California Fair Share

A grassroots campaign to make sure everyone gets a fair shot, pays their fair share and plays by the same rules

In the Teacher’s Shoes: A Classroom Fight

Jay RiveraEditor’s Note: The following blog post is part of an occasional series, in which California Fair Share communications intern J. Michael Rivera shares an inside look at the world of public schools in California, from a substitute teacher’s perspective. 

As any public school employee will tell you, the last day of school before an extended break is a zoo. One teacher described the day before Thanksgiving recess this way: “Today is an exercise in keeping good kids from bad behavior.”

Moods shift quickly in a middle school classroom, as I learned this week. Two students who appear to get along one moment can get into a heated argument the next. Add the thorny politics of a classmate crush and the confrontation can turn to physical violence.

I entered the fray as Student A stood behind her desk, clearly upset about something Student B had said. I asked Student A if she was OK, her voice grew louder as she fought back tears and said that Student B told everyone who she liked. As most will recall, this is exceedingly bad form in middle school.

A growing Greek chorus chimed in with unsolicited analysis as Student B hurled insults back at Student A. I shouted “That’s enough!” but my order went unheeded. Student A lunged past me, reaching Student B and shoving her to the floor, her head narrowly missing the jagged aluminum edge of the whiteboard eraser’s edge.

I must pause here and say that in California, there is no training program for substitute teachers. As a sub, I am sent into a classroom armed with classroom and faculty restroom keys, a sub plan from the teacher, and nothing else. This is usually enough to get the job done. But when a fight erupts in a classroom, you shove your body between two students, shout as loudly as you can, ride out the wave of hostility and pray more students don’t join in.

I was lucky. Several students responded to my orders to get help and raced to the office nearby. I tried to call the office but all of the dialed extensions went straight to voicemail. The phone roster and campus map stapled to a wall near the phone were useless. I was completely dependent on a 12-year-old to reach the office for help.

A fellow sixth-grade teacher, the vice principal and a school counselor arrived minutes later to help quiet the students and confirm I was OK. Students recounted what happened but eventually returned to their work. Still, the ugliness of the fight hung in the air long after the desks and chairs were returned in neat rows.

As the period wound to a close, I spent 10 minutes guiding a discussion with the students about what happened. Those who felt like talking said that they were scared as it was happening, but were also excited “in a nervous way.”

Full-time teachers guide students through this type of community building and discussion daily in the nation’s classrooms. None of these activities count toward meeting Common Core standards, or any academic standard. But, as I learned nothing happens in a classroom until students are safe.

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This entry was posted on December 4, 2013 by in Opinion and tagged , , , , , , .
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