As I watch people share their first day of school pictures, I'm reminded of new beginnings and reflect on some of my earlier teaching experiences. One memory in particular stands out, and I'll try to capture the essence of my first major life lesson as a teacher......
It was 1996, and I accepted my first teaching job at a school that only accepted students who had been kicked out of pretty much every other school. I started in January because everyone else had quit. I was in charge of five students. Five. I was their third teacher that year. They had literally run two other teachers out of the classroom. There were also two other adults in the classroom. You would think the ratio of three adults to five students was an easy gig. It was not.
Within 72 hours, I had been cursed at, called names that I didn't even understand, and threatened with physical harm. They ran, all of the time. One student in particular thought my name was White Ho-Ass Bitch. Did I mention they ran- ALL the time?
The most important part of the story is that in a three day time period, I hadn't completed one lesson. I handed out the first text book to a young man who threw it right back at me, all the while spewing a sequence of profanity-laden prose that was as impressive and poetic as it was vulgar.
In debriefing with my colleagues at the end of those first few days, they shook their heads in disbelief of how absolutely terrible I was. They outlined my myriad of failures.
Several more days passed with not much improvement and I was exhausted, frustrated, and completely over the idea of being a professional and having a real job. I was in over my head.
I spent my days getting my ass kicked and my nights drinking cheap wine and contemplating my options. I could quit. I wanted to quit. I was confident that I should quit.
Or I could give it more time.
I didn't know much, but I knew I needed to get their behaviors under control. They needed incentives. And I needed to stop getting my ass kicked.
One night after some wine, I developed an elaborate plan to plaster all of the walls and ceiling with Velcro. I would buy yards of colorful felt and cut out cute little shapes and letters and come up with words of wisdom in hopes of inspiring the students to do something extraordinary with their lives. I would have a Word Wall with samples of their own writing, and an Art Wall filled with their own creative versions of life. I would add endless games and activities and chart all of their academic and behavior progress using popsicle sticks.
Popsicle Sticks and Velcro. That was my idea.
It was brilliant, I thought at the time. And in true Ralphie from A Christmas Story fashion, I would surely get nominated for Teacher of the Year.
I bought $250 worth of supplies, money out of my own pocket. For the next four days, I hung Velcro and felt all over my classroom walls. I didn't even try to teach anything because I had a plan, and I didn't have time to dodge books. I just needed it to work. For four days they all watched me like a baby panda on display. They were curious and bored. Two students got into a fist fight over what I was trying to do.
"Ms. Ross, whatcha doing?" an onlooker asked.
"It's a game asshole. You can't fucking see that? You're a stupid-ass...." said the student next to him.
And so it began.
I remember feeling relieved the room cleared that day because I needed to focus more now than ever. Before they left for the day, I masterfully explained the plan to the three remaining students. It was simple, they would be rewarded for doing their work and for exhibiting good behavior. They could make their own pieces and move along from one popsicle stick to the next, earning all sorts of things. The final stick was a pizza party.
No reaction. None.
The next day I was out of the building for training and returned the following day to a pile of felt in the middle of the floor. What wasn't on the floor was drooping from the wall and ceiling. Popsicle sticks, cute little designs, all gone. They had broken the one picture frame on my desk. It was a picture of my dog. You could still see pieces of glass on the floor. And a desk was broken and pushed off into the corner. I scanned the room. One of the students had a popsicle stick in his mouth. It was THE PIZZA PARTY stick.
"Yo, Ms. Ross," he said chomping on the stick, "looks like we get that pizza party."
Bastards, I remember thinking. You little.......
Fast forward 20 years and I have since realized a few key things. First, interventions should be research-based and not wine-inspired. Second, it was never about taking control. I thought I needed to get the students under control. But it IS about building relationships. And being present. Throw in a little unconditional support and a good sense of humor....... and wait.
I never quit that job in 1996. (Well, I did quit briefly after a chair-throwing incident but quickly recanted by the time happy hour was over.) I finished the year and stayed another to make sure I fully understood the capacity of the work we are charged with as educators. In that time, I made plenty more mistakes.
The other day, I was setting up my new office and a student who I worked extensively with 3 years ago just about tackled me out of pure joy in seeing me. It is a feeling like no other. Now, she is a senior focused on graduating and going to college to be an art therapist. We spent a while catching up and I have never seen her so confident. It was a great moment, and one that never involved Velcro and popsicle sticks.