Thursday, January 12, 2012

Opposite Day

I spent the past two days in a row at a particular school, both times in special ed. Special ed can be fun because you're hopping around all day and each hour you find something new to do. Anyway, today I present to you: The Life of An Educator. You know, because I don't really do that enough in this blog. 


Scene 1:

The faculty lounge, conveniently located next to the door that the students use to exit for recess. A substitute with an oddly timed lunch break eats alone. Fifth graders wait in the hallway to go outside.

Fifth Grade Boy: (peering through the window into the lounge) It's that mean sub! (assorted groans from the rest of the class)

 (The substitute contorts her body awkwardly so the children do not see her laugh hysterically.)

Scene 2:

Teacher: (to substitute) And you'll have to be on guard with Mark* since he can get really out of control. I already filled out a referral for you to use in case you need it. I would show him that you have this so he knows.

(several hours later)

Teacher: (to Mark) Why are you working so quietly? You never do that when I'm in here! What, is she prettier than me? 

Mark: No, but she's a lot nicer. You're mean.

(once again the substitute turns to mask her laughter)


You know the philosophical approach that everything is simultaneously true and not true? Totally applies here. I was mean to that fifth grade class because they were acting out and not showing respect. And I was nice to Mark because I sensed that a softer approach would be more effective than being stern. In fact, one of the fifth graders from the day before was also in Mark's group, so I'm sure he was terribly confused seeing me be completely mellow. I'm sure it was a drastic change from the sub who wrote his name on the board two weeks in a row because he wouldn't sit still or shut up. Was I right to be "mean" to the fifth graders? Yes, but perhaps my method of meanness was ineffective.

I always feel a strange pull when I'm in the classroom: the teacher-for-a-day part of me is focused on classroom management and making it through the lessons and everyone leaving in one piece; the counselor part of me is a big softy and wants nothing more than to sit down with these kids and talk to them one-on-one until we make some breakthroughs. It kills me when I notice a kid who, say, clearly has anger management issues but is really a big teddy bear, or a kid who has great leadership skills but no idea how to harness them for good. I want to work with these kids and make things better for them. But I'm in a room with 25 kids who all need attention and all need to learn to divide fractions within the next 35 minutes. I think this is where my lack of education background becomes an issue: I'm still negotiating a balance between those two parts of me. This temporary career has consisted entirely of sink-or-swim, crash-and-burn on-the-job training. Some days I feel confident and in my groove, and then there are some days when I feel completely clueless. (And by "some days" I of course mean "twelve times every day.") I keep meaning to ask others in my program if they feel a similar tug, but I can't think of the best way to phrase it. You always hear horror stories of teachers who become guidance counselors to get the hell out of the classroom, but I imagine there is a population of counselors-in-training who, like me, are frustrated that they cannot form the relationships they want and accomplish the goals they have in mind when they are working with 25+ students at a time. Then again, maybe this is an attempt to normalize my own feelings. 

I suppose whenever I hear myself described as "nice" or "mean," I think about it as those two separate sides of me trying to work themselves out. I highly doubt that it's a good idea to internalize that feedback in this way, but I do. Don't get me wrong: I know that universal popularity is an illusion, especially when you're taking on an authoritative role that comes with the power to take away recess. But I think that sometimes the kids can tell when I wear my teacher hat and when I wear my counselor hat. I just hope that they always can tell that I genuinely care for them, regardless of which part I had to play.

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