I teach in a basement with five other teachers. During a tornado drill, my class gets to stay put because we’re in the safest place in the building. Recently I quipped with my principal that every time I poke my head above ground I feel like I’m walking into the aftermath of a tornado and want to retreat below the surface.
Three months ago I ventured above ground to make copies for class. As I walked across the courtyard of our school, some students gathered in social groups, others were moving toward their classes. I nearly made it all the way across when a young man approached a small group and punched another young man in the back of the head.
I was far enough along to keep moving and pretend I didn’t notice. I won’t lie, I considered this option. I could have ducked into the building, leaving the action behind. As the men (can you call 17 and 18 year olds boys?) began posturing and yelling at each other I looked across the courtyard for other adults.
Now I’m stuck.
A fight is breaking out and no one is here to help.
Before they started throwing punches I determined that coming between them was a no win approach for any of us. I couldn’t choose one to restrain without just holding him for the other to pummel. So as the arms started flying, I embraced them both, bringing them as close together as possible, keeping them from punching.
The three of us continued an awkward dance for what seemed like two or three minutes. Probably more like seconds. All three of us ended up on the ground before two other teachers, three administrators, a security aide, and the school resource officer finally separated the mass of people.
We haven’t had a fight in the basement in over fifteen years. It had been a while since I’ve had to intervene. I had such an adrenaline rush during the incident I felt hungover the rest of the day.
I’d never seen the two students before. I didn’t know their names. The administrators didn’t make me write a referral, but I had to write a description of what I saw. I completed it that day and sent it. Story over, right.
Today I get to spend the day in court.
I want to be an enlightened educator. I want to provide meaningful experiences for students. I want to give them freedom and choice in their education. I want them to collaborate and learn together. I want students to engage in discovery. And I try to make all of this happen.
But today, my students will take a multiple choice test and watch a video because their year is one day from over and I’m in court.
There is a realism to teaching that gets lost. It’s easy to talk about the ideal of intrinsically motivated students just waiting for a teacher to find the spark that drives them to creativity and a passion for learning.
But then you step in between two grown men throwing punches at each other. You sit in the back of the classroom for several minutes allowing your body to recover while students discuss “who won.” You worry that the dirt on one of the three pairs of nice pants you own will wash out. You hope the pain in your forty year old back is only temporary. You wonder how many other adults in the world are expected to use physical force in their job without any formal training. And you wonder how easy it would have been to just stay underground and keep your head down.
Then you realize you’re better than all that. The progressives can criticize us for lack of creativity, the corporate reformers can criticize us for incompetence, and nearly everyone can accuse us of thinking of ourselves instead of our students.
Even when our actions everyday say otherwise.