All days simply won’t be triumphant. It’s just not the way teaching works. Some days your “best students” become your biggest nightmares, and some days the students that wear you out, surprise you. Most days here at Newcastle High School have been pleasant, with the exception of a few minor bumps and bruises.
I could tell it was going to be an off day when I asked my advanced year 10 class to take their laptops out, and only ten students reacted.
“Wait a minute, where are everyone’s laptops?”
“We don’t have them” Cindy retorted.
“What do you mean you don’t have them? You know it is part of student conduct to always be prepared, including your laptop.” –Immediately I thought, right Carley, because when YOU were 16, YOU ALWAYS had your book, your notebook, and a writing utensil…not
“Well we haven’t used them in a week or two, so we just stopped bringing them.”
“Alright, well we will just have to improvise!” I said cheerfully. I wasn’t about to can the lesson. This was true; we hadn’t used the laptops for a few weeks. We had been preparing for the advertisement assessment so we had been working mostly with magazine and newspaper articles.
I had a brilliant lesson planned out, based around the school certificate. The school certificate is an exam that the year ten students will be taking a few weeks after I leave Australia, which basically allows them to graduate high school. My lesson for today revolved around having them independently log on to the state board website and take the year ten English literacy school certificate practice exam, and afterward, answering a few questions in their notebooks which revolved around reflecting on personal strengths and weaknesses, along with class strengths and weaknesses. How could we do this with less than half of the class having laptops? I logged on to a school computer and checked the lab bookings, and every lab except for the Art lab had been booked, and the Art lab only had 15 computers, how inconvenient. This day was not running smoothly. I split my class of 28 up and those who brought their student laptops stayed in the classroom with my cooperating teacher, and took the practice test. The other half who did not remember their laptops came with me to the Art computer lap.
Once we reached the computer lab I noticed something interesting. ALL of the girls in my class had followed me to the lab. I thought perhaps they had done this just to stay together, but I counted, and the number of people who had previously raised their hands for not having their laptops was still the same. All of the girls forgot their laptops, and all of the boys remembered theirs. This intrigued me, because it is a class that can at times be female performance based. Two girls had to double up, Cindy and Sara. Cindy and Sara are the kind of girls who can perform excellent…without each other. With each other? They choose not to. Cindy does well when Sara is not in class, and Sara is able to focus when Cindy is absent as well. I thought about splitting them up, but there weren’t any more computers, and things were already hectic enough with my class taking the practice exam in two separate locations. I decided to let it slide. Once everyone was on the state board practice page, I explained the directions, that they had 40 minutes to complete it, and asked the class to treat this like it were the real thing. Once they began, Cindy, Sara, and a girl named Barbara all began talking.
“Girls, please take this seriously.” The girls looked at me and ignored my request. “Girls, stop talking.” For a minute or two it was quiet, until I heard Barbara’s voice again.
“Barbara, please stop talking”
“Barbara, please don’t yell at me, I only asked you to stop talking.”
“Alright I fucking get it!”
“WOAAAAAAAH!” I took a step back, and wore a look of complete shock and disbelief. Yes, I realize that ‘WOAAAAAH!” probably was not the most sophisticated initial response that could have escaped my lips, but it’s what came out either way. Barbara is a great student. Barbara is always pleasant, always participates, and does well on her assessments. Sure, she can be chatty, but she’s never been disrespectful.
“Barbara, if you want to use that language, you can go to the principal’s office.”
“I’M GOING!” She yelled. She stood up, kicked her chair over, and stormed out of the class.
About ten minutes later Barbara returned.
“I asked you to leave.”
“Well the principal wasn’t there.”
“Here are your options, we can talk outside about what just happened, or you can go wait for the principal to return.”
“Let’s talk outside.” Barbara followed me out to the hall and I asked her if everything was ok, and if anything else was going on outside of school that caused her to react like that.
“No Miss, I’m sorry, I think I’m just going through a phase. It’s not you.”
“Okay, I’m going to ask you not to return to class. However, I understand that you might be going through something. Go for a walk, I’ll write you a pass, and try to cool off. We’ll start again on Monday.”
