Chewing gum by itself doesn’t seem like a good reason for anyone to quit teaching. So when people ask why I left the profession, and I answer “penguin eggs and chewing gum”, they always look confused. It’s a quick, easy answer to a question that isn’t at all quick or easy to answer.
We’ll call this student Jose. He came in halfway through the first quarter, a large boy, easily twice the size as most of the other sixth graders. Right away there was something not quite okay with Jose. He giggled a lot, spoke in very simple sentences, and didn’t seem to know what was going on around him.
He often brought a stuffed animal to talk with during class, much to the delight and disruption of the rest of the students. I quickly realized he was in no way prepared to be in the honors class where he had been placed, so I got together with another teacher and contacted the guidance office about changing his schedule.
Quite often, we hear about a new concept or idea in education that sounds like it would be great. Sometimes it is even important enough to be brought forth as an amendment to state law, cementing forever what a great idea this is, and that everyone must do it. Sometimes it is a great idea, and one that was badly needed. Other times, it could be a great idea, but there is no framework provided for implementing it in reality.
Take, for instance, setting a cap for class size. I feel safe in saying there is no teacher that would argue that having a maximum cap on class size is a good idea. I have known teachers that had over 40 students in one class, and there is no way that teacher can be effective at addressing each student’s needs, covering the material for comprehension, and keeping every student engaged with that large of a group.
Currently in Florida, the maximum number of students for a middle school class is set at 22 for the core curriculum. (Health, PE, Music, etc. can still be slammed with however many bodies can physically fit in the room.) Keeping it at 22 kids sounds like a great idea, right? Smaller number of students for each teacher to manage, and easier for each student to get one-on-one attention from the teacher. That’s good, right?
Well, the rule was put in place without the framework to support it. So most schools do not have enough teachers to spread the students out in neat classes of 22. On top of that, many schools schedule by ability grouping. The lowest performing students are placed together in “intensive” classes, and the higher performers are placed together in “honors” or “advanced”. Unfortunately, some schools have a higher percentage of the intensive (lowest ability group) classes. They fill up first. Which means that when a new student comes in and the intensive class that matches his ability is full, he must move into a class that has less than 22, which is often the honors or advanced classes.
So it was that I got Jose, who was nowhere near the abilities or performance of the other kids in my honors class, but that was where there was an empty seat. The other teachers and I fought this valiantly, explaining that this kid had some special needs, and he was in no way able to keep up with the faster pace and higher rigor of the honors kids. He needed to be in a class where he could get the attention he needed, within a pace he could keep, by teachers who were trained to deal with his challenges.
Well, it seems that Jose’s family is homeless by definition, and his mom had moved him in and out of SEVERAL schools over the last few years. The constant moves meant there had never been time for any school to go through the long red-tape process of diagnosing and labeling him. So even though anyone who spent time with this poor kid could tell he needed help, there was nothing the school could do without the proper designations and legal labeling. And now on top of that, he was stuck in honors classes due to the class size requirement.
Can you say screwed? Screwed by a system that requires obscene amounts of paperwork, testing, signatures and forms in order to determine that a student is allowed to get help that is desperately needed. Screwed by a state law that requires him to fill a seat in a class that is less than 22 students, even though he is completely and totally lost in that setting. Screwed by a parent who is completely overwhelmed and unable to meet his needs financially, emotionally and otherwise. And screwed by teachers who would love to help him, but have their hands tied by red tape and rules and have to keep moving with the other students, even if he can’t keep up.
Jose was absent a lot. He and his mom lived in a hotel room with his five siblings. He had no transportation other than the bus, and Mom had just had a baby, so Jose had to stay home with the baby or Mom when either was sick. (He missed two weeks of school when the baby was born because Mom had a C-section and couldn’t get up and move around.)
Jose was on medication. I never knew what kind or what for, but I certainly knew when he ran out or when Mom didn’t give him a dose, because he would be wired beyond belief and acting in another realm of reality. The other students would come in and warn me, “Mrs. Howe, he’s off his meds. Mrs. Howe, he’s acting crazy. Mrs. Howe, he tried to bite somebody.”
I had him sixth period, so the other teachers from earlier classes would try to warn me too. One day, his math teacher said he had eaten a Sharpie marker in her class. The entire marker. Bit off chunks of it, chewed it up, (ink running out of his mouth with drool), and swallowed it. She called the Dean of Discipline and was told it was not a discipline issue. She called the nurse and was told since the nurse does not have his medication to dispense, it was not a nurse issue. She called guidance and got voice mail.
