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'I Cried In Front Of Fifth Period...'

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The following vignette about Christine Emmel's first year of teaching is excerpted from The Intern Teacher Casebook, edited by Judith Shulman and Joel Colbert (1988). Following Emmel's story is a reaction by an experienced teacher. Emmel, who describes herself as having been raised in the tradition of white, middle-class values and Catholic schools, taught five life-science classes to noncollege-bound students in an inner-city, primarily black and Hispanic Los Angeles high school. She was emergency certified as part of the Los Angeles Unified School District's teacher intern program.

I prefer to regard myself as a "first-year veteran," having pulled through the horrendous initiation that Maywood [High School] had in store. Gang violence, vandalism, overwhelming rates of teen motherhood, phenomenal records of truancy, student fights, theft, and extreme student hostility in the classroom were just a few of the charms of this particular institution.

I knew I'd be O.K. ... if I could just turn in my fifth period to the deck and get a new hand. Fifth period was to be my point of surrender--surrender to the frustration of feeling totally powerless over their behavior, surrender to my own feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.

In the face of my problems with this class, I decided to try "relating" to the students humanistically; this was a suggestion gleaned from several more experienced teachers.

I told the students that I wanted to talk something over with them, meanwhile easing myself into what I hoped was a nonthreatening "I'm your friend" stance. I proceeded to explain, or rather purge, my feelings--how I felt as though they were pitted against me and resistant to what I was trying to teach them, how I felt "real bad" about it and wished we could have a friendlier and more enjoyable class. I finished by "relating" my need for their cooperation, since I wanted to help them, and couldn't under the current terms of our relationship.

What a feeling to finally speak the truth of my feelings--and to them! I looked into their faces, trying to gauge their reaction. Feeling so good about opening up myself, I could only hope for the best. Alas, as usual, reality corrected my forever idealistic expectations, in the form of [her student] Geri's comment: "Well, if you weren't such a bad teacher..." This cutting remark, in the face of my vulnerability, plus a few smirks and other unsympathetic comments, were enough to push me past my limit.

And so, I cried in front of fifth period--something I never dreamed I'd do and certainly one of my more horrible imaginings. I'd never let them know I could be pushed that far--and yet, here I was, uncontrollably watering the dirty tile floor! I quickly exited to the hallway, to attempt to regain some equanimity. I hoped no other teachers had decided to keep their doors open that day. After a few moments of agonized "I blew it" thoughts in the empty corridor, I stepped back into my room, heart pounding. In the first second of opening the door, I heard the sound of fake sobs from within. So much for the damned "humanistic" approach! Clearly, neither I nor my students were at a point where this tactic could succeed.

What I learned from this experience is still not altogether clear to me. Once again, however, I was permitted to see that school, just like life, goes on no matter what. I felt I had lost a battle that day and had admitted total defeat in an utterly humiliating way. But a new day of school and fifth period would dawn again...and it did. Nothing is irrevocable, and my striving for successful classroom management continued, even though I thought that one day was "The End."

Patricia Norton, a health teacher for more than 20 years and a mentor teacher, offers this reaction:

First of all, I needed to calm down from the outrage I felt upon learning that Christine, with her background and total lack of experience, was sent to such a difficult situation in the first place! I know of no other business where the employers show such a lack of concern about a person's suitability to a particular job. I was beginning to think that the sink-or-swim attitude in education was phasing out with the advent of mentor programs, but I see, as in Christine's dilemma, that the mentality is still alive and well.

Certainly, in a situation like Christine's, a mentor teacher from that school--one who knows the students and the problems--should have spent time with her initially. It was terribly unfortunate that she came to the point of surrender and helplessness.

As to the advice by Christine's colleagues about solving the fifth-period problem by "showing her human side," I think that the interpretation of what that meant needed more defining. An approach that comes from weakness, as hers was interpreted by the students, never works. She needed to come from whatever strength she had left.

I admire Christine's tenacity to hang in there and learn that experience helps. It sounds as if she really has what it takes to be a teacher.

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