05 July 2011

What To Do When You Accidentally Swear In Front of Your Students

"ALL RIGHT THAT'S IT! THIS IS RI-FUCKING-DICULOUS!! TAKE YOUR SEAT NOW!" Tía Coleen just seriously lost her temper. Even the infamous seventh graders fall silent and take their seats. 

Oh, shit. Did I just swear in front of my students? Kind of...*at* them? They are giggling. I stand, stunned at myself for a good thirty seconds. 

This is the last week. A month ago, I was seriously asking myself if I could make it. I'm not sure that anyone but me knew exactly how close I came to saying, "All right, that's it! I'm packing it up and moving to a shitty apartment in Viña del Mar, to live off my remaining savings and sell friendship bracelets for pocket money..." 

It was close. Very close. Close enough that I actually looked at flights. 

I am not cut out to be a middle school teacher. I love teaching, don't get me wrong. Ever since I was a child, I've given impromptu lectures about things that fascinate me to any hapless "student" who happened to cross my path. My parents had to invent a game about a little bird who ate from her parents' hands in order to get me to eat while lecturing during dinner. I would eat a bite of food, standing and pacing on a windowsill near the table, barely stopping to chew before continuing my stories. 

I am actually pretty good at teaching, especially with the littlest ones. Their problems are mostly simple ("Tía, she hit me!" "No, she hit me first!" "I don't care who hit whom, you will both apologize and shake hands.").

But being a middle school teacher means combating behavior problems and a sea of hormones. It means seeing children transform into adolencents before your very eyes. It means seeing problems that they will carry their whole lives beginning. I means knowing that these kids may have kids of their own in a couple of years, that they are very close to failing out, that they are using drugs and alcohol. 

All of that sucks...to put it mildly. But the worst part by far is the apathy, which permeates everything for most of these kids. You have to do this activity to learn the vocabulary. I don't want to. You have no grades *at all* in this class from this semester, because you have not turned in a single assignment. I don't care. You need to have an education to have a better life. I don't see why...my life is already fine.

To be completely honest, I can't stand the daily push-pull-fight-throw-things-ignore-the-teacher struggle that it became. But what got under my skin, week after week, was the apathy. These kids can't possibly just sit there and not care. They can't leave that page that I hand-wrote and paid to photocopy completely blank. They can't just tell me that they refuse to do their work. And if one more student interupts me and stands up to push another student I just might....

All of that anger, frustration, and pure emotion welled up during the last few months surprised me by bursting out in the loudest, sharpest, most angry yell I've yelled at my students all semester...complete with an F-bomb. Suddenly I felt like a stupid adolescent, too. And worse, I am supposed to be a role model and to give these kids a good example. And I totally just swore at them. I suck. 

It is easy to say something, and much harder to do it. I told my fifth graders that yesterday, when they told me they would all study a lot and speak great English one day. I am interested in actions, I told them.

I composed myself, asked the students to hand in their papers and sit down in silence, and sat at my desk. My students were watching, wondering what would come next. And then I practiced what I preach to my students, from the very youngest to the very oldest. 

I apologized. We talked about what had happened. How I care about them and want so much for them to do well, that I got extremely frustrated with their behavior. How sometimes when we get angry, we say things we regret. How ashamed I was of my loss of composure. They helped my Spanish and filled in words where I needed them. 

"Do you forgive me?" I asked, honestly. 
"Yes," they said. 
Jordon, a ham and a smart kid said, "Do you forgive us, Tía?" 
"Of course! Remember, guys...we're all human."
"We all make mistakes," summed up Jordon.

We finished the activity I had planned, in half the time. They didn't behave perfectly, but I hardly expect that from them at this point. 

Suffice it to say that those 13-year-olds will never forget the day that I lost my temper. I can only hope that a few of the things I tried to tell them about education, about being good people, about admitting mistakes and asking forgiveness when necessary stuck.

I feel as though it was a final exam for becoming a teacher. Take your mistake, admit it, and turn it into an opportunity to teach a life lesson. I hope I passed. 

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