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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom


Some Things You Just Don't See Coming

By Amy Issadore Bloom

Tyler was good listener, a diligent worker, and had a sweet disposition. He was one of the more successful students in our first grade class. So the day he almost threw a chair at me really came as a shock.

We were sitting with our chairs in a circle, and I was teaching the students a song in Spanish. They were pretty excited about it, or maybe just excited that the classroom teacher had left the room. There was some typical acting out, but nothing out of the ordinary.

A lot of students in the school came from single-family homes, with mothers who worked hard, had difficult men in their lives, and often didn’t have the time or energy to play with their kids. I represented someone different—someone energetic, with a bottomless pit of affection and attention.
 
I was more camp counselor than teacher, and would learn in time the important distinction. While it wasn’t an effective way to teach, especially with a “difficult” population, it was likely what those first graders needed in their life. I listened to their stories, taught them songs and games, and disciplined with a very gentle hand. They argued over who would sit on my lap during story time, and who would braid my hopelessly straight hair.

We were about to learn the next verse to the song. Suddenly, there was Tyler, holding a chair above his head, ready to throw it. It was hard to tell if he intended to throw it at Cris or at me. Cris was a new arrival from El Salvador, who was getting the bulk of my attention. It was logical since Tyler wasn’t an ESOL student, and also didn’t need extra academic support.

I don’t know what triggered Tyler’s extreme reaction. Perhaps he wanted to go first, or sit next to me. Maybe he was jealous of the attention I gave to Cris, and that Cris got to help teach the Spanish song.

Tyler’s switch happened so suddenly, and so dramatically, it caught us all off guard. So I did what came naturally, and backed away. The other students formed a little cluster behind me. In retrospect I suppose it’s a little embarrassing that I was bullied by a seven-year-old. Today, with years of formal and informal education training, I can confidently say that there is no chapter on what to do if a child picks up a piece of furniture to throw at you.
 
I sent another student to run across the hall while I carefully approached Tyler. I didn’t need to do much because the other teacher, who was both more experienced and more physically imposing than me, came in and quickly got him to put the chair down. 

After the chair incident, it was all downhill for Tyler: He grabbed the phone from the classroom teacher when she threatened to call home; he pinched another teacher; spat at the principal; and tried to run out of the trailer where we had our classroom.

We’re taught to look for warning signs, to stop the negative behavior before it happens. But Tyler just seemed to have snapped one day. His mother didn’t help at all. She denied any major changes in their lives, and promised he never did this sort of thing at home. There were a lot of students with behavior problems in the school. Some simply lacked respect for authority; others had more serious problems not yet diagnosed, but that would likely lead to special education. Tyler’s situation was unique, and he really needed someone to advocate for him to get help. Without his mother’s support, our hands were tied.

Many of the teachers thought Tyler just needed more firm disciplining. I was surprised he was not thrown out of school. I would like to think it was because they saw potential in him, believed we could help. Because this was a charter school, it likely had to do with maintaining numbers and ensuring the school received its government funds.

I tried to continue to give him attention, to treat him as if nothing happened. But we were all walking on eggshells, never knowing what might trigger an outburst. He went from being a student I enjoyed seeing each day to being one I feared—not for my safety, but for his unpredictability, his ability to sabotage the class.

Tyler didn’t return to the school the following year. Ideally his mother placed him in a larger public school, where there would be more support staff, perhaps a “lunch bunch” run by the guidance counselor to provide students a safe and fun atmosphere to express themselves and learn about feelings.

And perhaps Tyler would eventually learn to forgive me for whatever it was that made him want to throw that chair in the first place.

Issadore Bloom, (bloomindc@gmail.com), a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at her blog, bloomindc.com.

 


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