Friday, March 23, 2012

Tales From School: Temper, Temper

I've never been good at taking compliments or giving them to myself. In teaching, if a particular class goes well, I chalk it up to luck. If a class falls apart, that's entirely my fault. It's not a good way to think. There is something to be said for taking pride in things I do well. Today, that's what I'm doing.

Early today, students wondered what I look and act like when I lose my temper. I smiled. "I look and act like a fool." Then I thought it might be useful to say more. "I really do," I said. "I look like someone who has lost control and is unable to put himself together. When I lose my temper, I lose respect for myself."

We talked about what it is to lose our tempers, to lose control. It is late March and students, some of whom have been with me since September, have yet to see me get angry. That's different from last year and years before. Somehow I have turned a corner. I'm not saying that I'll never lose it again, but for now, I'm feeling peace in the classroom even when things go haywire.

I told them that in September I had set the goal of learning to be peaceful. We talked about how I keep from losing myself when kids tell me to fuck off and overturn desks. It didn't turn into a lecture. Instead, we were sharing our experiences. Every kid heard that my life and work are better because I'm more at peace. It's a lesson more important than English class.

Then, later, when I was coming into my last class I heard a commotion. I hustled in and found two students tussling near a desk. As I moved in, the female student cuffed the male student four times in the side of his head, hard. Her earring was on the floor, his bag was at his feet. Their hands were on each other and things were about to get messy.

I told them to stop and got between them. They backed away from one another. I kept my elbow on the boy and spoke calmly. "Okay, okay, take a breath." The social worker and hall monitor arrived and took them to separate corners. Then I started class.

We reacted for a moment and then I got them to tell the story like writers. I would have gone to paper and pen, but it needed to be more immediate. They told aloud what they had observed, what they thought had happened, what the characters' motivations were, and so on. As they spoke, I refined what they said, putting it in terms of story and reporting. I asked one student where she stood when things broke out. When another said that the girl had "flipped out" I asked for specific physical evidence of that. "What did you see?" The class told the story and a discussed of literary terminology. We talked about what a "reader" can know in that situation and how one "reader's" interpretation changes the story for another. It may have been the best English lesson I've done all year.

Two moments of pride. I haven't lost my temper yet this year and I turned an altercation into a lesson about writing and reading. Both "lessons" were more instructive than any lesson I might have planned for the day and, though they don't appear on any state or national curricula, were exactly what the kids needed to hear and experience.

It's a good day and I feel today like a good teacher.

Write on.