First Person

Classroom Management, With Pigeons

Classroom management is usually at the top of the new teacher’s list of concerns. Excellent classroom management often takes years to master, and the only way to get there is through experience, largely because it’s nuanced. The things that disrupt your instruction in one classroom aren’t always the things that will disrupt it in another. Sometimes it’s the students’ attitudes; sometimes it’s a poorly planned lesson; sometimes it’s a fire drill; and sometimes it’s a pigeon flying around your classroom, pooping on desks.

It was a day in late March and I had planned a lesson to prepare my students for the Regents exam in USand Global History. The lesson involved a simple strategy for teaching students to find success on the document-based question (DBQ) essay. With pressure to prepare students for the exams increasing, I accepted teaching test-prep lessons, but my heart wasn’t entirely in it. This would not be a “Stand and Deliver”-style lesson.

I arrived to school sweaty and frustrated after having stood for over an hour on two trains and a bus to get to the school in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx from my apartment in Washington Heights. After passing students waiting in line to go through the metal detector, I turned the corner of the building and was blasted by a wave of hot air upon opening the door. I immediately took off my backpack, jacket, and hat.

“Why do they keep running the heat when it’s warm outside,” I had once asked.

“The budget for next year’s heat is based on the amount of fuel used this year,” another teacher had told me. Of course.

After gathering attendance and making copies, I pushed through the heaviest door in the building to enter the first of four classrooms I would teach in that day.

This one was on the second floor and had a massive furnace lining the wall opposite the door and beneath the windows. Although the door to the room was heavy, the hydraulics in the door closing mechanism created an extraordinarily slow swing speed until the last two feet, at which point the door would slam shut like a Venus Flytrap for slow-moving students. In addition to nipping any student taking his or her time on the way out, it also created a powerful gust of air that would consistently blow one student’s hair into the face of the student sitting next to her.

“Come on!” Enrique would say as he brushed Cynthia’s hair out of his eyes.

On this particular day, I walked in a few minutes early to what seemed like something of a commotion on the far side of the room near the window. After I told students about our activity for the day, I noticed Rosie in the back with a smile on her face like she had a plan. As I went back and forth between facing the board and the class explaining the DBQ activity, I noticed giggling around Rosie.

“Mister. Can we open the window?” asked Rosie. “¡Hace calor!

She wasn’t wrong. The room was hot. It was temperate outside and the heaters were going full-blast, often making a sound akin to a workman pounding on the side of an aluminum room with an oversized hammer. But there was something about the beginning of class and the way she said it that made me think she had more at stake in opening the window than just cooling down.

The school aide opened the door to grab the attendance.

“COME ON!” said Enrique as he had to refocus.

“No,Rosie,” I said, using my teacher instinct. “I think we’ll be okay.”

I returned to my instruction on using the DBQ strategy when the assistant principal opened the door to tell me I was needed in the office as the school’s chapter leader. Janet, another social studies teacher, would be covering for me.

I walked out of the room for what would be fifteen minutes discussing a contract issue.

“PPPHHHHHFFFffffttttt!” Enrique made a scene as we leave. I imagined a minor skirmish ensuing.

When I returned to the classroom, Janet gave me a sideways smile. The door closed and Enrique threw his paper and pencil over his shoulder in frustration.

“We have a visitor,” said Janet, pointing at the ceiling.

I looked up and saw a pigeon perched on pipes near the ceiling. Beneath it was an empty table with bird droppings on it. The five students who had been previously sitting at the table were now clumped with five other students at a table on the other side of the room laughing and pointing at the pigeon.

I looked at Rosie and knew exactly what had happened.

Janet offered a sincere apology, wished me good luck, and walked back out into the hallway. This time Enrique ducked and came back up with a smile.

Preferring to teach and worry about the pigeon after class, I calmed the class down and convinced them they could still learn even with the banging, the heat, the hair in Enrique’s face, the pigeon, the giggling with Rosie, and a frustrated and exahausted teacher who wasn’t confident of the utility in teaching students to pass a state test. I yelled the rest of my instruction across the room as the heater was as loud as ever. On the plus side, the window was open, so I wasn’t sweating as profusely.

