Welcome to the Jungle

Posted in In Their Words on May 28, 2017 - by Patrick

Black and white public school classroom seating

I began my first year of teaching with a healthy mix of trepidation, excitement, and curiosity. My mother is a lifelong teacher, and I had several teachers growing up that had a huge impact on my life. I was optimistic that I would be able to give something good back to the world.

By the middle of my first year of teaching, I was struggling with high levels of anxiety and stress, coupled with low-grade depression. Teaching, it seems, was not living up to my expectations and, in many respects, I was not living up to teaching’s expectations of me.

My First School

My first school was a public high school located in Southwest Houston. The school served an underprivileged community and had a pretty rough history as the area’s demographics had changed over the last 40 years. The student population was an interesting mix of those that were seeking a better way forward, those that were simply being pushed along, and those that saw school as an inconvenience.

In this way, it was a fairly typical sampling of high school students, but with a convergence of years of lowered expectations, a lack of academic skills, and an absence of hope that led most to have very little in the way of motivation. Some students could be singled out early on as candidates to drop out. They showed up intermittently at best and tried to do as little work as possible. Despite all of these factors, I cannot think back to a single child that could be justifiably labeled as a “bad kid”.

A Nightmare Student

However, that all changed a little after the midway point in the year. A student transferred into one of my relatively disciplined classes, and for the sake of discretion, I will call this student “X”. X had an immediate impact on the cohesion and culture of my class.

X came from a high school that had put an emphasis on athletics, whereas the school at which I was teaching had put very little stock in athletics beyond a means of keeping students involved and engaged. X liked football.

In fact, he liked football so much that it was all he could do not to watch highlight videos of himself on his school provided laptop while he should have been working on an assignment. This wasn’t anything disconcerting, however. Freshmen are, by nature, very easily distracted and disinterested in sitting still and focusing on abstract ideas for eight hours a day.

What was disconcerting was the way in which X responded to me when I tried to redirect him. It was clear that he was used to sitting in class and doing whatever he wished, judging by the way he would reproach me for getting on to him for not being focused on the assignments. Sometimes X would wait until I was in full flow with my instructions for the class and then shout “I need a pencil” and then grin while some fellow students either laughed or looked at him, annoyed.

His Only Concern with School was Football

His only concern with school was that his grade was high enough for him to play football, and even in this regard, he had a funny way of going about things. X would often show up late to class, without the prerequisite supplies (which were generously provided for all students at the front office). He would laugh all of this off, despite the detention slips and repeated lectures from me. Worse still, X would sometimes disappear for days at a time, only to show up just as I was getting my hopes up that he was gone forever.

These feelings were complicated, to say the least. I felt relieved that this nightmare of a student was potentially gone, and every time I saw him turn up again my heart sank. I struggled with these reactions, given the way teachers are supposed to behave and feel towards students. I chalked it up to the stress of the first year of teaching and the nature of X.

His Treatment of Fellow Students

And yet the very worst aspect of X was his treatment of fellow students, in particular, his treatment of female students. This went well beyond a freshman boy who had grown up in a house without a strong father figure.

I was already well used to the kinds of things immature boys would say on a daily basis, and I called any student out that I thought had crossed the line of disrespect. With X, the line of disrespect was so far gone it was a dot. Whatever his home life was, he thought it was perfectly acceptable to completely and disgustingly objectify any and all girls that he happened to come across.

If a girl came into the room to deliver a detention notice or a note, X would generally look her up and down like he was a starving stray dog and she was a chunk of beef hanging at a butcher’s shop before making some sort of inappropriate comment under his breath.

I never stood for this behavior and would pull him into the hall and reprimand and lecture him. On one occasion while I was lecturing him in the hall for this toxic behavior, X highlighted just how much of a losing battle I was fighting when he cat called a girl that happened to walk down the hall at that time.

Requesting the Help of Colleagues and Superiors

I made X’s behavior known to my colleagues and superiors when we came together to discuss problematic students and intervention plans, but the nature of the conversation was always about how to improve academic performance.

