By the last few minutes of class on the Thursday of the first full week of school, I was losing my voice and, occasionally, my patience – and I was trying to disguise both. My brand new grade 9 students were, ahem, perhaps not as prepared for high school as students in other years – and I’m not talking about academics.
I expected this, of course. They’ve been in pandemic schooling, such as it was, for a year and a half. They haven’t been in a physical school building since April. During that same time, I watched my own child, only one year younger than the motley group in front of me, try to “multitask” by playing video games during particularly dull social studies lessons and attempt to learn while sprawling & squirming in a beanbag. I know that on-line school and in person are different beasts. But it’s September and we’re back in person and the pandemic continues, so we’ve put a bunch of 14-year-olds into classes that last two and a half hours each. Even if their teachers give them a 15 minute break during the class before mine, they still don’t get much motion. They are not prepared for this.
On Thursday, I stood in front of them as they popped out of their seats, asked to use the restroom, snuck out their phones, played tic-tac-toe during writing time and talked during instruction. Behind my mask, I bit my lower lip to hide a smile, but I knew that the chaos needed to be tamed – at least a little – before we could learn. So I asked what they needed.
“More time outside!”
“More free time!”
“Time to use our phones!
“Time to talk to our friends!”
Time time time – of course they wanted the thing I felt the least inclined to give. Time in class is too precious to waste. I harumphed. I definitely said, “Well, I’ll think about it” in the annoying way that adults say they’ll think about something when they mean “I’ll say no tomorrow.”
And then a strange thing happened: I thought about it. Thursday evening, I kept picturing S waving his hand in the air or K up and out of his seat again. I saw M sliding her phone out of the desk, eyeing me to see if I was watching. I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and his suggestion that teachers “burn five minutes” at the beginning of class for chatting and getting to know students and their concerns. I thought of Cornelius Minor’s We Got This, which I’m rereading, and his insistence that listening is teachers’ superpower. I know that true listening means both hearing what the students are saying and responding to it by making changes in the classroom.
As I sat in front of the computer, revising Friday’s lesson plan to include the myriad things that we had not gotten to on Thursday, the students’ communication – spoken and unspoken – ran through my head. They were going to take the time they needed whether I “gave” it to them or not. They had trusted me enough to share what they thought would help them learn. My job was to listen.
I looked at the lesson plan again and added the word “apologize” to the top.
Friday, I started by telling them that I was sorry I hadn’t listened carefully the day before. I told them that it took me a while, but I had heard them, and I showed them where I had built in outdoor time, chat time & phone time. I wish I could tell you that they magically settled into their desks and learned, but they didn’t. I still ended up confiscating pushpins (no, you cannot use them to poke your friends) and telling one student that he simply had to find a way to stop wandering the room. Nevertheless, they know I heard them. I suspect that things will get better… maybe next week.