Students strained to hear me during instruction and wore looks of agony and frustration as we moved into the work period. They complained of being unable to concentrate. But many worked hard to write something down in their second language despite the banging, the heat, the hair, the pigeon, the giggling, and the frustrated and exhausted teacher.

When the bell rang, I collected their papers and stuffed them into my backpack in a hurry to get to my next classroom.

By the end of the day, the pigeon had escaped unharmed. The students, I’m not so sure.

James Boutin taught in New York City for several years and now teaches in a small school associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools in Washington State. This piece originally appeared on his blog, An Urban Teacher’s Education.

First Person

I’ve spent years fighting for integrated schools in New York City. I’m also Asian-American. Mayor de Blasio, let’s talk.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities earlier this year.

Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza,

I write as a school integration advocate, racial justice activist, public school mother, and a first-generation Japanese-American.

I have spent years working with other parents to make New York City’s public school system more equitable, facilitating conversations on school integration as a means to dismantle racism in our society. I believe it is past time we address the segregation in New York City public schools, and I agree that something must be done with the specialized high schools — which currently admit few black and Latinx students — as part of this work.

However, I am concerned about how you’ve rolled out this proposal without including the people it will affect.

As opposition mounts and the Asian communities across the city mobilize against your plan, I wanted to share some thoughts so that you are better prepared to create a meaningful dialogue on perhaps the most complex part of the school integration work.

I would like to ask three things from you. One is to please see us Asian New Yorkers for who we are.

There is no question that Asians have been (and many still are) marginalized and disempowered. If one learns the history of Asians in the U.S., she understands that our past is filled with violence and struggles. Our history is steeped in discriminatory policies at federal and local levels, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. We were only given the “model minority” status because doing so was convenient for domestic and international politics.

We are also a very diverse group of people, representing more than four dozen countries. This fact alone makes it very difficult to make any general statements about us.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should be ignored in this conversation or inaccurately lumped in with whites. High average test scores do not automatically equal privilege, and they are certainly no match for white supremacy — a concept many self-proclaimed “non-racists” are unable to recognize. This lack of understanding makes it nearly impossible to identify Asians as oppressed people of color.

The second thing I ask is to bring all of us – whites, blacks, Latinx, and Asians (East, South, and Southeast Asians) – together to develop solutions to integrate our schools.

The unfortunate fact is that our city is not typically equipped to have productive conversations about race and racism. And if racism of white against black/Latinx is difficult to grasp for some, understanding how Asians fit into this discourse is even harder.

Our position is so complicated, even racial justice activists – including Asians themselves – often do not know how to talk about us. When we are not ignored, we are perceived as “outsiders,” even if this is the only country some of us know.

But there is no reason we can’t work together. History tells us that Asians have been fighting for civil rights alongside black and Latinx people for decades, even after the white system began using us as pawns. Even in the highly contentious affirmative action arena, in which some Asians have been co-opted by white anti-affirmative action groups, many Asians remain in favor of affirmative action and are continuing to fight for equity for all people of color.

Finally, to make that work, I ask that you adopt a “bottom up and top down” approach, in which community conversations and shared decision-making happen under your leadership. Such a framework has been proposed by a group of advocates, including students.

The Department of Education has already hosted a series of town halls to solicit ideas on diversifying our schools, and has done a good job of getting people to come out. However, on this proposal for the specialized high schools, there was no consultation with affected communities, including students.

Let’s practice what we preach and have an inclusive, participatory process. Let’s not ignore the Asian community when we talk about school integration, and let’s specifically include Asian voices — parents and students — in this discussion about specialized schools and all schools. Let’s have real conversations aimed at uniting those who have been marginalized, not dividing them. And let’s explain how these decisions will be made and why.

This is an opportunity to start a conversation that should have happened when Brown v. Board of Education was decided 64 years ago, and to create more equitable, integrated schools. Let’s make sure we do it right.

Shino Tanikawa is the vice president of District 2’s Community Education Council and a school integration advocate.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.