The young man was outside my classroom door, yelling to his friend down the hall, iPod turned up loud enough that my students recognized the song. I was teaching – or, trying to teach. I went into the hall.
“Where are you supposed to be?” I asked.
“Where are you supposed to be?” he asked me.
“I’m supposed to be teaching,” I said.
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“Well, why don’t you go back into your room where you are supposed to be, and leave me alone,” he said.
Anger that my students’ instruction was interrupted. Anger that this young man was walking away from his own education. Anger that, when not in the hallway, he was likely disrupting his own classroom and preventing other students from learning.
Anger at myself for becoming angry.
It is not like this young man – still a boy, really – woke up that morning and said to himself, “Today I just want to disrupt school.” Maybe he gave into peer pressure. Maybe he thought he was being funny. Maybe he was hungry. Maybe his home life was in shambles. Maybe he was afflicted by disability or illness. Maybe….
Who knows? Two thousand years ago they talked about demons. The traumas of violence, drugs, alcohol, neuro-chemical imbalance, homelessness – these are the modern-day demons that plague so many of our children.
I did not know the young man outside my door. What I did know was that sitting in just about every classroom were children who were hungry, who were scared when they returned home or had no home, who were plagued by mental or physical illness. Most shouldered their burden quietly, sitting silently in the back row, walking down the far edge of the hallway.
My attention went to the ones who were not silent, the ones who shouted, who turned their music up loud, who argued and fought. To simply maintain sufficient control of the class to be able to teach was a daily battle that I too often lost.
These disruptive students were few; the silently struggling students were many. I was grateful for the quiet because it meant that I could teach and the students could learn. Still, there were times that I asked for signatures from parents who were not around, demanded homework from students with no home, woke students who had not slept all night.
I learned in time to listen first. I saw our schools learn to respect each student’s circumstances. I have no doubt that our schools are more responsive to the wide range of student lives than was true when I began to teach three decades ago.
We think of schools as places of hope and opportunity. I have seen educators go to remarkable lengths to work with students to overcome hardship. They buy eyeglasses, donate coats, visit homes, tutor through their lunch. Teachers are not looking for actual quiet so much as cooperation and effort.
It is remarkably difficult to help someone who does not want help. It is pretty much impossible to teach someone who does not want to learn. Even Jesus wanted to know from the lame man lying beside the pool at Bethesda, “Do you want to be healed?”
For many, the future is obscured by a troubled present. Should we ask “Do you want to learn today?”, the answer may well be no.
What troubled me as a teacher was not just the “no,” but when this “no” was accompanied by an angry defiance that kept me from teaching those who answered “yes.”
When students rolled in late, and loud, when I asked for a phone to be put up and was told “get out of my face…,” when I was breaking up the verbal exchange that was escalating toward a fight in the back of the room, it was extraordinarily difficult to teach.
The challenge is to remain conscious of the background to the anger of the defiant students, to guide them away from the cliff of self-destruction, while also insisting on the right of the quiet students to learn in a safe classroom – to be fair to the individual and to the group.
A generation ago, when I was in school and even when I began teaching, we simply cast out the troubled through suspensions or active encouragement to drop out. Today, we do much better.
We seek to pull in troubled students, rather than push them away. It is a painful irony that schools are judged failures because we take on this hard, hard work that used to be left “out of sight, out of mind.”
Too often, however, we are not actually sure how to help. We simply leave the child in the school, still troubled and still disruptive. We have, in a practical sense, protected the troubled student at the expense of their quiet peers.
We as a community must seek – and fund – alternative settings and services. We know what works: mentors that develop long-term relationships, counseling, health care, hands-on learning in small groups. These are easy to name but hard to do. Some existing programs are successful but their scale is limited and the work is fragmented. Social services, health services, private agencies, religious institutions, even the police are all needed to guide our children through their anger to a place that will allow learning.
Our challenge is to create schools that are safe havens for learning, while enfolding with support the child who is troubled until his or her answer is “Yes, I want to learn. Today.”
Steven Unruhe, newly retired, taught every level of high school math over his career, as well as journalism and computer programming. He still wakes up in the morning to classroom dreams. He can be reached at email@example.com.