This must be what teaching feels like

Let’s say that one of my intractable students was suspended from class and another was absent.  The result? The rest of the class could learn something. The saying goes, “It only takes one rotten apple to spoil the barrel,” so when there are two, that is a rotten ass barrel of apples. These two fictional students would be the kind of kids that other parents pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in private school tuition to keep their own children away from. They poison the well.

I have had to continually bear interruptions to my lessons because, for example, Fric and Frac* may decide to throw paper balls at the trashcan, miss, collect the giggles and guffaws of the other 30 teenagers in the room, then slowly and deliberately, with great noise and attitude, get up to throw the trash away.  Corrections from me will bring either smartass comments or aggressive retorts. Usually there will be muttering in a language I don’t understand, bringing more gales of appreciative laughter from the crowd. So, unquestionably I am being mocked and insulted to my face on an almost daily basis. And when the bell rings, did anyone learn anything about possessive adjectives?  Apostrophes? Not judging by their independent practice. Mission accomplished, Fric and Frac.  Nobody learned.

When my students do not show progress on a state test, a test they take for four days in May that has no effect on their grade or whether or not they graduate, then I will be called  a failure.  An underperforming teacher.  When Fric and Frac take their sharpened number 2 pencils, bubble “Fuck you” into their answer sheets in three minutes, then turn to each other and start conversing loudly (they are, of course, on opposite sides of the room) for the rest of the 90 minutes allotted for the test, their scores will come back “Far Below Basic,” and that will be evidence that I cannot teach.

Send them to the principal, you say? That is strongly discouraged.  You see, if I send students out of class on referrals every day, my boss will start believing that I can’t control my class.  Like a boy who cried wolf, my referral will have less power every time it is sent.  Call the parents?  I do, all the time. I imagine they have giant hourglasses in their living rooms, counting down the seconds until these kids turn 18 and they no longer have to get calls from the school about them. It has no effect. I have no idea what goes on in these types of kids’ households. Sometimes the stories are painful and tragic, and for those kids, I do feel bad.

I’ve had this type of student in every class for all the 12 years I’ve been a high school English teacher. In the past, one of 3 things would happen: 1) the student would respond to corrective discipline and act better, 2) the student would get in some kind of big trouble outside of my class and be sent away to somewhere else (I never cared where, so happy was I to see them go), or 3) the student would get so tired of not being able to wear me down, s/he would start ditching class and no longer be my problem.  However it happened, I could get my class back and my other students could learn. That is, afterall, my biggest concern. As a former president put it, “Is our children learning?” Well, is they?

They never seem to go anywhere anymore. Maybe the budget cuts to our district have limited the alternative education options. They are almost never absent. They show up every day, usually late and making a big entrance, and piss all over everything I’m trying to do.  Everything I’m BEING PAID to do.  Everything that loving, caring parents who haven’t given up are trusting me to do. In my heart, I forgive them, for they know not what they do. But I keep TELLING them what they do, and I wish that they would listen. It’s their futures I’m working so hard to ensure. I have the wisdom and experience to know what lies down the road for people with no education. Big fat nothing.

And I’ll be honest. It makes me cynical. It makes me feel like there is no hope for public education. I used to think the “old timers” in teaching were a bunch of whiners, imagining some non-existent golden age of teaching when students respected you and principals supported you and parents did their jobs. I am very lucky to have a supportive administration that really cares about students. I won’t go so far as to say I remember any golden age of teaching when I first started out. My students have always been challenging to say the least. But they used to be the exceptions. One or two knuckleheads in a room full of normal kids (and a sprinkle of gifted ones too). Maybe I am just turning into one of the curmedgeons, but it seems to me that the knuckleheads have taken over.  Anti-intellectualism has become a movement in America.  Nobody cares about grammar or spelling anymore. There is no kind word for a person who likes to study or who gets good grades. Take your pick: geek or nerd.

I believe that I am even seeing the death of capital letters in my lifetime!

I have friends who teach at the fancy rich schools, and their complaints are different, but no less vehement. Cheaters. These kids’ whole families’ identities rest on them being accepted to whatever college they’ve been pushing those kids at since birth. They undoubtedly have pictures of the kids as toddlers decked out in Stanford, UCLA, or Harvard sweaters and hats, holding giant novelty hands. I can almost hear my Berkeley grad husband scoffing, “How dare you mention Stanford in your blog?!”

Oh, and drugs.  Private school kids have parents with careers who are often at work. They also have money. And lawyers.

When I think of the devil I don’t know, I tend to prefer the one I do.  Hardly unique there.

