The scared teacher

This first story is one of my own that took place in a secondary school setting where I worked with a group of about fifteen young people. I shared the class with another teacher where one of us would work with the group while the other would work with students one-to-one.

A new student joined the class. She had only been with us for a couple of weeks when a classmate offended her. Her classmate had made an assumption about her background based on her appearance and she started to yell at her. She stood up, knocked her chair down and got in her classmate’s face. My teacher colleague and I tried to separate the two students with the student that had made the inadvertently offensive remark cowering. The yelling student was particularly aggressive in her manner and as she was new to the school we were unsure what she might be likely to do next. While the student continued to yell, threaten and gesticulate wildly the tension in the room intensified.  The students were increasingly frightened and my teacher colleague and I were doing our best to calm her down and recognised that we needed to remove her from the class. We convinced her to leave the room so she could talk about her frustrations privately, which she did enthusiastically, and all I could do was listen.  Eventually, she calmed down.

The most interesting part of the story is what followed. A month later I was working with the student one-to-one and she said to me, ‘you have been away a lot lately’. I was surprised by this remark because I had not been away at all. ‘Have I? What makes you say that?’ I replied. She explained that to her it felt like I had not been there. We continued working and after the lesson I checked the records. I had been there but it just so happened that I had not worked one-to-one with this student since the incident. Our one-to-one schedule had to be fluid to cater to the students’ needs but I realised I had been avoiding this student. It then dawned on me that I was afraid of her, but I was also afraid of me. I was afraid of the harm that she could cause, to me and to others, but I was also afraid of being the person that might trigger her aggression or of not being able to control another incident if it arose. It was too much responsibility but my avoidance was also hampering my ability to build a rapport with this student and she knew it.

As teachers, we are expected to keep the classroom calm and safe (see here and here). To do so means that the teacher has to maintain influence over their students’ feelings but there are limitations in this. I was fearful of being responsible for triggering the student’s aggression but the incident also dispelled an assumption — that a teacher can be ‘in control’ of a classroom of individuals. In the classroom, we are part of a collective where each individual influences the collective; I was taking all of the responsibility and absolving the student from having any. I was fearful of another incident but this student was also a reminder of the control I did not possess. Really, this arrangement was not doing the student or me any favours because I was continuing to work with an underlying fear and sense of failure and the student was not being encouraged to find ways to manage her aggression and understand her role in the collective.

This is an example of how uncovering hidden emotion can help a person make sense of and reconcile the tension in their world.

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