In a New Position

“You have a new job!” was my greeting as I entered school that morning.

I am now helping the new teacher of a Grade 5 class – all boys, except for one girl. The previous teacher did not return after the Christmas break.

First reaction:  Panic.  I’ve heard screaming, raging, and the sounds of furniture turned over or smashed against a wall from that room. This was usually followed up by a visit from the behaviour technician.

When I entered the class, it was notable that sharp objects such as scissors were kept out of reach and there were no cords for the blinds. Angry vulgarities were etched on the desks.

We almost made it through the first half of the day without incident … until I asked the boys to pick up some of their mess – broken pencils, paper airplanes, wads of paper – before heading out for recess.

One boy became so enraged that he destroyed the classroom in just a few minutes. The pencil sharpener was ripped off the wall, the globe was smashed, and the teacher’s paper work was strewn across the room in one angry swipe. A ruler was hurled at me and just narrowly missed my eye.

The principal intervened, but after lunch, the boy was back in class, smiling and happy, seemingly oblivious to his earlier behaviour.

I’ve been called almost every colourful name known to sailors and rednecks. The only printable one would be “baby-killer.”

Since, we’ve had visits from two different pedagogical counsellors. One advised to put aside everything we know and think we know and consider we are living in a war zone.

Lessons are kept as fundamental as possible since the kids have varying degrees of developmental delays and diagnosis, as well as pure anger control issues. Most work is at grade one to three level and is designed to be pretty much fail proof (not to risk a riot).

It’s been a slow, slow process to engage the students.

“You are an entertainer and game show host,” I tell the teacher who has boundless energy.

I’ve learned to use intermittent reinforcements – a fruit-flavoured skittle candy plunked onto the worksheet of a child who is actually working can evoke a grin.

I’ve learned to watch for cues of an impending eruption – a look, a glance, a shove. Did the cheques come in last night? Is court being held in the community? Is a relative in jail? In this small village, everyone is related and everyone is affected. There is little privacy and homes have multi-generational families and foster children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews all under one roof.

I try to imagine what it is like to be an eleven year old coming to school, where it is safe and structured, and meals are provided:  The teachers may be kind and gentle and you are learning stuff. But you are tired because you’ve been up all night. Stuff was happening at home, that you can’t describe. You don’t know what you want and you hurt real bad, but don’t have the vocabulary to express it.

With the roads outside of town not accessible this time of year, our world has become so small.

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