She walked out

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.

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14 thoughts on “She walked out

  1. I really applaud you for recognising that your class might not feel like a safe space and thinking positively – past mid-year – about how to make it a positive space tomorrow. Like most teachers, as you pointed out, I have also experienced extreme frustration when a student was lashing out and not following class procedure, despite my best intentions. Just yesterday in my Drama class I had a talk with a very disrespectful student and realised a) I was way more angry than I realised and b) it wasn’t about me, but I was making it about me because the space wasn’t safe. It’s nice to read your thoughts as you process all of this and think about the best course of action, leading ultimately to “What have I done to contribute to this?” It’s a great reminder to all of us to think about how we have shaped the environments that we force children to spend time in.

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  2. This situation sounds hard. Of course there are a lot of moving parts and not all of them are visible or audible. I know that feeling when you’re trying to get to the bottom of something and there’s always more to investigate, consider, weigh. I’m glad you wrote about it. Your student is fortunate to have a teacher who is prepared to go beyond platitudes to make class a safer space.

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  3. We watched this video at our staff meeting yesterday. Even before I read this, the teacher in this video made me think of some of your posts. The boy you chased. The student who wanted to talk about race. I think you see your students. You go through a lot to try and understand your students and to help them. I see that here.

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    1. Thanks for this. You have no idea how much this helped me. My student had a really rough day yesterday, too – took up quite a bit of my time, actually. I went home wondering if I was doing enough. The fact that this video made you think of me at all is giving me strength to help her again today.

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  4. I really admire how you tackle tough issues in your posts with complete honesty. I agree with Jessica that you see your students and work passionately to try to connect with them and work with them. I do hope that there’s nothing more than this going on with your student, but whatever the situation is, she’s lucky to have you in her corner.

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  5. I admire your dedication and applaud your involvement. I also encourage you to follow up and continue to watch carefully. Also, If she has a journal, I would take a look at it. I saw red flags in your piece at the part when her mom said she knew nothing about the behavior changes, and I believe it because the same thing happened to me with my daughter. It was her high school English teacher that contacted me about very scary things (multiple suicidal and self harm) entries that she had written. I couldn’t believe it was her journal; I thought it had to be a mistake because we knew nothing at home about the way she was truly feeling inside; she hid it well, and we are a very close family. That teacher may have saved my daughter’s life and at minimum started the ball rolling for years of therapy and medication that finally got her on her feet again.
    Kudos to you for the humanitarian that you are, and for sharing it so beautifully with us.

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  6. I am so impressed with you. Your students must love you. I know you don’t feel the love at the moment, but the fact that you are trying to figure all of this out shows so much compassion…. listen to you….
    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 is such amazing thinking!

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  7. I, too, am impressed with the care and humanity you showed this student. It sounds like a tough situation. I struggle with cell phone usage too-it’s so hard to manage.

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  8. I chuckled when I read about the conversation continuing via cellphone from the bathroom to the classroom, but I know you’re facing a serious issue, and I know teaching sped adds another layer of complications to the issue. It does seem as though something has happened, some drama in the girl’s life that transcends your class but inserts itself into the room via the phone. I have a pretty strict cell phone policy, but three of the four classes I teach are college level, so I can approach them differently. I do think older students are beginning to realize phone usage interferes w/ learning. Rather than trying to convince kids w/ my words the problems associated w/ cell phones, I bring research to them or invite text-set conversations. I don’t know if this will work w/ your class. At one point you mention not wanting to get the girl in trouble, but I see her choices as her responsibility, so you aren’t the one getting her in trouble. We have a problem in my school w/ kids wondering the halls, so although I understand allowing students to step out and decompress, I also recognize other potential dangers and disruptions associated with this. I do hope you’ll share how things work out. Good luck.

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  9. Teenagers are tough! As I was reading I kept picturing one of my little friends. I had a supply teacher in a few weeks ago who had been this child’s grade 1 teacher at another school. I’d left the “watch out for….” not and the guest teacher wrote back to me, “That’s exactly what I saw in her in grade 1!” Now, 2 years later, I am picturing her 5, 7, 10 years from now and hoping that we can help her through some of her obstacles.

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  10. Ah, Amanda, you’ve taken the first reflective steps and there’s some great advice here from fellow writers. I love the video that jcareyreads posted. I’m praying you have wisdom… and that the words and ideas come to you that will reach the students you’ve mentioned…. that you will witness change… in you and in them. Blessings!

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  11. The amount of reflection and dedication in this slice is absolutely amazing. When you settled down and ‘started to gather information” it became clear your were…are….determined to be there for her because you believe in her and you will be there for her when she is ready. This is one honest slice and I admire it and you! Keep at it! Thanks for sharing!

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  12. Might as well start tomorrow? Actually sounds like you already started today. It’s a long, winding road after all, with occasional dead ends that require fumbling towards a new route. This thoughtful slice epitomizes such work in progress.

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