English teacher Erin Gruwell. That scene when she runs a piece of painters tape on the floor to show the students they aren’t so different after all never fails to give me goose bumps. I was inspired by the way Gruwell sacrificed her time, income, and even her marriage in her effort to change the lives of her low-income, urban, and at-risk students. Through her dedication and hard work, they turned into driven, purposeful, productive members of society.
Other inspiring teacher films include classics such as Stand and Deliver (1988) and Dead Poet’s Society (1989). Each gives hope to new teachers, convincing us that even the most unreachable children can be reached and the most depressing cases can become success stories. A single teacher can change the trajectory of any student, no matter how poor or behaviorally-challenged or negative towards his education.
I’ve been dealing with a particular student for the last two months that makes me seriously question the validity of that idea. I was discussing his case with a more experienced teacher today, and using her words, “Students like that make teachers want to quit teaching.” She’s not wrong; his negative behavior seems to have intensified in the last month to the point where I end each 48-minute class period exhausted and close to tears. Our interactions cause me to flash back to my first months as a new teacher, two years ago, when I’d close my classroom door, turn my lights off, and cry because I felt so useless and incompetent at my job. While FERPA prevents me from revealing any concrete details of his case, I have found this student to be the most manipulative, subversive, and perverse person I have come across in my two and a half years of teaching.
When I returned from maternity leave in October, I knew my substitute and this student had not gotten along; she left me detailed notes about each class which I chose not to read, instead wanting to meet these kids on their own terms, a fresh start, like the first day of school might have been. I really wanted to give all my students a second chance, and for nearly all of them this was a good plan; my class is generally one of the favorite among the core classes, and I have a low failing rate and high engagement in any given class.
This particular student is one of those singing my praises (“Mrs. H, you’re one of my favorite teachers. You get it.”), which doesn’t make any sense when nearly every moment of class is him trying to undermine any semblance of academic environment in our classroom. I tried to be non-confrontational with him, thinking that might help him get on my “side” and allow us more room to modify behavior. I run a lenient but consistent classroom; if kids do their work and are generally respectful, I treat them respectfully and usually give them the benefit of the doubt if something goes awry.
Unfortunately, this way of teaching has backfired in this student’s case. I have tried a dozen seating charts, desk arrangements, and revamped my entire lesson plan to accommodate this single student, and it hasn’t made a difference. I have one classroom arrangement that works for my other five classes who enjoy discussion, but instead I have to create one that works for him. He can’t handle discussion; it leaves too much room for extremely inappropriate comments and mutterings about other students under his breath.
When he is absent, the period is a dream; other students comment on how nice it is to not have him here. My instinct is to tell them it’s wrong to gossip or say things like that, but I stay silent instead, because they are right. When he is present, generally quiet, well-behaved students are antagonized to the point of cussing him out, requiring me to write a discipline referral for their behavior when I know full well I would have responded the same way in their shoes. What is so frustrating is how polite he is toward me; “Yes ma’am” when I tell him to put up his phone…only to see it out two minutes later. “But I’m feeling antsy, ma’am,” when I ask him not to stand and stretch in the middle of my lecture. “Of course, I’m done now, ma’am, won’t happen again,” when he gets up to go talk to another student across the classroom while another student is doing work at the board. He makes rude gestures at other students, but as soon as I look at him he stops and smiles sweetly, like Sylvester the cat when he gets caught trying to eat Tweety Bird – I can almost see the cartoon halo that instantaneously appears over his head. His period is filled with his friends for whom he performs…even though he hasn’t figured out that most of the time the class watches him with trepidation, anxiety, or disgust, not admiration, but he always has their full attention. I watch their eyes follow his antics as they face me, but it is nearly impossible to catch him in the act or do anything that could be proven; he’s a tattletale – someone else always starts it…it’s never his fault…
In order to qualify as bullying, a student’s behavior must involve an imbalance of power and repetition. After some reflection, I’ve concluded that this student is a bully. I have spent days trying to figure out what I could do better and where I went wrong: was it because I took the first six weeks of the year off, so I lost my chance to establish good routines? Should I have kicked him out of class earlier, before I knew my non-confrontational plan wouldn’t work? Is it because my class is too free-flowing, too discussion-based, too this, too that? He is expected to put his phone on my desk when walks into class, but doesn’t; it’s probably because I haven’t asked for it. I probably should have kicked him out of class when he got up while another student was up front…but there were only two minutes of class left. I keep coming up with all these possibilities of actions I could have or should have taken, or things I could have rephrased or omitted to improve the situation…but it’s not my fault. My mentor teacher worked to convince me of this; it is not my fault. This students is more than capable of making his own decisions; regardless of any medical diagnosis or disability, he knows that what he is doing is wrong, and yet he does it anyway. She suggested that I drop the tip-toe act around him, and greet him on Monday with a blue pass to ISS and some work to do. I told her that he’d get frustrated and first insist the accusations were false, then blame another student for starting it. She told me to create a checklist of behaviors I’ve observed him do in class, make copies, then at the end of class each day checkmark everything I saw and hand that to him with the ISS pass; it’s documentation, and clearly shows how all his little underhanded actions add up to being an unending disruption to learning. I spent two hours after school on Friday looking for his counselor and monitor teacher, and documenting his behaviors. I lost my conference period last week to a meeting for him, and another hour for an after-school meeting with all his teachers. That’s four hours in one week spent on this kid of my own time, when all I want to do is pick up Sparatacus at daycare and go home for pizza and beer.
They never taught me this in my teacher certification program in college. The program’s motto was, “Teach for social justice.” The Erin Gruwell model, in which we give everything for the sake of these kids, was venerated. The teachers at the charter school at which I student taught worked 80-hour weeks most of the time, coming to school at 6:30, leaving at 6:30 or 7, and returning on the weekends to continue their planning. It wasn’t until much later in my student teaching that I realized most of those teachers at the school were single, and few of the married ones had children. Their job was their life, all in pursuit of changing that one problem child and giving him a future.
I can’t throw every ounce of my being into teaching; baby Spartacus and Hubster are my life, and school is my job. As I continue to document this student’s behavior, I know that each referral is one step closer to getting him removed from school. He will go to our disciplinary alternative campus, and eventually…at least in my view…end up in prison. When we do the post-high school talk, he insists he’s going to be a millionaire as a rapper. I second guess myself when I know this student is extremely bright and inventive, and wonder if kicking him out of school will send him down the path of no return…but I’m also sacrificing the learning of 16 other kids by having him in the room. After numerous discussions with this student’s other teachers and my husband, I know that I can’t save him – and it’s not my job. In that respect, films like Freedom Writers put an undue strain upon our expectations of ourselves as teachers. I can’t save them all, and at some point, I have to give up trying, or end up losing my confidence and any desire I have to teach in the future. I’m angry that any 16-year-old has the capability to make me question my abilities, when I know that I am a good teacher. I am a good teacher. It is not my fault. I can’t save everyone. I’m a good teacher. It is not my fault.