His language arts teacher had him next, and she told me he had torn entire pages out of his notebook and eaten them in class, roaring loudly and spitting wads of paper up into the air. She too made the round of calls for help, but no cavalry was coming.
The students filed into my room early that day to report everything he had done. I led him to a table in the back of the room to sit by himself. I had just started Mansa Musa’s historical pilgrimage when Jose lifted his entire canvas Mead binder by his teeth and began growling and tearing the binder apart. I encouraged the other students to ignore his behavior, but really, seriously. . .how could they, when I could not?
“Mansa Musa set out on his pilgrimage. . .no honey, just look up here, keep your eyes on me. He was headed to Mecca. . .yes, you can move your chair over, come sit right here. Mecca is the place. . .no, just look right here. Don’t even look over there. Mecca was the place. . .”
He had ripped the zipper free and was noisily chewing on the paper inside the binder, tearing out paper with his teeth, chewing it and then spitting it toward the ceiling. Sometimes it would hit him in the face on the way back down, sometimes it would land in a wet splat on the desk or floor, and sometimes it would hit an unlucky student.
“On his way to Mecca. . .oh, did that hit you? Here’s a paper towel. Mansa Musa stopped in Egypt, and there. . .oh, I’m sorry. I know it’s really wet, can you just scrape it off your desk with a pencil and we’ll get someone to mop it up? Mansa Musa borrowed gold from Egypt, and. . .”
I tried moving to the back of the room to encourage better behavior by proximity, but that just meant all the students had to look at him in order to look at me. I tried talking to him, but I don’t think he was even in the room mentally. I tried to take the binder away but he held it tightly and growled at me like a rabid dog.
The phone rang, and another teacher was on the line to ask if I would switch library days with her.
“I need someone up here. Send help.”
“What? Is there a problem?” she asked. (What was your first freakin’ clue? The fact that I am asking you to send help??????)
“I need someone to come up here.”
“Why? What’s going on?” she asked.
Like I can explain this right in front of these terrified kids. What am I supposed to say? I couldn’t really say “I have a student who is bat-sh*t crazy up here!” in front of everyone, now could I? I stared at the grizzly bear gone mad at the back of the room and the other 20 students who were looking to me to rescue the class.
“Just send someone quick, please.” I hung up and tried to remember who the hell Mansa Musa was and why I needed them to know.
In a few minutes, the LIBRARIAN arrived. That’s who they sent. Really? Now, don’t get me wrong. I love our librarian, and she is a very capable lady. But if you call a teacher’s classroom and she cryptically just repeats send help over and over again, the first person you send is a librarian?!?
She asked what the problem was but in mid-question was able to observe the obvious as he growled and lifted the binder with his teeth. I stepped as far into the hallway as I dared with the other students left alone with him and asked her to go get the guidance counselor.
It seemed she was gone for hours. He growled, he roared, he spit, he chewed, he coughed and laughed maniacally. There was not one single person in that room (me included) who cared who Mansa Musa was, why he was going to Mecca, or if he ever made it home.
And as I stood there and tried to continue teaching, I watched this poor, lost kid struggling to survive his limitations in a world offering him absolutely no support. The thought popped in my head that Governor Rick Scott wants me paid based on his performance. My evaluation, my pay, my worth as a teacher and my value in my profession will all be based on how this kid does on a state standardized test.
This kid who had been absent more than half of the school year, missing notes, activities, lessons, and instruction. This kid who could not stay after school or come in early for me to tutor or help him catch up. This kid who lived in a hotel room with five other kids and took care of a baby and a mother who were both incapable of taking care of themselves. This kid who was on medication for some condition I knew nothing about. This kid who could not get his meds regularly and had no skills or training in how to manage without them. This kid who could not tell me where Africa is on a map, much less what the salt and gold trade was about, who Mansa Musa was, or why any of it mattered amidst the chaos and instability that he lived every single day. This kid’s performance on a test that is skewed against his profile of lower income and special needs. This kid would be how I was measured as a teacher. This is how our system measures success in education.
It was then that the fearless and trusty librarian returned. The guidance counselor, still safe in her office down the hall, had told the librarian that it sounded like Jose might be having some oral fixation issues, so she sent a piece of gum for him to chew.
I almost unleashed language that sixth graders should never hear.
But instead, I handed him the gum. And you are probably smart enough to predict what happened to it. Yep, in the mouth, in the air, on the floor with a wet splat. Then picked up again, in the mouth, in the air, on the floor in a wet splat. Then picked up again. . .