Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whup Ass

When I was in the 6th grade, I was timid and brainy. I wore blue plastic-rimmed glasses and boat shoes and carried an oversized black L.L.Bean backpack that people frequently commented was larger than I was. I had crushes on bad boys from afar, and my favorite bands were the Beatles and New Kids on the Block. Once, I forgot my math homework and got a detention, and I've never forgotten the humiliation I experienced that day.

The three girls in the 6th grade class I am substitute teaching couldn't be more different from what I was like at that age. They walk into the classroom in the morning in tight jeans, turn on a YouTube video of Mariah Carey or Rihanna and flop facedown onto the couch. (Yes, YouTube is still allowed, at certain times of the day – NOT during lessons. I have to pick my battles.) They talk a lot about boobs and cute boys (I talked a lot about these subjects at that age too, but never at school and NEVER in front of boys). When I asked one girl for her homework yesterday, she stared at me and replied, “I didn't do it, because I had my singing lesson and that is WAY more important.” They tease the male 25% of the class constantly, and order him to sharpen pencils and pick up after them; he always complies with their demands. (I put a stop to some of their more ridiculous behavior, like having him practice singing songs for their spring concert while they criticize him, and implemented a behavior plan that involves me taking away minutes from a short end-of-day movie time when they are disrespectful and adding minutes when they work well together and are polite.)

Yesterday the kids were working on making posters for a fundraiser they're doing this weekend when I told them they had five minutes to clean up for math. The minutes ticked by. I gave them a few reminders. Finally, the five minutes were over, and the poster materials had NOT been cleaned up, so I took the posters away from them and said, “Chop chop! It's math time!”

It was at this point that all hell broke loose. The girls literally responded as though I had walked up to them and slapped them. There were tears, and protests – even from a child who had been out of the room when it happened. Her explanation? “When someone does something to hurt my friends, it hurts me too.” I couldn't help but let a snort escape when she said that.

And then something amazing happened. I told the two directors of the school about the incident, and they sprang into action. They sat down with me and the four kids and told them that things were going to change. They assigned them new spots throughout the school for reading and writing so that they will be as separate from each other as possible. They told them that, for the time being at least, the kids should consider their spring concert cancelled. When the kids tried to speak up to defend themselves, the co-directors responded, “No. You don't get a chance to respond. Your behavior has been indefensible. There is no excuse for rudeness and disrespect toward each other and your teachers.”

So, despite the fact that I am now spending all my days with four impressionable youngsters who think that I am the Antichrist, I kind of feel like I'm in heaven. Last year, when I had problems with my students, I consistently got the same message: “Ms. Heathen, you need to handle your class yourself. You can't send them out of the classroom no matter how disruptive they are. You just have to make it work.” (That was on a good day; on a bad day, the same message was conveyed by my assistant principal coming into my classroom and screaming at me in front of my class.) Not only was this unhelpful, but the students and their parents could perceive that teachers were not supported by the administration, and it made it all the less likely that anything would change.

My 6th graders, on the other hand, got the clear message that all the adults in the building are not going to support their behavior, and right now they think we're all evil. That is fine with me. I'm planning to continue to give my class a healthy dose of whup ass until their behavior changes. It may happen while I'm there, and it may not. But just think what monstrous adults they'll turn into if I don't try!

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