I finally received my degree in English at 40 years old when I was a mother of three, always aiming to be a high school teacher. In the fantasy world that was my brain, parents and students waited with bated breath for my entrance into the profession. After all, I was the teacher that Hollywood was going to make a movie about. And, why not?
I was older (more mature than younger teachers fresh out of college), had worked for years to get to this point (it stands to reason that I appreciated it more), and believed that I was one of the very few who actually cared about kids and their education (arrogant, much?). I was a self-proclaimed maverick.
So, my mind spun this tale to my brain.
Fast forward to approximately three weeks into my first semester of teaching. I’m standing in the middle of my classroom, which has dissolved into chaos. No, really. It’s completely out of control. It’s what I imagine a prison riot looks like.
I’ve just pushed the dreaded panic button because a young man has thrown a wooden school desk against the wall (through the air, even) and has broken it to bits. At that very moment, his face is inches from mine, and he has spat out four words that I never thought I’d hear in my classroom, or anywhere else, for that matter:
“Fuck you, Mrs. Fox.”
I force myself to keep my hands still by my side, even though I long to wipe off the wetness that came with those words — somehow, the act of cleaning it off would be akin to admitting utter defeat. I couldn’t show the class that this young man’s spittle bothered me in the slightest.
I remember thinking, “How the hell did I get here? WTF.”
Later that afternoon, I met privately with my mentor and another colleague to express to them two horrific truths that I had learned about myself and my life during the past three weeks:
(1) College doesn’t teach you how to deal with classroom discipline — not even close. It turns out that I have no clue what I’m doing.
(2) I’ve made an incredible mistake — I am no teacher, after all.
In shame, I continued by admitting to specific inner thoughts and feelings I’d experienced since beginning this teaching adventure. For example (although I hadn’t acted upon any of this), I confessed a secret desire to verbally humiliate certain disruptive students in front of their peers, knowing that I had the experience and maturity to do so. Yikes!
I punctuated that confession with the obvious:
I was NOT meant to be a teacher, and in the best interest of everyone, I would resign immediately. My lifelong dream was, in fact, a living nightmare.
Oh, I’d had three long, grueling weeks to think about my options. And I knew that there was an easy fix to my problem. However, I couldn’t bring myself to choose it. If I did, I would hate every single day that I came to work (and myself, for that matter), and I couldn’t live like that.
The fix? Just become the cool teacher.
Essentially, becoming the cool teacher is relinquishing control of your classroom to the students. My definition of cool teacher includes a popularity that makes teachers and students alike question the appropriateness of that popularity, even though there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
In my experience, there are three reasons someone might resort to becoming the cool teacher:
(1) It’s a teacher’s desperate attempt to regain control of a classroom in chaos (Fix-It-At-All-Costs Cop-out);
(2) The teacher has a deep need for personal acceptance and respect that they don’t find in their adult relationships (Center-of-Attention/I-Want-to-Belong Complex); or
(3) The teacher has creepy feelings and/or thoughts about children (I-Like-to-Be-Inappropriately-Close-to-Kids Weirdness).
Please remember that everything I’m writing here is my personal opinion based upon my own experiences and observations. Feel free to disagree!
Thank goodness that I had mentors who saw through my abject fear, feelings of inferiority, and belief that all was lost. Instead of accepting my conclusions, they strongly encouraged me to stay with teaching for a bit longer. These two professionals took much of their personal time to detail incredible advice, using specific examples that actually occurred or could occur in a real classroom.
I was an attentive listener who dutifully followed that advice. I kept at it, as they suggested. Our briefings and meetings decreased over time from every afternoon to twice a week, then weekly, then monthly, and then, whenever I felt that I needed the extra help.
By the end of my first year of teaching, thanks to these two outstanding human beings, my dream classroom morphed into a phoenix rising from the ashes. Teaching became the joy that I had dreamed it could be (minus the overzealous fantasies).
Fast forward, and it’s years later. I am a confident, successful, reliable high school English teacher who works hard and truly cares about each and every student. Not that it matters, but I have teaching awards hanging on my wall, including Teacher of the Year. I’m proud that my students earn some of the highest scores on their end-of-course standardized tests.
Classroom management has become second nature. Discipline is no longer an issue.
In fact, I’m pleased to hear administration say to both parents and students alike that, if Mrs. Fox sends you to my office, then I know you’ve done something wrong. Mrs. Fox never has to write up students!
There is no Hollywood movie, but my expectations are reasonable and down-to-earth. My view of teaching is more in keeping with reality than my previously naive (I’m going to save the world!) mentality.
It’s during this peaceful time that a male student is assigned to my ninth grade English class. As the days pass, I’m saddened to notice that Jarred (not his real name) has a terrible time fitting in with his peers and seems to be an outcast.
Students such as Jarred break my heart because their pain is almost visible to the naked eye.
Sometimes, it feels like I have a front row seat to a show I never wanted to see: A Bully-Fest.
I’ve seen enough to know that bullying can damage young lives forever. This is exactly why I DO NOT TOLERATE BULLYING in any form and am quick to snuff it out whenever I suspect it might rear its ugly head.
My students and I have frequent discussions on what it means to be a kind, responsible human being, and a brave one, too. I make it my personal mission to help students become members of positive social groups, however I am able.
Anyway, Jarred draws my attention because I suspect that he might be suffering at the hands of bullies. Also, though, I notice that his everyday behaviors seem, well, odd.
