Despite my fears about this week, things have gone mostly right for me. Some of the reason for this is simply that I went a little bit light on the things I taught, giving students time to work on major projects in class. For at least one day thus far, I was barely in my classroom; my three regular courses were in the computer lab working on narrative essays, persuasive speeches, and cultural research projects. Really, there has been very little material that I’ve been able to do this week, probably mostly covering the final chapters of Grapes of Wrath in my novels elective (which I’m struggling to get finished because I want to move on – I had planned on starting The Great Gatsby this week but hadn’t been moving quickly enough) and providing some material on the nonverbal elements of speaking in preparation for persuasive speeches.
That doesn’t mean that everything’s come easily, though. Today in particular was one filled with a little more drama than I would like to deal with.
I of course don’t want to divulge too much about specifics – there are real students behind the drama, and I respect their right to privacy. But here are the vague details of the major dramatic events.
I have two siblings as students (in different grades), both of them generally pleasant and likable, who currently have a parent that is hospitalized with a fairly serious condition. They both missed class yesterday, which left me rather worried (I think my experience as a parent has made me more of a worrier), but they were both back today. One of them is a senior, and she was part of a group that was giving a presentation today. I didn’t expect her to jump in, given the recent events in her life (and the fact that she was somewhat shaken up already when she entered my room), but she said that she would try to help out where possible since she had already contributed to the material the group was presenting.
In fact, her material was the first, and she started to speak when she got a little choked up and stopped. In what I have to assume was a move done entirely out of ignorance of the situation, another student made some comment that was meant to be a lightly joking way to get the presentation moving along (I don’t remember the specific phrase, but it might have been something like, “Come on, spit it out”). If it had been another student or even the same student without all the extra stress of having a parent with a serious health issue, the comment would have likely been totally innocuous, but it was too much for the girl presenting, in her state of worry and grief: she immediately started to sob and had to leave the room, with another group member leading her out and comforting her. Yet another group member jumped in and we continued.
I doubt that the other student intended to offend; it was very probably just a lack of information about what was happening with this girl’s parent. Even so, I have to address it as a learning moment, especially since the offending student is somewhat of an outsider and as such could be seen poorly for this (actually, I already have evidence to that effect).
During some flexible time in another class (students working on a study guide for an imminent test), some students informed me about another student of mine (who was in a different grade than these students) who had apparently been threatened to be kicked out of her house by her parents. I don’t care to divulge the reason given (although I will say that it is absurd on its face), and I’m treating this detail as a rumor, but I had seen the student in question before school and observed that she had been surrounded by other students and was visibly upset. She wasn’t in my class today because of a planned field trip, but I did talk to our principal about the situation to see if she had any details. She didn’t, and so we both agreed that we ought to give her a day back into normal classes to see if her performance was affected before we try to look any further. As I told my principal, it might just have been one of those fights that teenagers have with their parents (I remember having ones like that, although maybe not quite like what I’m hearing about this), and it will go away on its own if so.
Whew. And that was all before lunch!
These events aren’t my first forays into the complex realm of high school relational dynamics, but it was remarkable to encounter ones like these within just a few short hours. How do I get dragged into them? Well, in a sense, I don’t (they’re not my problems to deal with), but in a more important sense, I do – these things happen and affect the attitudes of individuals and groups, which in turn affects the dynamics of my classroom. I do end up dealing with them in the way that my students interact with me and with each other, and drama like this can so easily become detrimental to the greater atmosphere of the classroom.
One thing that I can do, though, is to try and mitigate the damage. When the younger sibling with the hospitalized parent tried to bring up the earlier incident (citing the offending student by name), I immediately stopped it and advised the small group (field trips cut this class down from 9 to 5 students) to get back to the work at hand. They complied, with the predictable “I’ll tell you later.”
Things could have been much worse. The students in the class with the first episode handled it maturely, without drawing any more attention to either student, and moved on. That’s really all you can do with drama: move on, and hope you’ve learned something from it for the future.
I guess if I think about drama as another opportunity to learn something valuable about the complex world of secondary education, it can’t be all bad, can it? Every new incident, every new episode is another way for me to understand how my students live their lives as social individuals in this strange social sphere called school, and if I can use this information to my advantage, then every unfortunate moment of drama can be one where I grow as a person, as I watch my students do the same.
Maybe drama is a necessary evil in life. I think I can learn to deal with that.