Saturday, August 25, 2007

Yesterday's incident

It all sounds so cliché, but when I think about the last seven years of teaching, I can count maybe three incidences that have effected me as profoundly. Over the last seven years, I've come into contact with about seven hundred students, so I am bothered when the implication seems to be that I'm not providing a safe environment for my students.

One of the rules in my class is that if you want to get out of your seat, you need to raise your hand and ask first. Yesterday, the student I referred to earlier, got out of her seat twice to talk to another student. Both times I told her to return to her seat and reminded her that she needed to ask first before getting out of her seat.

The second time she sat down, she told me she wasn't going to ask for permission because I wasn't her mom. I replied that there were rules that she needed to follow in my classroom and that was one of them. I told her that I had now given her a warning and that if she got up again, she would be serving detention on Monday. Right after that, she got up again. So, I told her that I would see her at lunch. Her retort back to me was "I'm not serving no fucking detention." At that point, I moved over to her desk and told her to step outside. When she chose to use language that was clearly inappropriate, she crossed the line.

As she got up, she shoved all of her stuff onto the floor. I told her to pick up her belongings. She said back to me, "you fucking pick 'em up." So, I told her that if she didn't pick them up that I would put them into the garbage. (It was her pencil case and her agenda.) She turned back around and told me she wasn't going to pick them up (using more language that was not appropriate) and that if I touched her stuff, she would "kick my fucking ass." I called our office at this point to send down our Campus Supervisors.

When she again refused, I will admit that I picked up her stuff and put them into one of my garbage cans. I have three garbage cans in my room and that one had nothing in it. In retrospect, I know that I should not have done that last part and when she comes back from her suspension, I will apologize for that.

At no point during this whole, ugly scene did I ever yell, scream or call her any ugly names. I told her that she was acting inappropriately and because she not only used language that was inappropriate, but she also threatened me. As soon as Campus Supervisors arrived, I got her pencil case and agenda out of the garbage. This incident took up about 15 minutes of my classroom time and furthermore once the kids saw all of this, they sure as heck weren't ready to settle back down into learning about longitude!

I have had other times in which I have had to ask students to step outside to take a breather. I've taught students (male and female) who were heavily involved in gangs. My school is predominately African American and Hispanic. I've taught African American boys who towered over me. I have had students who have come into the classroom highly agitated that I've been able to talk to, get them to relax and come down from wanting to beat up anyone who looked at them.

None of these students have ever used the kind of language that this girl chose to use or threaten me in this way. In my seven years, it has been African American girls who have not only threatened me with violence, but also think nothing of calling me a fucking bitch without so much as blinking an eye.

I may get slammed for this post and my previous post. I think that we are too afraid to talk about race in any way, shape or form. I'm asking for perspectives on this because I am not an African American female and so I'm putting myself out there at the risk of someone thinking I'm a racist. I didn't go into teaching to write referrals or to fail kids, either academically or personally. I don't have the expectation that every student is going to like me. I have had the pleasure of teaching many African American girls who I have never had any issues with whatsoever.


HappyChyck said...

First of all, I commend you for asking about something that could be touchy. I think the advice you were given in the previous post sounded great, and I took it to heart, too. I've had these same kinds of things happen to me. Sure, only a handful of times, but it was so unsettling that I get a panic attack just thinking about them. I had a student last year who was on the attack with me from the first day. I kept my cool with her at all times, but there was NOTHING I could do that would make her happy. Plus, her friends, who I'd already had in my class and had good rapport with, suddenly turned on me, too. I clearly felt she had issues that had nothing to do with me personally, but perhaps who I was as authority or by the color of my skin.

I've also noticed that with girls, if they are with their friends, they cannot be reasoned with as easily if they were alone. Furthermore, some of my worst confrontations have been from trying to keep them separated. Why separate them? That's what I do with students are sit with their friends and disrupt others. I don't even make a big deal. I just make a seating chart one day and mix up all the problems. However, some girl groups have not been able to accept it well. It may not be the first day they react, but they will someday. I wonder if that's a feeling of safety thing, or a feeling of entitlement?

Anyway, I look forward to reading and learning from your experience.

Chanman said...

Hey, welcome to the club! Quite often, I blog about the social pathologies in the African-American community and the subsequent effect on our schools. Believe me, I have taken my lumps for it. I remember one commenter telling me, "Obviously, you have a problem with black people." I don't actually, but I do have a problem with the disproportionate amount of academic and behavioral failure that I see not only in my school, but in our state and nation as a whole.

