She walked out.
I’ve been asking her and her friend to stop talking, get to work, put your cell phone away for a while now. Today, I tried to nudge them by saying, “I need you to be part of this class.” She bristled in response and said under her breath, “We *are* part of the class.”
Moments later they were talking again, so I walked back to them and said, “I need you to work.”
She shook her head and her eyes glistened. She muttered, “When you keep telling me to stop, it makes me not want to work.” Then she closed her laptop, put it away, grabbed her things and walked out.
I took a deep breath. I nodded to the EA in the room who quietly followed her make sure she was safe. The EA returned a few minutes later and whispered, “She’s in the bathroom. I think she just needs a few minutes.”
She was texting her friend, who was now on her phone full time, texting her back. I let this continue for a few minutes, sensing that she might need support, then quietly but firmly told her friend to say goodbye and put her phone away. I chatted briefly with her friend because she had also played a role in the incident.
When she returned – right before the end of class – she didn’t want to speak with me. She had only come for her friend. I tried to talk, then acknowledged that she was still upset and suggested we try again later. I said, “think about what you’re asking for. We need to talk about this because it’s not just going to go away.” She retorted, “I’m not a robot.” I honestly did not know what she was talking about.
She’s an excellent student in my class. She loves to read and writes with some ease. She comes every day, participates in discussion and generally seems engaged. Over the last week or so, she’s been a bit less forthcoming, but I did not expect today’s events.
I gave myself a few minutes after class to feel upset and vent. I am allowed to expect students to pay attention. I am allowed to make polite requests, even if they don’t want to do what I’m asking. I’m not asking anything outrageous… Any teacher can probably recite my list of grievances. Most of it came down to “I get to do this and I am right and she is wrong.”
By the end of lunch, I had settled down and started to gather information. First, I checked in with our EA. She, too, had noticed a change in behaviour and she didn’t think it was getting better. Then, I emailed her other teachers to see if they had any concerns. Two of the three emailed back immediately: yes, they were worried. She had been skipping classes and not handing in work. Uh-oh. Finally, I called her Period 3 teacher and asked if she could invite her to come talk to me at the end of classes. She did, but she was still so upset that she nearly cried and she couldn’t articulate her problems. I offered to write her a note to get into her next class, but she said her teacher wouldn’t care. Then she skipped the class.
I hesitated about calling home. At this point I was worried about her, but I did not want to get her into trouble; I wanted to find out what was wrong and to alert her parents that something had changed. In my office after school, I talked it over with another teacher. The final decision came down to this, as it so often does: “If your child was behaving this way, would you want to know?” Absolutely. I called her mother.
I opened the conversation by talking about how much I enjoyed having her in my class. I told her mother that her grades were good and she was generally an excellent student. Then I said that I was worried, that her behaviour had changed recently and that today had seemed really unlike her. I said directly that I was not calling to get her in trouble but rather to make sure that everything was ok.
I don’t think it is. Her mother did not know about any of the skipping and was immediately worried about her courses. Mom said things seemed fine over the weekend but wondered aloud about some other issues. We made a plan that involved mom talking to her tonight over ice cream and mom-time and me trying again tomorrow.
Now, I’m replaying the class in my mind and wondering what role I played in this moment. What has changed over the past two weeks? We’ve finished our preparation for the big standardized test and the students wrote the test on Wednesday. Could that have been more stressful for her than I realized? Maybe, but it doesn’t feel quite right. Hmm… No one has changed seats – and while I don’t love the seat she and her friend have chosen, it has remained consistent all semester – so I doubt that’s it. What else? I have tried, with depressingly little result, to implement a “no cell phone” policy. I’m not especially good at taking the phones away, unfortunately, because I am reluctant to introduce extra conflict into the classroom. I’m usually grateful that the worst offenders show up, so sending them out seems like a bad idea.
Still… I wonder if the cell phone thing isn’t playing a role. There are two kids in the class who have pronounced struggles with behaviour. I’ve been really at a loss about how to get them off of their phones. In fact, one of them left class last week when I asked him to put his phone away. (That’s a whole different story. I was actually pleased by his good decision making in that moment – though I still wish the phone wasn’t a problem.) I’m wondering how she views my behaviour. I’m pretty sure she sees herself as a good student who just wants to chat a little with a friend I wonder if my student believes I am treating her unfairly?
And now that I’m thinking about that, I realize that I have curtailed the amount of pair and group time for the class because I’m worried about behaviour issues and about the way the class is interacting. The last few class periods have been largely teacher-centered. Harumph. That’s not good. Why am I taking over? It’s a tiny class, but despite my efforts, I am virtually certain that at least some of the students would not define it as a safe space.
And there’s the crux of the problem: I suspect it’s safer for a student to leave, knowing we will talk when they have settled, than to stay when things aren’t going the right way and others might judge them. When I asked the girls to be “part of the class” they reacted badly because I had put my finger on the pulse of it: our class isn’t a cohesive group right now. It needs to become whole again.
This isn’t the entirety of the problem, of course, but it does give me a starting place. I would like our little class to serve as a safe space when other classes are tough, not to be the tough place. She’s good at English. This should be where she shines. So we need to figure out a way to make our class safe again. Might as well start tomorrow.