My lessons went so well today, I almost had a tangible feeling of doing some good. I rarely feel that way. When I walked around and looked at what the students were writing down, I was delighted to see they were getting it! I wasn’t being interrupted by Fric’s inevitable requests to go to the bathroom, the nurse, his locker, the drinking fountain, or the counseling office, nor Frac’s spontaneous bursts into song. The students were watching me, not to see how I’d react to these antics, but to hear what I had to SAY.

It was almost like being a teacher.

*Neither Fric nor Frac represents an actual student in any of my classes. They are fictional amalgams of a “type.”

About Mrs Odie

Friendly Pedant; Humble Genius
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16 Responses to This must be what teaching feels like

  1. Rosie says:

    Great work, as usual. With me, there seems to be a great chasm (sp?) between what I’m thinking and what makes it on paper!
    My last year of teaching (I only taught for ten. I loved it but don’t miss it.) there was a big, handsome, smart kid named Marshall. We all hated him. He was the anit-Christ. Kids ran off in the other direction when they saw him coming. He threw his sister’s kitten in the swimming pool. He ratted out his teachers to the principal (Once while I mentioned Dante’s Inferno and something about Hell, he reported me for swearing in class.) During my WWII unit on The Diary of Anne Frank, he raised his hand and wanted to know what all the fuss was about over killing six million jews, since it sounded just fine to him. Both his parents were District employees, and when my team members and I joined forces and announced that come hell or high water, the child would not step foot into any of our classrooms, we were accused of all kinds of teacher inadequacies. Don’t forget that tried-and-true parent mantra : you’re just not challenging him. He’s gifted.
    Well, bounce to present. Child is now in his twenties and if you Google his name, you will find blurb after blurb from the local paper’s police report. Most begin with the words “A homeless man…” Unfortunately his giftedness did not extend to his life of crime. He’s been arrested for – among other things, assaulting the Easter Bunny at the mall and stealing a stolen truck.
    Is the feeling I feel now called “Schadenfreude”?

    • Mrs Odie 2 says:

      Hey Rosie, somehow this ended up in my spam folder! Not sure how that happened.

      “You’re just not challenging him. He’s gifted.” Yes, they do say that, don’t they?

  2. Sarah says:

    AMEN!!! I used to be such a big supporter of public education and as a public educator, I do believe that there are good teachers here in our realm, BUT as a parent, I often wish I had the thousands of dollars (when my girls become school age) to keep my own kids away from the Fric and the Frac that inhabit our classrooms, hijacking our lessons and the learning environment everyone else deserves. I’m conflicted so I get this post so much. It sounds, though, that you are loving what you do and your are a beacon of light for those kids who love learning.

  3. Mrs J says:

    Brings back memories of my high school days, especially my Geography class. There was one guy who, though most of us liked him, we had no respect for his behaviour in the classroom. He was nice when he chose to be, then a total prick towards the teachers. I don’t know why he did that or why he even bothered to turn up to the lessons.

    I wouldn’t have the patience and I’d be kicking their asses out (figuratively, coz I don’t want to get sued now) – after all, why should the other students suffer these fools? It would be great if the students collectively stood up to the minority and told them to shut up or leave. Is there a student body at the school that could form their own policies on classroom behaviour and how to address it?

    • Mrs Odie 2 says:

      The student government kids would make a policy that they don’t have to listen to any teachers. They can just sit and talk about their plans for prom.

  4. Michele R. says:

    Yeah for those one or two kids or those few days that can feed a teacher, to mix it up a bit between the disruptive kids and the even more annoying parents who trained them that school is daycare.
    I live and breathe this struggle every day (except for June and July) with my husband. Why are we happy our kids qualified for the gifted classes while in elem school? Because once they got to middle school and had some regular ed and some gifted classes they saw/see the difference in behavior for the most part.
    Also, I want to slap any adult who thinks that teachers should receive merit pay for high test scores. Why would they possibly think that any one class is equal to the other in terms of the “widget” that walks through the door? A manufacturer can reject a bad material so that the manufacturer can control the outcome of the product. Not the same with teaching. Unlike private school, public school has to work with whatever walks through that door.
    The good news about high school is that there are many choices of friends and many choices of classes, and if my kids want to be in a challenging class, they will have to work for it.
    My husband would agree with you on the difference seen today vs. years ago. And don’t even get me started on how teachers used to be able to teach the material deeper, and have conversations and go with it. Newer teachers who only have been taught to teach to the test sometimes imagine what it is like to be able to work in an experiment or spend more time on a book.
    So good to hear that you had a productive day.