Heck, in the last three weeks alone, I have to have written at least five posts on the subject.

The only advice that I can give is NEVER back down or shrink away if someone calls you a racist or demands to know why your are "picking" on the black kids. If you are in the right, and you are truly handing out consequences based on behavior and not race, then go forward. I have a class where six black boys tag team me with disruptive behavior. When I held them after class for the first time, the first thing they did was to start bleating about how they were all black. I told them to put their race card away, because that trick is worn out and tired. Even though I have held them after class multiple times since, they have never mentioned race, because they quickly saw that I wouldn't let them intimidate me with it.

What an impossible situation we teachers are put into when we don't choose the race of the students who disrupt, but society acts as if we choose the race of the students we discipline.

The Angry Independent said...

Would you mind if I cross-posted this in the future?

s. said...

i think you handled this situation very well. i work with predominantly hispanic and vietnamese students so i don't have much experience with this particular fact, i had no idea african american females had this tendency to act out in this manner. i find this really interesting...i hope she calms down and you are able to find a way to communicate with her, or this is going to be a long year! sorry i can't be of help but thank you for writing so honestly about this situation...i look forward to hearing about the steps you take to handle the issue...i know i will learn a lot :)

Pete Reilly said...

When things like this happen often we feel we are responsible. We feel we should have handled it some way that averted the incident. We feel terrible.

It's good to remember at times like this, that this was not about you. She was acting out and she was lucky that she did it with someone as caring as you.

She needs you more than you know.

The angry ones are the most difficult to love; but the ones that need it the most.

In appreciation,

Miss Profe said...

Discplining students of color is always a touchy subject, but, so many of them live in situations lacking structure that they are the ones who need it most. Race is often used as a default for exusing students of color for their behavior. Yes, there are reasons, and race perpetuates many of them, but they certainly are not excuses.

Chanman's comments are on the money, BTW.

Ms. Teacher, I could not do what you do. I really give you and the other White teachers who work with significant numbers of students of color Major League props. Don't ever let anyone - of color or not - tell you differently.

mister MR said...

Rest assured, you're not likely a racist. Racism by definition requires hate and implies an agenda. That you are genuinely concerned pretty much disproves racism. You are however prejudiced, but everyone is prejudiced. We all pre judge people and situations based on empirical evidence, it is a human survival instinct. You said in the post that in 7 years the only kids who have cursed you have been Black girls. Certainly such a history would effect your expectations and at least on a subconscious level your attitude when dealing with the Black girls in your classes. That makes you an empiricist but not a racist.

Now I could go on from here and blather cultural sensitivity and positive expectations etc. but I'll cut to the chase. Yes this does have to do with race, class, and culture, but mostly trust. The girl clearly doesn’t trust you or believe you truly care about her, and be honest your actions weren’t exactly soaked in compassion. When she got out of her seat a second time did you feel affronted, defied, disrespected? Did you feel that the sanctity of your authority was in jeopardy and that you needed to take decisive action to maintain order? But wasn't this just a chatty girl who was burning to tell a story or pass on some too juicy gossip to a friend? When you threatened her with detention in front of all her peers it's likely she felt, well threatened, and then responded impulsively as is the nature of immature people. It was a textbook toxic classroom moment.

Perhaps you could have related your understanding of her need to chat and let her know with a knowing smirk/smile that that wasn't the time, or diffused the situation with some humor about juicy stories girlfriends share. You may have never been Black but you were at one time a middle school girl and should be able to relate on a female level.

Now you’ve got no fan in her and motivating and inspiring kids who feel you stuck it to them is nearly impossible. However you surely know that kids are resilient and this relationship can be salvaged. What you need to do is show girls like her that you care more about them as people than you care about your classroom and most importantly that you are not their adversary. You should strive to prove to your students that you are a genuinely compassionate collaborator in their education and not merely the boss of your room.

Lastly I have to mention chanman's comments. While I fully agree that standards must be maintained and that race cards can't be used as crutches, I think it is irresponsible for someone to NEVER back down when accused of racial unfairness because he/she feels right. Right is a relative term that is subject to situational, moral, and cultural interpretation. It is quite possible for someone unfamiliar with cultural mores to be insensitive and exacerbate a situation in the name of right. For example if I worked in a green boarding school that conserved water by allowing showers once every three days and chastised some white girl who was washing her hair daily to avoid oily build-up, I’d be right but not understanding or helpful.

Best to you.