When I arrived, the class was in chaos.
I had been warned by numerous staff (secretary, Title I Specialist, other teachers….) that this class had no classroom management from their previous teacher. They walked all over him. They jumped on desks (yes, sixth graders), fought (yes, physically), ran in and out of the classroom at will, and showed disrespect to all adults. This class was created six weeks after the start of school, they went from one teacher to Mr. R., and as a first year teacher, he did not know how to manage them. And now I would be their third teacher. Mr. R. quit two days before spring break and didn’t even say goodbye to them. On my first day, a teacher walked up to me and said, “I will pray for you.”
I thought I would come in and teach them at least some of the sixth grade curriculum. Having taught previously for six years in the MPS system, I was confident I could get them focused and prepared for junior high. Of course, the students I had taught previously were in the highest socioeconomic bracket. These kids were in the lowest. I didn’t know how challenging it would be and how much I would learn.
At first, the students were quiet and listened to me. I introduced myself, and let them know that I was a teacher with experience and that I loved teaching. I was there to teach them for the rest of the school year, and I was not going to leave or call in sick. I told them about my family (naturally, they were very curious!) and then I outlined my expectations. “We will line up in the hallway each morning. You will no longer just walk or run into or out of the classroom. I will shake each of your hands and you will look me in the eye and say good morning.” I heard snickers and the students looked at each other. Is she serious?
27 students. 45 days. State standardized testing would take place three weeks after my arrival. Where to start?
The classroom was filthy. The carpeting was soiled with food and other spills layered over time. Posters and student work were stapled haphazardly on the walls. Rules for the classroom were published using a lot of words and not enough action. A woman from District came to visit me. “Boy, you sure do have a lot of work to do. I hope you don’t spend all of your weekends cleaning and organizing in here.”
I got acquainted with the troublemakers quickly: Bruno* who entered the room shouting profanities and telling everyone to “shut up.” Samantha* who I was told by several adults was “strange, very strange, but not mean. Just can’t stop talking to people.” And about five or six other boys who ran around the classroom and spent their days as if they were on the World Wrestling Entertainment channel.
They chided each other, talked incessantly while I was teaching and brazenly spoke back at me when I doled out consequences for such behavior. They received cherry tomatoes for snack time and when I turned my back, they had food fights. I stopped allowing tomatoes in the classroom. Each time I sent a child to another classroom (many teachers made this offer upon meeting me) or to the Principal’s office (for hitting), the culprit would yell, “Great! Thank you, I WANTED TO LEAVE!” I learned that it was much more effective to have them lose their recess for 1:1 tutoring with me.
One day, when I had been there just long enough to gain their trust, but still new enough to be deemed naïve, I made a startling discovery. We were in the computer lab, about to start some math practice when Jake* asked, “Mrs. Chung-Wipff, wanna see a picture of my dad?” I thought, How nice, I’d love to see his father’s corporate bio page. I wonder what he does? On Jake’s screen was a mug shot of a man whose unkempt appearance rivaled Nick Nolte’s close up. “Oh my,” was all I could muster. Jake said, “I haven’t had a relationship with him for nine years, actually.”
The kids around Jake had already seen the photo, had already heard the stories. “Mrs. Chung-Wipff, want to see my dad?” Diego* asked. I looked at his screen and saw another mug shot. “Over here, Mrs. Chung, over here.” Another mug shot, Rodrigo* beckoned me. It was too much. “OK, everyone, let’s get to work.”
I learned through the next few weeks that their fathers were mostly incarcerated for DUIs or physical violence. Their dads beat their mothers, stepmoms, and strangers in bars or neighborhood parties. One of my students, Bruno*, had both his parents in prison for violence. Bruno was living with his three older brothers (all gang members) and his stepmother. There was something a little off about his face and I couldn’t place it until one of the other teachers told me that his brothers had tied him down and shaved his eyebrows off. They never grew back the same.
These students did not choose their parents or their home lives. They want to succeed like everyone else does. But no one is telling them to go to bed at a decent hour, to eat nutritious foods or to even care about their homework and what they have learned. They have dreams of becoming veterinarians, football players, video game producers and they are smart. Boy, are they smart! But how to reach them? How to connect? I learned that the most effective thing to do is be there. Model the importance of learning, the passion. Listen more, speak less.
*all names have been changed