  5. Mrs Odie 2 says:

    I try to be as captivating as possible, but I’m teaching English to foreign born teenagers. As for teaching material directed toward the kids’ interests, I don’t think any district will let you teach porn.

  6. Kim says:

    Both of my children made it through high school by the skin of their teeth. And I’m not sure where it was that I failed that particular part of parenthood. My oldest daughter is now dragging herself through college and is on the honor roll and desperately wishes she had paid more attention in her high school days and more time in her classes. My youngest daughter has yet to learn anything. At least anything that would help propel her forward in life. She is content with treading water.

    I wish I had the magic answer for your and for me. I look at my grandson and hope that somehow he figures it out and that his classmates aren’t Fric or Frac. Education is the key for the future. And somehow society has made it OK to not want that education.

  7. Meghan says:

    Mrs. Odie,
    I have so much I’d like to say with you, discuss with you, I would much rather give you a call and have a nice long girl chat…haha.

    Anyway, I “found” your blog because I happen to love Ms. Hampton’s blog and you come up when she is googled. I read the comments you have made about her and I can absolutely see your point of view. I know her life isn’t really that perfect but I strive to find the peace she presents. However, I also strive to have the humor about life that shines through in your blog. Peace and humor, perfection!

    Regarding your post today, I find it extremely insightful. I have not been fortunate enough to be friends with any teachers, so I only know them as a student, or parent of a student would. I guess I had some mystical idea about teachers, not really having feelings about any of the students, one way or another, they were just present, teaching. I love how you explain fric and frac and I can feel the frustration of having to deal with them day after day. You are a wonderful, insightful writer and I hope you get a book deal. Although, as I read this I get a sense of stand-up comedy. You could take your material to the stage!

    Sorry so long, I am not known for brevity!

    Best wishes,

  8. mrsk6 says:

    Sometimes in my elementary placements, I can see who will grow up to be Fric and Frac and it makes me relieved that I only know them at the age of 10. Even better, the biggest problem in 3rd grade I have is talking out, talking incessantly, and talking about anything other than the subject at hand. Hardly worth complaining about really. What really saddens me though is that you are right about the test scores and what they will “mean.” When they talk about “underperforming teachers” they never mention underperforming students as the CAUSE, only the result. Teachers like you are overperforming to no result because you love what you do. I’m glad you have a productive lesson. I wish you could have celebrated with a bottle of wine.

    • Mrs Odie 2 says:

      My good friend teaches first grade, and she talks about students who have behavior problems. I’m always amazed that it starts so young! Everyone knows teenagers can be wretched, but we expect little children to be wonderful. The talking incessantly that you mention is what drives me insane. Fric or Frac has to make a comment (not in English) after nearly everything I say, and make the class laugh. And God help me if I crack a joke or have a lighter moment and laugh. They mock my laugh in the cruelest way. I know that deep inside every mean boy is a sad, hurt boy, but they make it tough to remember that.

      • Michele Renee says:

        Imagine how involved with the family the elem teacher has to be. When you get a new student that has a huge file, is on meds perhaps and has a parent(s) doing a horrible job, the teacher may worry and worry and worry about that child. There are meetings with parents, meetings with school psychologist, meetings with principal, action plans to fill out, etc. etc. That child’s teacher can end up being the one adult who cares the most for that child’s best interest. Those students can be the people that the teacher thinks about in the morning and evening. The lack of parenting is absolutely amazing and disgusting.
        In our district not much happens to an elem school child in the discipline area. My Hubs teaches 5th grade which gets them ready for middle school (starts in 6th grade), at which a child will get sent to the school for behavior problems if there is a panel. So he is strict and has to deal with worthless parents who threaten him for being strict with grades and behavior grades when he actually has their best interest at heart. And believe me when I say at heart.
        The principal gave him 9 students this school year that have files 5 inches thick. Because she thought it would be best for the student as she knows he cares, and does not avoid confrontation with parents. Unfortunately it has been so taxing that it may be his last year teaching.

        • Mrs Odie 2 says:

          High school teachers always say, “I don’t know HOW you can teach elementary,” and elementary teachers always say, “I don’t know HOW you can teach high school!” If teachers are born and not made (I actually believe it’s both), then we’re definitely born one or the other. I’m sorry your husband finds it so taxing. It really is an energy vampire of a profession. If you don’t love it, there’s no way to stick with it. Unless one is resigned to be mediocre or worse, and your husband is not one of those.

  9. Rosie says:

    OT – you’ve got some competition here, Girlie-girl. Just sayin’

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