Barbara seemed to appreciate the chance to cool off, and I returned to the girls taking the practice exam. Most of the girls were taking the exam properly, quietly reading the questions to themselves, and answering the multiple choice. However, out of the corner of my eye I saw Sara and Cindy Google imaging.
“Girls you shouldn’t be looking at Google images, you should be doing this practice exam.”
“We’re finished!” Cindy laughed.
“Cindy, you have 40 minutes to complete it, and it took you girls not even 10.”
“Yeah, we just clicked through it randomly.” Said Sara.
“But we got 7 out of 20!” Cindy giggled again.
“Ok girls, if that’s your score, go back to the classroom. There is a question on the board for you to answer in your notebooks.” Once Cindy and Sara left, and with Barbara gone, the whole lab was quiet, and one girl sighed in relief that she could finally concentrate. Another girl expressed a ‘thank God they’re gone’, and things continued on.
Once the last few girls had finished their practice online exams we went back to meet the rest of the class back in the classroom, where my cooperating teacher had them answering the questions on the board. I walked back into the classroom and shut the door perhaps a little harder than I would have on an average day. At this point I was beyond frustrated with my ADVANCED year ten class. First, half of the class didn’t bring their laptops to class. I book a lab, and ask them to take the practice exam quietly, and they spend the first half of the class fooling around. I ask one last time for them to be quiet, and I am sworn at, and a chair is kicked over. I catch students doing what they aren’t supposed to be doing, and they say they are happy with 7 out of 20? THIS WAS ABSURD. My brain felt like it was going to explode, but I knew I had to remain collected. As a teacher, sometimes it’s very hard when you’ve had a shitty day to not flip out, but you have to remember that it’s your job to get through to them, not to be their parents, so that’s where I started.
“I am not your parent, I am not your mate, I am your teacher, and the behavior that was displayed today is not only unacceptable, and extremely disrespectful to me, but it’s cutting yourselves short of what you are all capable of. You are an advanced class, and if you are telling me that 35% is what you are happy with for yourselves, then perhaps you need to consider a different English class. I, however, have seen all of you do exceptional work. If you want your future universities, and your future employers, to see that the best you could have done on the school certificate exam was a 7 out of 20, let me know now, and that’s the level that I will teach you at. On the other hand, if you want to reach your fullest potential, and score in the 80’s and 90’s like I know you all can, then that’s what we’ll do. I REFUSE anything less than your best, so you tell me RIGHT NOW if 35% is your best.”
The whole class became a combination of horrified looks, shaking heads, and immediate no’s. I wrote the words ‘STRENGTHS’ and ‘WEAKNESSES’ on the board, and asked the class to think about what their strengths and weaknesses as a class were. The class listed debating, vocalizing, analyzing, media studies, and public speaking on the strengths side. On the weakness side of the board they listed following directions, listening, language, reading comprehension, and grammar. I then told the class that for the next two weeks we would be using our strengths to study our weaknesses, so that they could bring all of their grades up, whether they scored a 35% or an 80% in the practice exam, the goal was to improve for the next time we took it.
After I said 'the goal is to improve', the bell rang. I asked the class to wait a minute before leaving, and ended with one last statement
“Please come on Monday with your laptops.”
All days simply won’t be triumphant, some days your best students become your worst students, but if you can find a triumph within a day which seems to have failed completely, your day won’t seem quite as long. This can be said about life in general. I won’t always be triumphant. Some days I will be successful, standing on a fifty foot pedestal, beaming brilliantly, as I watch students transform their insecurities to confidence. Some days the crowd will go wild, the ball will be out of the park, a home run, a touch down, a break away goal, a three point shot with the fade away swish, to win the game as the crowd goes wild. And some days, I’ll be the one in the middle of the field, or the ice, of the court with my head in my hands wondering what I did wrong. The trick to not beating yourself up comes with a lot of practice, patience, and the ability to acknowledge that while I didn’t touch every single mind in the classroom, there WERE positives. The boys, who often contribute to 70% of the noise, all brought their laptops and completed their exams without a single disturbance. Some students WERE happy with their practice test scores, and as a class we were able to come up with a list of strengths, and a list of things to work on in the next two weeks. Although it took a few stumbles to get to that point, I’ll stand up and try again on Monday
Hopefully my students will too.