I work with emotionally disturbed teens in an inclusive public high school. The students in my program have a myriad of emotional and mental disorders that often cloud their judgement, blind them to their own actions, and cause them to verbally spew whatever thoughts pop into their head without any regard as to the consequences. Their filters are broken, their reasoning is flawed, their egocentric attitudes are rampant. In short, they can be a real handful.
Every now and then, a student comes along with a challenge to make me lose my cool; totally flip out. Well, I am never one to back down from a challenge and I very seldom lose my cool, so you can imagine how a button-pushing trouble maker might feel upon entering my world.
Discipline has to be creative and requires a great deal of patience on my part. I spend several hours a day de-escalating situations, draining off anger, and walking kids through each step of their tantrum until they are able to see the error of their ways and make amends for their actions. My job is not for the faint of heart; it requires patience and a certain serial-killer kind of calm in order to deal with the continual onslaught of insults and attitude.
Now imagine, if you can, a classroom full of 14 year olds; that in itself might scare the shit out of some of you. Lesson underway, there is always someone in the room that feels their agenda should take precedence over mine. Not going to happen. I pride myself on being able to keep a calm, productive classroom environment. Disrespect, offensive behavior, hateful attitudes; none of it has any place in my classroom and my students learn that on day one. No exceptions. No excuses. You will act like a decent human being or you will be asked to leave; period.
I move through my lesson, all the while growing increasingly irritated by the behavior of one young man in the middle of the room. “Please stop the nonsense and return to work.” My words don’t seem to be having any impact on him on this particular day and I see a battle of wills developing; something I try to avoid at all costs because I already know he is going to lose, and a teen that loses a battle of wills with an adult can be a dangerous creature.
After countless returns to this young man’s desk, multiple redirections and an exhaustion of my patience I dropped the hammer on him and gave him an ultimatum. “Stop talking. Stop disrupting my lesson. Get focused on your work; or leave immediately.”
The melodrama begins. “Why are you always on my case? I’m not doing anything. I hate this class. Stupid dyke!” Uncomfortable silence and shocked faces in the classroom. Big smile on my face. Deep breath. Begin.
“I can see that you aren’t ready to discuss this situation calmly, so I’m going to ask you to go and collect yourself before this escalates into a situation that ends badly for you. I’m giving you an out and I suggest you take it. Please leave the room.”
Raising arms, pounding on the desk. “No. You can’t make me leave. I have a right to be here. I have rights.”
“I understand your need to express your emotions right now, but I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. Please pick up your things and leave the room.”
“I fucking hate this class!” No one says a word. The entire class is uncomfortably shifting in their chairs, shuffling papers and shoving their noses into their books lest they become the next target in this young man’s tirade.
“You’re allowed to hate this class, but you’re not allowed to create chaos in here. Again, you need to pick up your things and leave the room.” He is running out of steam. No one is in his corner right now and he is starting to realize he is on his own with this activity. He looks around the classroom for an ally and finds no one willing to join him. The build up is stressful because I never really know how my students are going to respond once they realize they have lost; they are an unpredictable lot.
Quiet as a church at midnight. No one will look at him. No one will comment. No one will help him. He is totally on his own and when he realizes that, he doesn’t know what to do. His only option is to pick up his things and walk to the office, continually playing the scene over in his head, trying to make sense of what just happened. It’s never my intention to ‘crush’ a student, but the idea that their outbursts of should be ignored and tolerated simply because they are bipolar or manic or schizophrenic is simply not an idea that I can wrap my head around. Forced accountability is the only way kids will ever learn how to navigate through society appropriately. I understand that the unpredictable nature of mental illness has a tendency to scare people, but you need to remember that you have the ability to make your behavior a predictable, and that will make all the difference.
How do I manage to walk into school each day, knowing what is waiting there for me? I love my job. I love my students. They are smart, funny, creative, and they are counting on me to be the predictable force in their lives.