The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, March 21, 2005

Self-knowledge is a key shield when one is faced frequently with aggressive and challenging situations. We all recall a teacher who bullied, a teacher who loved his own swagger, a teacher who delighted in the sound of her own voice.

A friend opines that it's those who 'know' they are good at something who have often become worst at it, and those who deny any skill whatsoever who largely outperform the rest.

His words prompt an unexpected reflection. I think back over this idea, in the light of the recent upsurge in violent or disruptive behaviour in my classroom.

I recall a time last summer, when the head, full of determination to make us 'celebrate' our 'positive achievements' asked me to join a working group based upon my expertise in non-confrontational handling of disruptive students. She recommended only three teachers from the schoool. I was pleased and flattered. And began to believe that I was better than most.
She went on to recommend me to wider audiences for my collaborative approach to traumatised and wildly difficult teens.

Steadily, basking in the rosy, fleeting glow of being valued, my usually sweetly-bland admonishments and self-effacing entreaties to students began to take on a new timbre: a distinct, unfamiliar undertone of 'don't you know who I am?'

The head put me forward for the AST programme. I scoffed, politically unimpressed. She pointed out that I was one of only two possible candidates in the borough. Quite a different response. Sudden, quiet smile.
Those children, they're just naughty, I began to think, whenever a child refused to play the game I now felt myself so good at. They're unreachable. I'm not losing my touch. I'm better than anybody at this.

Steadily, the rot set in. The feral wise cracking gum chewing wall kicking shit slinging abandoned waifs and strays who rip up my books, tear down my posters, swear at me in the corridor: sensed, unerringly, that I was not on their side.
I was on, if anything, /my/ side.
They were mere tools for my greater glory, my slide into self congratulation. Materials, nothing more.

Last two weeks of term, and pressure in the school reaches bubbling point. Incident after incident shakes my calm sufficiency: after a sleepless night, I bawl out a child loudly in the corridor.
Why shouldn't I make a scene? He's making one. He's kicking and beating a door down, at age eleven, and screaming abuse at three adults. I call him a 'silly boy' and something inside of me gives way; thinks: 'stupid boy'. Not silly.
I tell him to 'shut up' - a heinous crime in a London school. I can tell a child to Be Quiet, to Go Away, to Stop Annoying Me - but never to Shut Up.

He bursts intears and hurls himself to the floor, drumming his fists at me.
"You can't say that to me," he screams, shocked out of his argument about a lost football.
"And you can't swear at teachers, break school property or hit me, but that doesn't seem to stop you." I'm impressed by my own logic, righteous in my rejection of an eleven year old boy.

Another teacher approaches, soft voiced, conciliatory. She brushes an elbow, quietly, with inviting familiarity suggests it's a good moment to exit the corridor, to go to a room and just calm down.
"You're not helping by reacting like that. Go sit down sometwhere quiet."
Eases with soft touch towards the furthest door.
She's talking to me.

Not him. Me.

Later, a student teacher I had mentored telephones to ask if I'm okay. She'd never seen me lose my temper before.

I rationalise. I hadn't lost my temper. What is she talking about? It was that other teacher who'd been unreasonable. I'd been perfectly in control. Standing over a child and scaring him into crying. Perfectly in control.

The shame of it is, it's not until Monday morning, that I realise who I am, now.

When I shame myself into realising the kind of teacher I've become.

Not until the moment I tell a sixteen year old boy to "get out of my fucking class" in front of twenty four other children, and don't bat an eyelid, that I realise I have terrible classroom management skills.
That, contrary to my esteemed reputation, I suddenly find it hard to step away from confrontation, much less do something actively good to inspire those children with behavioural disorders to fid other outlets for dealing with challenges.

It's those who 'know' they are good at something who have often become worst at it. Perhaps one day, with this self awareness, I can survive the seductive charm of the local reputation, and learn to admit my true lack of skill with difficult children.

Then, perhaps, I may have a chance, a crack, at outperforming. Outperforming myself.