Adventures in Teaching: The Popcorn and Glue Incident
There are moments in the classroom when, as an educator, I say to myself, “How the hell did this happen?” Such an incident occurred last week. A little boy had tearfully stormed out of the school, there was popcorn all over my classroom, and my butt was covered in glue. It was, one might say, not a highpoint in my professional life. For the first time that day, my two inner voices were saying the same thing. “That was bad,” they both agreed, speaking harmoniously.
You see, every educator has two different voices in his or her head. One is the Teacher Voice, which addresses situations and analyzes problems from a perspective based on past experience, grad classes, and years of classroom management trainings. The other one, which is sometimes contrasting but not always, is the Human Voice. This is the more rational side of an educator, the side that sees things as a person and not strictly as a trained professional. Allowing both voices to engage in an inner conversation is imperative; it lets a teacher maintain high personal standards while, at the same time, acknowledging and accepting that our students don’t always rise to those said standards. The two voices help us distinguish between role and reality. Yeah, I’m a teacher, but I’m also a regular guy. By the same token, my students are there to learn and to fulfill whatever duties the role of ‘student’ dictates that one satisfies and, at the same time, they’re kids trying their best to make it through the day.
My Teacher Voice is generally pretty hard-ass. When things start going wrong in the classroom, it’s my Teacher Voice that assesses the situation and comes up with a solution. Of course the Human Voice helps too. It tells the Teacher Voice not to take itself so seriously. “They’re misbehaving,” the Teacher Voice might say, to which the Human Voice replies, “Yeah, what do you expect…they’re eight years old.”
Lately, I’ve noticed that my Human Voice has been making most of the calls in the classroom, much to the chagrin of my Teacher Voice. Case in point – “Dream Class.” All of the classes I teach at my school have funky English names (there’s Champ and Smart and Elf and Fly, etc), and Dream was, at one point, the easiest and best of them all. This particular class only has four kids in it – three little girls and a little boy. One would think four kids would be pretty easy to control, and for awhile they were. But then the tide started to change, mostly because I let it. Teaching them English was fun, but really, inside, all I really wanted to do was play with them and joke around. I mean, hear me out, they’re really cute little kids. There’s a thin line between running a classroom and having a big old party, and I was crossing that line dangerously. One of the little girls in the class is named Angelina and during the Family Unit in the textbook, Angelina started running to the front of the classroom, taking my wooden pointer stick and whacking me with it.
“You’re a baby!” she’d yell. “You’re a baby teacher!”
The three other kids would laugh and she’d whack me again. “You’re a grandmother! You’re a baby grandmother!”
Then the two voices would both give their take on what was happening.
Teacher Voice: This is not good. Send her back to her seat. It’s not acceptable that the student is beating the teacher with a wooden stick.
Human Voice: This is adorable! And it’s hilarious! Don’t be so strict – she’s having fun and nothing bad is happening. Look, all the kids think it’s funny. She’s even speaking English! This is a riot!
In time, though, Dream class started getting truly riotous, as in, teaching them was like being in the middle of a riot. Things were further complicated when the mother of the little boy – Joe – called the school and complained about me. “Joe thinks you don’t like him,” Leah, my boss, told me. “He wants to quit the academy. He says you only like the girls and you don’t call on him. I think at home he is a little spoiled.”
At times like this, the input of the voices switch. The Teacher Voice becomes the rational one, while the Human Voice gets all silly and sensitive.
Teacher Voice: That’s understandable. He feels neglected. Give the little boy some more attention.
Human Voice: What the hell? I call on him all the time. I’m so nice to him. I’ve never, ever been anything but ridiculously nice to him. And his mother has the nerve to call my boss and complain about me? So people, man, some people…
It was on Thursday that things spiraled all out of control. At the very start of class, Angelina came running in with an open bag of popcorn. Kernels of popcorn went spilling out of the bag everywhere, going all over the floor. Before I could say much of anything, Joe and Amy (one of the other kids), started stomping on the popcorn and throwing it at each other.
“Stop!” I said, loudly. “Sit down!”
Teacher Voice: They made a mess. It’s a natural consequence that they now have to clean it. Have them clean the floor.
So I tried. “Joe,” I said, holding out the garbage can, “pick up the popcorn.”
“No,” Joe said, plainly and simply.
“Amy, you threw popcorn too. Please pick up what you threw and put it in the trashcan.”
“Oh no!” she said, shaking her head and turning her back to me. In the end, I took a book and used it to sweep up and clean the popcorn myself.
Human Voice: That was good. You don’t want to get in a power struggle with little kids. You handled that well.
A half hour later, I noticed the Joe was writing on Amy’s back in red pen. I told him not to do that. I imagined Amy’s mother calling and complaining that her daughter’s coat had pen all over it. Joe didn’t even feign listening, and a few minutes later went write back to laughing and scribbling on his classmate.
Teacher Voice: This is the second time he didn’t follow an instruction. You have to assert some sort of authority so that he knows that you’re the teacher.
“Joe,” I said, “give me the pen.”
He gave it up happily. It didn’t matter. In the blink of an eye, he was scribbling all over Amy again, this time using his highlighter.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “Give me the highlighter.”
“No,” Joe said, pulling it tight to his body.
Teacher Voice: Be firm.
Human Voice: Kill him.
Well, not kill him per say, that’s a bit over the top, but at this point I was running out of patience. I asked for the highlighter again, and again, and again, and that was when I felt something on my butt. I turned around to find Angelina rubbing a glue stick all over my jeans.
“What are you thinking?!” I said, my voice raised. “Sit down!”
I touched the back of my jeans and felt how sticky it was, all covered in glue stick.
Teacher Voice: They’re completely out of control. No more fun and games. Take the class back to square one and treat them like this is the first day of school.
Human Voice: I’ve got glue all over my ass! These kids have gone crazy!
My next move was another utter failure. In our school, the kids get stickers for good behavior, which they keep in a sticker book. I took Joe’s sticker book. “Give me the highlighter, and I will give you back your sticker book.” Instead of doing that, Joe burst into hysterical tears.
Both Voices: Fuck my life. I see another complaint in my future.
After class I gave Joe his sticker book back and hugged him. “Come on, buddy! You’re my chingu! (“friend” in Korean) But you have to listen to me when I ask you to do something.”
Soon after, Leah was in my classroom, wanting to know what happened. Instead of going to his next class, Joe had stormed out of the academy.
We all have days like this, I guess. Days when things just seem to go all wrong. As a teacher, I ask myself what I could have done to handle things better. Was I too strict? Was I not strict enough? Did a lack of consistency confuse the kids? Would I be able to sit down at my desk, or will that result in me being stuck to my chair?
Joe’s mom did in fact call and complain again. I got a lecture from my school about not raising my voice to the students. Fine. The next day Joe came in laughing and acting just as goofy as ever. It was tough not to smile. He’s a silly little kid. He only wants to laugh and write on people with a highlighter. Is that so wrong of him? No. Of course not.
My Teacher Voice even cracked a little bit of a smile. “Be firm,” it said, “but move on.” And that’s just what I did.