Tantrumming Kids and Sinking Ships

I have taught special education kids for three years now and strangely, I personally don't identify as a teacher. I know I teach a specific audience and previously did not have general education teacher responsibilities (now I do) but most days its pretty terrible to teach.

Last night, I was messaging with a group of teacher friends and the topic came up again: to teach or do anything else. We dreamt of taking over a salon and working at jobs that don't require pre-and-post-test data, progress reports and grade cards, 7 individualized behavior plans and rarely, if ever, feeling good enough or respected.

Salon work has its negative moments too, I'm sure. And it's hard to understand the plight of a teacher unless you are actually one or live with one. There are dozens of articles, books, movies, LAWS written about everyone's opinions on education but I don't understand why teachers don't get to speak. Why can't we tell everyone what it's like?

Where I have worked, low-income schools, kids come in needing everything: clothes, shoes, food, sleep, medical attention, just plain old attention, a hug, to have fun, a chance to play with other kids, to be kids. When none of these needs are met, there is little education that can get done. On top of all that, my kids have disabilities, meaning so many things, but mostly that they can't tell you what's wrong because they don't know, they have the energy of the sun and no clue how to stay in one area, they're frustrated because they're sick of school being hard, they're frustrated because there's a sound in the room that is driving them insane, it's too cold, it's too hot, it's too bright, because they don't know how to make friends......I could make a list to the moon. Throw in the fact that I have way too many kids to give all of these things to, followed by double the paperwork (IEPs, progress reports for their IEP goals, behavior charts filled out each night, ETR reports, extra individualized homework), 30 minutes of "planning," statewide assessments that send my kids into angry tailspins, and it's just me to figure out how all this stuff is supposed to fit into place.

So it's hard. Duh. And when things don't go right (85% of the time) it's downright torture to teach. While starting a lesson on Black History Month, one of my 3rd graders decided to play drums on his desk. When I asked him to stop, someone laughed at him. He started yelling at the laugher, and the laugher yelled back. Another 3rd grader started flailing his arms because loud noises really bother him and he started shouting for them to stop shouting. Another 2nd grader got involved, flipped his chair and left the room. Another 3rd grader started spinning around until he got so dizzy that he bumped into my only 4th grade boy, who cocked his arm back ready to punch him. All. By. Myself.
I quietly whisper to each student a way to calm down, a direction (go to the quiet area) or (take a break next door) but when they are at a 10, everything is a refusal. And there is nothing I can do besides asking my principals to remove 5 kids from my class. On great weeks, this only happens once. In the midst of terrible weeks, this can happen multiple times a day. It all depends on sleep and food and meds and if there is a giant full moon outside.

But most teachers see success, which is downright addicting. When something does go right, when you're able to teach and see 12 amazed faces when you show them how the planets orbit around the sun, and get to dance to the Planets Song, you realize how lucky you are to be able to dance to the Planets Song for a living. This is what you do, and it's working! You're a rock star! They aren't throwing chairs at each other and everyone is having fun! And learning! You will be lauded for your post-test success! Cue the trumpets and ticker tape!

 Yes. It's rewarding. But the sighs of pity to outsiders that ask me what I do for a living just don't make it worth it. And forgive me if I sound like I'm not grateful for a job, but it's not worth the constant high blood pressure-inducing stress. Not for one moment every other week of actually getting to teach versus being ringside for the next fight between elementary aged boys.

It's not about education. Where I work, and where I have worked, it's simply a social issue. We have so many more social issues that warrant immediate attention that we don't have the resources for, and yet education is supposed to be the most important thing, beyond basic needs. It's like force-feeding someone soda when they haven't drank a glass of water in 3 days.  They need more and we can't give them what they need. We are forced into this model of slamming too much information into their tiny, malnourished brains and we're shocked and horrified that all that comes out is anger and frustration because they never, ever get what they need. And neither do I.

I need to feel like I'm doing something that I love. Everyone I talk to always cautions me when I talk about leaving education by saying, "You don't know how much of an effect you have on these kids." Sure. But you know what else is torture besides just attempting to keep the peace? Wanting to teach, so very badly, to students that are bursting with potential, but having that taken away because there just isn't enough. There isn't enough of me, there aren't enough hours, others, curriculum, snacks, naps, fun, to make any of it make any sort of sense. And although I know I will miss the stories and their faces and their dances and the way they look at me real funny when I act just as silly as them, it's better to walk away and hope someone can do better someday instead of watching this sinking ship get deeper and deeper into territory where education no longer becomes anything I witnessed, grew up in or was changed at all by. We are expecting kids to sit in their seats and be quiet not because we are terrible teachers, but because that's how we are asked to teach. That's how we get through the mountain of curriculum and Common Core and that's how we don't go crazy. But there's little room anymore to dance and sing and act silly. Not when you're expected to follow the curriculum map.

So, it logically doesn't make sense. All that's left is this bleeding heart for these kids that are so hard to teach but are so great in a ton of ways. And in what may be my last three months to ever teach, I've decided to try three things:

1.) I am going to be silly and dance and laugh and hug my kids. Always. Even when I don't want to or don't feel like it. I'm going to laugh when they say funny things even if they didn't raise their hand first.

2.) I am going to put their needs first, even if it means we draw pictures of turtles and lawn mowers during reading instead of read because some of us are sad, even if it means taking two snack breaks when we worked really hard that day, even if it means we don't get to writing because we all need to laugh and watch a funny show, even if it means I have nothing to show my TBT (teacher-based teams) or my data coach. We were busy being humans, not data robots.

3.) I am going to remember that they are children, even when they act rude, disrespectful, ungrateful, and spoiled. I am going to remember that they need to be reminded that they are kids, too, and that school should be fun, not sad. And if we're not having fun, it's my fault too. School shouldn't send you into a frustrating tantrum when you're in 1st grade. For anyone.

I don't know what I'll do this fall. I may go take another crack at it or I may go work in a coffee shop. But anyone who is a teacher or who has taught before knows that it's possible that there's nothing like those great teaching moments when your kids' eyes light up with "getting something." I'll miss that and the hugs and the stories more than anything. But maybe I'm not a teacher. Maybe I just thought I could change education instead. Or maybe I'm just a guinea pig-loving blogger who had to teach in order to find out what she wanted to do. Either way, I'm going to do something I love. I just don't know what it is that I love yet.

Here's to trying......