Danger In The Schools

At my current school we work with at-risk kids who are unpredictable from time to time. They have their outbursts. We deal with those. That's what we've trained for, what our experience has prepared us to handle. We recognize and defuse most situations before kids explode. We are aware of the kids in our classrooms.

One kid I'll call Frank is crazy. Really. He's not right in his mind, needs serious help, and is predictably unpredictable. It's a matter of time before he hurts someone. We've said since he started with us that Frank is beyond our abilities and a danger in the school.

We've let people know. There's a strictly enforced chain of command. We tell our immediate supervisor and then wait. We don't expect much to happen. We know the kid is dangerous, but no one seems to much care.

Today Frank went off. I was down the hall when I heard furniture tumble. The desks here are heavy. When one goes flying, it resounds through the building. When two or three fly, I get down the hall fast to see if I can help.

I met Frank on his way out of the room. Behind him I heard shouting and maybe crying. He began to make his way up the hall, but I turned him around suggesting he'd be better outside where he can't do any real harm to anyone but maybe himself. He kicked the doors open hard enough I thought one broke, then punched the mailbox outside the door. I stood so he was encouraged to walk to the right away from school. Our parking lot is to the left and I wanted him far from our cars. I drove Dad's '72 Chevy pickup to work. No way is Frank messing with that.

Frank walked away. I let him. The last thing we want is him back in the building. I wasn't worried about him out in the tame village in which our school resides. He could walk and blow off steam. If he wandered too far, the police, who work well with our kids, would help him find his way.

Watching him walk, I wondered if Frank would be back in class tomorrow. Probably not. I figured he'd get a day or two suspension. But he won't be removed from our program. I couldn't have said that for sure then because I can't see into the future, but I can damn sure see into the past, rememberoing how this has gone almost every other time.

The teacher in that room is a tiny woman long past retirement age. In that class of ten kids there are four different grade levels, at least four different subjects, and ten different sets of challenges and baggage. It's more than any teacher can manage and still effect real learning. We do the best we can. We work hard. But we're up against it. Then add in an unstable, dangerous kid. I mean, come on.

Frank is a symptom of a systemic problem in the organization's culture. I got Frank out the door and we worked to restore order and calm. We talked with the kids. We closed the blinds so Frank wouldn't put on a show from outside. There's little we can do for or about Frank. There's even less we can do about the broken system in which we try to work.

There are a lot of reasons I'm leaving this school. Danger is just one of them. It's a big one, but remember, it's just a symptom of the real problem, the one driving a lot of us out of the classroom. It's enough to make us all want to flip the furniture, punch the doors, and go a little crazy. That or just quit.

Brief Thoughts About School Trips

We took students to the Chinese buffet for lunch. Just a few of them because that's all who brought signed permission slips and were willing to go. We invited every kid in the program (a pretty small number, ours being an alternative school for at-risk kids) and were prepared to take all of them.

Shouldn't such a trip be a reward?, you ask.

First, they had to come up with the money. It was too much hassle to have the school pay (though my supervisor tried her best, bless her). If kids have to pay, that's no reward.

More important, rewards are a stupid educational ideas. Here's how to tell: they are done all the time and accepted as a matter of course. Anything at school that is just the way you do it is probably wrong. Also, consider the kid barred from going. It's a punishment and if you're into that, fine, but I'm into teaching and learning. The "bad" kid is taught that she/he sucks and thus learns to be worse in order to reciprocate.

Exasperated, you say, so it's a participation trophy!

If the trip was a reward and we then let every kid go, it's a participation trophy and bad lesson. If instead this is something to which every student is invited because there is a lot to learn from it, then it's just like a class, only tastier. We invited kids, set up a structure for participating, and let them learn from the experience.

Yeah, what did they learn from eating at a Chinese buffet?

  • Swearing in public is a mark of bad manners, disrespect, and idiocy.
  • Take small portions and go back for more.
  • Saying please and thank you makes everything better.
  • Try new things and talk about them.
  • Not everyone likes the same things.
  • We like each other.
  • There's more to learning than four core subjects.
  • Learning is better when it's not graded.
  • Teachers do their best work when they seem like they're doing none at all.
  • Eating too much is uncomfortable but unavoidable at a buffet.
  • There's always room for sugary coffee drinks.

One kid learned that "bring a signed permission slip or you won't go" means just that. He wanted us to call Mom for permission. I said no and when he asked why I told him tennis is best played with a net.

To recap: school trips are good, rewards suck, and remember your signed permission slip if you want to eat at the buffet. Class dismissed.

Day One In The Schools

I remember my first day at Eagle Hill Middle School, a place I didn’t want to be. A new school was nothing I wanted. No, I wanted to be back in the small parochial school I had attended since kindergarten, but Dad had bought a funeral home and so we moved to the suburbs. I entered Eagle Hill about six weeks into fifth grade and everything about it seemed wrong. It felt especially wrong to be walking through that strange and giant place. I was scared.

When I got to Mrs. Maloff's fifth grade class and suffered being introduced to the class, I put on what I hoped was a brave face. I couldn't let anyone know how terrible I felt. It felt imperative to fit in from the get-go even if I could tell that they all dressed differently and soon learned that most of them had been together since pre-school. When the teacher asked me to sit in a certain chair, I did. As the class got to work, I did the work too. In math class the teacher handed out multiplication practice. I finished that sheet in a minute. These were the choices I made in order to let them know I was serious, someone to notice and appreciate. I wanted to be someone with whom to be reckoned and so I played that role.

Today is Mikael's first day in our school. His dad didn't buy a funeral home or move him to the suburbs. Mikael was sent to us from his home school for various reasons, none of them especially good, and because we are the school version of the Island Of Misfit Toys. When he came to my classroom from social studies I saw a red welt over most of his forehead. I knew a lot about him from just that.

I'm no Sherlock Holmes but have been doing this alternative education thing with at-risk kids long enough to have figured out a few things. It wasn't abuse — those marks are usually hidden and kids cover them well. No, I thought, he's a sleeper. He came in and moved toward a chair without making eye contact. I went toward him slowly and at a slight angle, held out my hand and said, "I'm Brian." He muttered his name, limply shook my hand for a second, then sat at a desk and put his head down on the table. His hood was up and I saw his hands under the desk pull the strings tight and closed, leaving only his forehead exposed and resting on the desk. He folded in on himself and went to sleep or pretended to.

Ever seen a turtle go into its shell?

I don’t know exactly what to expect of Mikael, but kids react a couple different ways to traumatic changes such as coming to a new school. I showed off my abilities. Mikael went into hiding and hibernation. We both announced ourselves on entering the new classroom and both wanted people to think that they should take note of and not trifle with us. We both were scared. I'm fifty years old, so I can admit that. He might need a little while.

What do you do with a kid like this? Well, first you realize that there is no kid like this but there is a kid doing this. It's an action, putting his head down, done by a person I don't know yet. I nodded a lot, gently invited and cajoled him to join us, then let him be. He kept his head down and went to sleep. My goal was to be a ghost in this situation, to give him nothing against which to push back. I will wait and see what he decides to do, how he wants to present himself, and who he might be. For the first day I was content to have him head down, showing me that I can't make him do anything.

It’s not my place to make him do certain things, act in any one way. That’s up to him. I invite but don’t have the power to make his decisions. I'm curious what his decisions will be and how long he'll let that red welt announce how he is.