I decide to move up his name on my Meet Every Student’s Parent/Guardian list and keep my eyes open for any signs of bullying in the meantime.
When Jarred’s mom and dad attend our eventual after-school conference, I notice that his parents exhibit similarly odd behaviors and mannerisms.
Once the conference ends, Jarred’s parents ask me to walk with them to their car, which is in keeping with their eccentric behavior (even though they can see that I have other families waiting in line).
I agree so as not to alienate them. I use the walk to express how impressed I am with Jarred’s handling of the conference.
When we arrive at their car, I notice that it’s an old, run-down hatchback. I mention that I actually drove a hatchback for years in my younger days.
At his parents’ request, Jarred raises the hatch to reveal the car is packed with homemade crafts. I’m surprised when they begin quoting prices for items.
My heart breaks for the family. I see their struggles and secretly pray for a magic wand. Because my teaching salary is crap, I don’t really ever have spare money. However, I do buy a couple of items for their sake.
Then, the mom and dad ask if I’ll agree to meet them every month in the parking lot to possibly purchase more. Knowing that’s an impossibility for me, I tell them that I can’t, but interestingly, they won’t take no for an answer.
I find myself getting annoyed, so I explain that I have families waiting as I walk back to the building, carrying my purchases, their sales pitch following me every step of the way. I turn to wave good-bye, and the incident is over.
The next day, Jarred arrives early in the morning, long before his class meets. Throughout the day, I see him everywhere. He follows me like a puppy dog.
I slowly begin to realize that the attention and praise I heaped on him the day before must have meant the world to him. Incredulous, I begin to wonder if he might have developed a crush on me. It’s a crazy thought, but I can’t shake the feeling.
Teacher infatuation is certainly a problem I never expected to encounter, mostly because of my natural tendency to be a mother figure to my students and, of course, because of my age.
Surprised and uncertain of what to do, I decide to go home that night to research proper responses and solutions. I don’t want to be cruel to a kid who already has problems fitting in, and who probably has low self-esteem.
Unfortunately, after school, Jarred waltzes into my classroom. The inner groan in my brain threatens to come alive in my throat.
It’s been a long day, and his constant attentiveness has made me testy. After meeting Jarred’s parents, I’m not surprised that, throughout the day, he hasn’t accepted my social cues or explicit verbal requests to be on his way.
I force myself to smile at him, telling him to have a great evening as I turn back to my never-ending stack of paperwork. Of course, he doesn’t take the hint.
Instead, he tells me that he wants to share a joke.
Sighing heavily, I respond, “Okay. One joke. Then you’re going home, and I’m getting back to my work.”
Jarred pulls out a piece of paper and a pen, placing the paper on my desk. When he leans in to draw, he gets into my personal space. I exclaim, “Dude!” and move over the paper to create an appropriate distance. “Sorry,” he mutters.
Then, my worst nightmare comes true.
First, Jarred draws a square and says, “Guess what it is.”
I answer, “A box.”
Then he draws a triangle attached to the top of the box, and asks, “Now what is it?”
I think, “Aha! He’s drawing a house! What kind of a joke is this?”
I decide to end it. “It’s a house.”
Jarred smiles knowingly, as someone will when telling a joke. To my dismay, he begins to draw again.
This time, the poor kid draws swirling smoke and a straight sidewalk, but draws them in such a way that the whole thing undoubtedly resembles a penis.
I stare at it in disbelief.
I try to interpret it a million other ways in the span of about two seconds, but my mind keeps bringing me back to the same conclusion:
My student just drew me a picture of an ejaculating penis.
Horrified, I hear him say triumphantly, “Now, what do you see?”
When I look at him, Jarred is grinning and looks expectant. I realize that there is no time to contemplate or research. I must handle this now, so I say a quick prayer.
In my soul, I find that I am deeply angry. I look from Jarred back to the drawing, and then back to Jarred again.
Slowly, through tightly gritted teeth, my voice shakes of its own accord:
“Son, I need for you to tell me RIGHT NOW what I have ever said or done to make you think that it would be okay for you to draw this in front of me?”
Jarred’s grin vanishes.
I finish: “Don’t you ever, ever be disrespectful to me like this again. Do you understand me?”
Eyes to the floor, he responds meekly, “Yes, ma’am.”
I ball up the drawing and throw it into the garbage, telling him that it’s time for him to go home. He quickly picks up his books and bolts from the room.
I wasn’t trying to be hurtful when I threw away the offending drawing. Considering Jarred’s trouble discerning social cues and auditory instructions, I instinctively felt that the visual image of me balling up the picture and trashing it was especially important.
The next day is the polar opposite of the day before. Jarred is nowhere to be found. When he tries to slip unnoticed into class, I pull him into the hall and say:
“Hey, Jarred. Dude. Listen.
Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, makes mistakes. Sure. You made a huge one yesterday.
But I want you to know that I don’t hold grudges.
I want you to know that I forgive you. Do you understand? I FORGIVE YOU.
After this conversation, we’ll never speak of it again. Like it never happened.
EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT. Okay?”
He nodded but had trouble looking me in the eyes. I patted him on his shoulder and sent him back inside to his seat.
Later that afternoon, I reported the entire incident to his guidance counselor. She surprised me by responding that I handled the situation well.
Let me tell you, I was grateful, because I definitely was flying by the seat of my pants.
With time, Jarred was able to overcome his mortification, and we were able to have a proper teacher/student relationship until he eventually graduated from high school.
Teaching, my friends, is not for the faint of heart!