As a 4th year teacher in the New York City public schools, I feel secure in my ability to manage and teach a class of 26 first graders. This doesn't mean, however, that we aren't teetering on the edge of total chaos at all moments. It's as if the children are just waiting to riot or just implode sometimes. From the moment I pick them up in the cafeteria each morning, I can see it in their faces.... so many long faces so early in the morning. They have heavy glazed-over eyes. It is a deep sadness brought on by unimaginable circumstances that I will never fully understand. So much of teaching is intuition. Like right now, I'm completely beside myself with worry about one of my students because I just have a feeling that something is terribly wrong. Yesterday he lost his sweater and when his mother came to pick him up from an afterschool program, they came back upstairs to my classroom to look for it. He didn't leave it in my room. I suggested that they check the cafeteria or the office. I could tell that the mom was steamed. I guess it was the second sweater he had misplaced. He has seemed pretty down for the past week and I was meaning to pull him aside and talk to him about it, but I didn't get a chance with everything else that is always going on (like kids peeing on your rug while packing up to dismiss at 3:00...no kidding that actually happened). Anyway, he didn't come to school today and I'm just really worried about it. I have seen it before. You tell a parent that their child has been misbehaving and the kid doesn't come to school for the next week. It's obvious. I hope he's back tomorrow and that it was nothing and I can see that smile that he used to bring earlier this year.
Back to the chaos. It really concerns me that my students get completely out of control if there is someone other than me in front of them. Even with my student teacher, I can't step away from the rug for a moment without the kids turning malicious and completely obnoxious. When I take them to recess they are completely out of control. We calmly walk down to the cafeteria and I seat them with their partners in neat rows. They are nice and calm. The moment I hand over control to the school aide, they get totally crazy (and it's totally unfair, they have a great school aide, a truly wonderful person). I can't stand picking them up from recess because I find out that they have been catapulting food from their forks in the cafeteria, three kids are at the nurse because someone bashed their heads into the floor (then I have to explain that to parents), and that they ended up not being allowed to play. I take the hands of the ones who are in tears and ignore them at the same time as we make our way up the stairs. The kids know, I will not talk to anyone about recess until we are safe in our room and everyone is on their rug spot and their hands are raised. Then I open the floor to apologies only. After everyone has apologized to the wronged parties, then they can give compliments to each other. We do this routine every day in an effort to get them to start thinking about appreciating each other and making better decisions when it comes to how to treat your classmates.
Even the prep teachers struggle with my group. I have to refocus them after any prep and clean the room (it is usually a disaster zone after a prep). My strict discipline and attention to structure and routine really helps my students when they are with me, but how can I empower them to make those same decisions when I am not there? They act crazy with their parents, so that is not a route to take. It's about them. I always tell my students that they have the power to decide what kind of a person they want to be. They always choose to be a good friend and an honest person when confronted with the choice, but I want to see them doing it on their own, internalizing these values.