It seemed that I was the only one, including X’s mother, concerned with how he was performing as a human being. It was obvious that there was zero guidance for correct behavior in X’s home. I have no idea if his views towards women stemmed from the interactions he saw concerning an older male sibling, a pathetic excuse for a father figure, or interactions centered around his own mother. I will never know.

What I do know is that I was a first-year teacher in over my head.

No Man Is an Island

School administrators, along with the annoyingly cheerful teachers that I avoided like the plague, like to peddle the cliché that “no man is an island,” insinuating that it was through close-knit cooperation that real results were achieved in the world of education.

While I certainly see the wisdom in that attitude, the reality of the situation is much less optimistic. Every teacher becomes an island when the work load and stress level continually increases, especially if they are teaching in an end-of-course (EOC) exam class. What was the proper way to handle X? I certainly did not know, and I felt as though I could not devote any more time to the issue than it already took up.

I continued to pull X out of class to try to correct his behavior, and I brought up my concern whenever the teachers would meet to discuss problematic students, though I was the only one to highlight his worrying view of women as opposed to his disinterest in his own academics.

This pattern continued for a couple of months, until one day when X didn’t show up to school. A colleague from across the hall called me over and told me that a girl from one of his classes was filing a sexual assault charge against X. X would never show up to school again, and I have no idea what came of the charge, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that the charge was well-founded.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of X, I thought about all the things I could have done differently. I was a first-year teacher and I undoubtedly made mistakes. But as time has passed, I began to ask myself why X was transferred from one school to another in the midst of his freshman year. Was it academic performance, or perhaps something more sinister?

The unshakeable feeling I have from my experience with X is that the tragedy that occurred was 100% avoidable on numerous levels. There were obvious behavioral issues that should have been red flags, and if there had been a proper vetting of transfer students I feel that there’s no way that X would have been allowed at that school.

When a student transfers from one public high school to another, I feel as though there should be a very thorough examination of the students past, both academic and behavioral. I do not know why X left his previous school, but I know he didn’t come to the school I was teaching in because of the football program.

If it were a simple academic concern (in that his grades were threatening his eligibility to play sports), then the coaches would have made sure he passed, which is a totally separate issue. If his mother simply moved and he just needed a new school, then fair enough. But if there were behavioral concerns then there should have been people and procedures in place to prevent X being allowed to enroll.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

We live in a country that cherishes and relies on the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” in order to have a more just society, but when a student has such obvious behavioral problems there needs to be a contingency plan in place to protect other students.

I was a first-year teacher and I could identify the issues, so I doubt very much that there was not a single person at his old school that felt the same way or even knew something that had occurred.

However, there is a complex balance that must be struck in public education. Students cannot be denied access to education because a teacher feels they are potentially dangerous. In fact, in the state of Texas legal language regarding the transfer of students from one high school to another, the only things that a district can site as a reason to turn down a transfer student are if that student has been expelled, was enrolled in an alternative disciplinary program, or has been charged with criminal behavior.

I have to assume that all of these concerns were looked into when it came to enrolling X, and that there were no reasons to deny his enrollment. It’s fair to say, then, that the law does not go far enough to guarantee the safety of students in public education.

Imagine if X had to sit down with a counselor before he had been enrolled. If the counselor was trained in psychology, I think the same concerns I had would have been more readily identified and the potential threat to fellow students more accurately diagnosed. Sadly, public education has a minor issue with funding, and even if the counselor idea could be instituted, what would then happen to a child such as X if he were denied enrollment? He couldn’t simply return to his previous school.

In The End, Don't Forget the Victim

In all of this, the thing that cannot be forgotten is that a young girl felt she was the victim of a horrible, traumatizing, and life-altering event. She was entrusted into the care of a professionally trained staff with the expectations that she would be educated and safely looked after.

Ultimately, she was let down by a system that strives to balance the needs of inclusivity and the needs of safety. But therein lies the problem: everyone is entitled to public education. So what is the system to do about someone like X?

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About the author: Patrick

Patrick is an English teacher at the high school level. During his teaching career he tried to bring a mix of professionalism, forward thinking, and creativity into the classroom. In his words, "The results have been tragically hilarious."