Saturday, November 21, 2009

Beautiful Disease

Oh dear reader, you're in for a treat. Once again, I can't sleep so here comes the midnight rant...
Currently, thoughts have been swirling about less "eternal" things, such that I've given up on bedtime after trying for the past hour-and-a-half.

Seems the work I do requires me, well, to work - and hard, at that. And certainly that offers little basis for whining, which I don't think I'm planning on, but it does occasionally put me in a stress of sorts that's rather out of sorts with my normal demeanor. The situation is this:

My district has a program, a program titled "Standards Based Promotion." This program is kind of a second chance of sorts, a chance for kids and the like that have gotten in over their heads with being held back a couple years or so. The idea is that the students can be promoted one grade level to help them get back on their feet and give them a little incentive to continuing pressing on (rather than ultimately dropping out). They're fully responsible for the material of both the new grade level and the one that they're being promoted from, which means extra work and all, but still. They get a shot at not being 2 or 3 years older than every one of their classmates and they tend to like that so it's kind of a good deal for them.

The problem is (and there are definitely problems with this arrangement) these students tend to be of a certain stripe. Whatever you want to say, it's a fact that there is a strong correlation academic performance and behavior (because all knowledge is related to virtue). This is to say, the students that typically receive this special promotion tend to be students that are simultaneously lacking in knowledge and social niceties. SBP kids are often (though not always) tough kids.

This is all well and good. It's my job to work with adolescents of diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. There will always be hard kids and easy kids. It's my job as a teacher to do far more than simply convey data. Anyone who's ever actually been in primary and secondary education knows that among other duties, the teacher is responsible for managing souls that are still learning proper behavior, which means we've got to manage a classroom much as a captain would manage his crew, with rituals, routines, and high levels of discipline. Some students will require very little guidance in with these subjects and some will require much more.

But still...

There is, even for public schools (that whipping boy among those fond of whipping), a limit to what is acceptable and understandable given the learning curve for that age group. There are often 12-year-olds who act like 10-year-olds. With a little correction these can quickly be reminded of who they are and what they need to change. But there are also those occasional - special - students who are twelve, thirteen, or fourteen who act like they are six. As it turns out (big surprise), some of my SBP kids are pretty durn special. And I get to deal with all their specialness on a daily basis.

Now I'm still a fairly young and inexperienced teacher and, while I've made huge strides this year, I still struggle to perfectly "steer the ship" as it were. This means, occasionally, I get a little bit stressed because I kind of have a hard time with some of the more challenging kids. Today, however, pushed me harder than I've been pushed in a long time.

One of my SBP students stands out as being especially challenging to motivate and control. There are good days, to be sure, but today was not one of them. Today, my student - oh dear - my student, wholly unprovoked, for reasons I cannot fathom, came into my room and decided the thing he most wanted to do was knock various items away from their proper place. He decided it would be fortuitous to go ahead and hit something off my desk - just for the fun of it? - and then walked toward the front of my room and decided to shove my overhead projector to the ground - ya know, cause Why not?

It's a real struggle, this student, because I know that I'm not going to be getting rid of him anytime soon. But I am simply at a loss. This student - who is clearly well on his way to sociopathy - is under my care for a couple of hours a day. And everything inside me wants to punish the hell out of him. But there's a part of me that knows better, or at least knows myself well enough to know that I just want to lash out at him for all the stress he's causing me. I take all this very personally. And, to me, I think there's something very right about that, but my mind can't rest because of it all. I feel responsible.

This may be the root of many criticisms of public education, but there is a sense in which it is very true that my job is to takeover for a parent for about 7-8 hours a day. For better or worse, I'm responsible for the well-being of other people's offspring in a way for which I'm held highly accountable. Silly as this sounds, I'm "dad" for those kids on a daily basis. (For some of those kids, there is a sense in which I am the only "dad" they know.)

This is hard for me, as I don't have experience as a father. I am only getting a glimmer of the struggles that true parents have, the utter befuddlement that their children can cause with their most radical failures in obedience and maturity. And it's hard. I'm aware of some of the circumstances behind this student's behavior, and there's a sense in which his actions are totally to be expected. But I'm wrestling with what strategies I can employ to teach that child that those circumstances aren't acceptable excuses. The trick, I think, is finding how to be simultaneously firm and encouraging to the lad - and figuring out how much firmness he needs and how much encouragement he needs - which is always the question, isn't it?