Post-pandemic classroom chaos

Somewhere in the middle of Week One, I had to confiscate the thumbtacks and hide the Sharpies because some of my grade 9 students were using them “inappropriately”. Yup, they were poking each other and drawing, well, everywhere. During Week Three, someone repurposed a pin as a tiny rapier and surreptitiously attacked their classmates. Someone else found spitballs in their hair. I have had to keep both a basketball and a model rocket (“it really works”) at my desk.

Since then, I’ve reminded people to sit down – and reminded and reminded and reminded – not to swear in class (at least not at other people), not to talk while others are talking, not to throw spitballs (seriously, who does that anymore?) or erasers or anything, really, and finally – and somehow most shockingly – not to tie pencils into their hair and then swing their head around to see what will happen. Sometimes I feel like an ogre, but I promise that I am not: I’m just helping students remember how to interact with a group of people outside of their family, a group of people with a purpose beyond amusement. 

To make school better for them, I’ve surveyed students about their interests, offered them choice in reading and choice of writing topics. I’ve tried to create activities that allow students to move (we’ve only recently been allowed to let students work in small groups – I think – it’s hard to keep up with the rules) and to work with peers (or not, if they prefer). I’ve tried to identify learning barriers in my classroom and begun to work towards influencing the ones I can. I let students leave their backpacks in my room at lunchtime (no lockers), and I chat with them whenever they pop by. I’ve played innumerable games of tic-tac-toe with one student who doesn’t yet believe me that, played properly, it will always be a tie.

We take long breaks outdoors during each 2.5 hour class. We get social breaks during class time and… it’s exhausting. Teachers everywhere – not just in my school or my city or even my province – teachers I know from all over North America are talking about how different the kids are this year, how they are wild or immature or out of practice. We tell each other that they have forgotten how to school. And they have. Some of the stories are wild – a purposely broken finger, destroyed bathrooms, public displays of what should be very private acts. And all around us, non-teachers share their opinions: articles, podcasts, tweets and posts tell us that this chaos is good – let’s get rid of compliance and control! – or bad – learning loss is awful and they will never catch up! – but we’re still left with 26 fourteen year olds in a small space for hours every day.

I want to complain – heck, I do complain – but sometime last week I remembered a story about my friend Michelle. Michelle who teaches elementary school, who’s married to a pastor and has raised two lovely children. Michelle who collects picture books signed by the author and is incredibly thoughtful. Michelle who is one of the kindest people you could ever meet. But that’s not the story. Instead, I remembered that when we were in 8th grade she kicked Ken in the groin – hard. I don’t remember why. I do remember that we girls only vaguely understood that this was profoundly painful. I do remember that a teacher pulled her aside and explained exactly why this was particularly wrong – and that later she told us, astonished, about how much damage this could do. She was terribly chagrined – there were tears – and apologized quite sincerely. Ken recovered and 8th grade continued apace, this action soon overshadowed by someone else’s particularly stupid decision.

Until this year, until last week, in fact, I had never thought about what our 8th grade teachers must have said in the teachers’ lounge afterwards. I suspect that they shook their heads ruefully and maybe chuckled a little at the drama of the situation. I imagine that they took some deep breaths and made comments about 8th graders and immaturity. I’m pretty sure they didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one. I don’t think they decided that we as a group were a particularly mean or immature. I bet they took it all in stride. I bet that they don’t remember the incident at all. Or maybe – maybe – if someone mentioned it now they would have some recollection of it. Heck, I hadn’t thought about this for 30+ years; I’m not sure if Michelle even really remembers this. I mean, we’ve all done some really stupid things.

Now, as I look at my pandemic kiddos who are causing chaos in our classrooms, I have to shake my head. I’m not saying that this year isn’t a wild one – it is wild. I may not bring the thumbtacks back out before Christmas, and I’m not sure I’ll ever trust this group with Sharpies. And yet, when I’m not in the middle of it, when I’ve blinked back the tears of exhaustion and the vice principal has, again, reassured me that this is happening in all of the classes – after all of that, I realize that I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing about the pencils tied into the braids. And the kids aren’t the only ones who’ve slipped up on the cursing once or twice; I mean, I’ve been stuck at home during a pandemic, too. I’m pretty sure that the spitballs will dry up over time, and I have a feeling that some of the kids who can’t stay seated for more than about 30 seconds may turn out to be school leaders in a few years. Heck, maybe they’ll even be teachers someday – Michelle is and so am I. After all, pandemic or no pandemic, adolescence is always a little chaotic, right? Deep breaths, a little laughter, and a long-range view are going to help.

Many thanks to http://www.twowritingteachers.org for hosting this space.