Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. It was quite the day, to say the least. The temperature in the classroom was probably somewhere around 80ºF, it was humid, and the students were tired. A few of them seem to have already mentally checked out of school for the year, but most are determined to slog their way through to the end. The student teacher was not there today, but tomorrow is her last day. I have one more assignment with this class, a week from tomorrow.
It is an odd realisation that that assignment may be my last assignment with the class this year. There will only be a couple of weeks left after that, and I know that my mother-in-law has hated missing as much classroom-time as she has. (The reason she’s been gone so much is that she is a member of the committee that is re-writing the social studies curriculum for the district, and they have been meeting during school hours.) Couple the fast-approaching end of the year with my growing desire to receive a full-time teaching position this coming school year, and it means that things are wrapping up far more quickly than I would like.
At the same time, I’ve worked with this particular class so much. Third grade, fourth grade, and then on to fifth. I know them better than I know any other of my thousands of students. I would like to think that we have a great working relationship. I know that, for the majority of the class, this is true. I worry about the few that I just don’t seem to have been able to connect with; is it something about me, something about them, or something completely unrelated to either? The student teacher, her university supervisor, and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about this, and the supervisor made a comment that, as much as we want to, there are some students that we just aren’t going to be able to reach. The realist in my says that this is probably true; the optimist in me says, “Stuff that! I’m going to prove that I can do it!”
Today I had an experience that, to me, says that I’ve reached some of them, at least. A few of the students were eating lunch in the classroom. Near the end of the lunch period, I told them that I was going to use the restroom, and that I was trusting that they would not set the room on fire while I was away.
Apparently, I needed to be more exhaustive in my list of things I trusted them not to do.
I came back to see six of my students lined up in the hall, backs to the wall, with two of the 5th grade teachers speaking to them. As I approached, I learned that they had had a food fight while I was out of the room.
I was gone for two, maybe three minutes total.
A food fight? Seriously? I didn’t think that such things actually happened. I’ve heard tales of them happening back in the day, but I’ve also heard of students putting thumbtacks on the teacher’s chair. Things like that just don’t happen in this day and age.
Alas, I was wrong.
The other teachers went back to their rooms and I looked at the six students. Two of them had just returned to the room from doing something or other with someone or other (possibly related to the enrichment program; I really don’t know, though). So I asked the other four what happened, and I did so in my super-quiet, super-disappointed voice that I have very rarely had to use.
One of the girls looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Valencic. It was me. I threw a carrot at [she named a student].” I looked at the named-student and said, “And then what happened?” He said, “I don’t know. I was just throwing my garbage away when she threw a carrot at me. But I didn’t do anything to her.” It turns out that one of the teachers happened to be passing the door just at that moment, and so the food fight quickly stopped.
I waited for about 15 seconds, which probably felt like an hour to these students, and said, “Okay. Go clean it up.”
It is amazing what happens when you don’t use many words. The few words and the soft voice seem to combine to say, “You know? I’m done. If you want to be a hooligan, go ahead.”
I was peppered with apologies for the rest of the day, and queries as to how this would affect their participation in Fun Day tomorrow (a school-wide event), and the class field trip to Chicago on Tuesday. I told her that I wasn’t able to to make a decision on that, but I’d let her teacher know what happened and let her decide.
Two things happened in connection to this that made me think that maybe I have reached them. One, the offender was honest about it, apologised, cleaned up the mess, and prepared herself to face the consequences of her actions. The other was that another girl, who had been in the room during lunch, approached me later and said, “Mr. Valencic… I’m sorry. I threw a carrot into the trash can from across the room just as [the other girl] threw a carrot at [the other boy]. I am so ashamed of myself.” I told her that I expect her to tell her teacher what she had done tomorrow morning, and that I was going to follow up to see if she did.
And you know what? I think she will.