It happened again today. I had yet another altercation with a student because I was unaware of disruptive circumstances in his personal life. This scenario has played itself out many times in my career. In 1990, I watched as Curtis, my big teddy-bear-football-player, came into his seventh grade classroom and started wreaking havoc. Shouting at this student, talking back to that teacher, I cornered him in the hall to determine the reasons behind his change in behavior.
"You don't even care!" he yelled in my face. "You don't even care that my dad died last night!"
"Curtis," I said quietly. "We didn't know. What are you doing at school? Why didn't someone tell us?"
My teddy bear was back to himself in another week or so, but I haven't forgotten that I need to be more careful when students act out of character. Or at least I thought I hadn't forgotten.
Today I watched as Jamie banged everything within reach on his desk - a pencil cup, a toy skateboard he grabbed from his pocket, his binder - he was unusually agitated. I couldn't get him focused; he refused to listen to me teach. Instead he was giggling and in constant motion, rocking back in forth in his chair for thirty straight minutes. I warned him repeatedly and used all of my strategies to redirect him. Finally, I drew my "last resort" card. I told him I was going to call his mother.
He jerked his head around and screeched at me, "SHE'S NOT THERE!!!" I assumed he meant she was at work. I called anyway. His dad answered and broke in halfway through my rantings - "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but you need to know: his mother left us last week."
I felt miserable. Everything now made sense. But what's a teacher to do? How do we tell the difference between regular adolescent drama and life-changing traumas in a child's life? I think I'm pretty good, after all these years, at recognizing when something is troubling my students. But I am human, and I can't read minds. Because I teach remedial readers, who bring many issues to school in general, I established my "mood cards." Every desk has a cup that holds several colored "mood cards." Red means "I'm angry" and "Leave me alone." Orange means "I'm annoyed and agitated." Blue means "I'm sad." Brown means "I'm bored." The best card, green, means "I'm happy and everything's on GO." Students place their mood cards in the middle of the desk so that I can do a quick "mood check" when class starts.
Today Jamie's card was green. I thought he was fine. I didn't, and couldn't, read his mind. And now I'm facing a very long weekend before I can get back to school and talk to him face to face. Most days being a teacher is a joyous endeavor. But some days I want a "do over" and a crystal ball.