Never have I come home from a substitute teaching job and cried. Until this year…

The phone rang for middle school. My inner voice said you know it’s going to be tough. Delving into a class full of hormonal teens trying to figure out their place in the world can be challenging. I’ve done it for the past three years, subbing in classes that can be difficult to find subs for because of behaviors. Slowly it’s taken its toll, and this year I had decided to sub only for high school. Then came the call for middle. I figured I had all summer to rest, an attitude of positivity and a heart wanting to help. So, off I went to the most challenging job of my life.

Middle School

ME: “Please put that desk down. We don’t want anyone to get hurt.

Student: ” Miss, don’t mess with him. He’s been to jail three times.”

ME: “I know you’re playing around, but I need you to take your seat. We can’t punch each other. Someone’s going to get hurt.

ME: “Please don’t stand on the desks.” The boy lifts his shirt and mimics a strip tease.

ME: “Language.” “Inappropriate.” “Let’s be kind to one another.”

The blocks were an hour and a half long with six to ten boys and zero to two girls. All of us in one room. I tried reading to them. They talked over me. I tried two middle school ice breaker games. One lasted ten minutes and the other fifteen before they were done and back to insulting each other. They wandered around the room searching for anything to get into to grab my attention. My job wasn’t to teach the students. My job was to try and keep them from hurting each other for an hour and a half.

I had to ask for another adult to come in the classroom twice during the first day. Once when a boy insisted he was going to jump over a desk and another time when two boys were about to throw punches. When security came in, they sat. When security left, they sat for fifteen minutes if I was lucky. I left feeling defeated. I failed. I couldn’t manage the classroom, and as a result, I couldn’t teach any of the lessons I had brought with me.

When I returned home, I couldn’t stop thinking of the kids. How did they get to that point? Was it their home environment? Was it their elementary to the middle school environment? Where were the adults in their life trying to make things better for them? Are we failing as a community when our children cannot be taught because they’ve learned to have outrageous behaviors in the classroom? Even though this school was by far the most difficult I’ve been to, I’ve seen similar behaviors in other middle schools. What happens to the child that doesn’t have parental support, has developed difficult behaviors, and has been placed in low-level ability ranked classrooms for his first through sixth-grade years? Well, what happens is school becomes a place where he has learned how to shock, disrupt, shout-out, rebel, fight, and complete his worksheet only if he feels like it. If he’s never felt confident in his ability to do the work because we’ve placed him in low classes for years telling him he’s dumb then why should he try? And if you don’t think we haven’t told the students they’re dumb by putting them in these classes then go sub and listen. I guarantee you will hear, “This is the low class. This is the class for dummies. I got put in here because I failed ____.” School is not a place where he has learned to seek knowledge and value becoming a life long learner. School has become a constant reminder of how he is different from the other students. Behaviors arise, consequences occur, and by middle school, he feels like school is a jail. His behaviors have gotten out of control, and school is no longer about learning it’s about avoiding referrals and suspension.

I went back.

Because I believed these students could be helped. Because I believed the students had good hearts, hearts that were hurting, and needed more adults to show them learning could be enjoyable, there’s a whole world out there to discover; life does not have to be about who can beat up whom or drugs or guns, or jail…

I tried again. I failed again.

There were moments, small moments of light where a student would ask a question about the book I tried to read, or stand up and ask his classmates to, “shut the fuck up,” so I could speak. One student explained that he had to have a backup plan if football didn’t work out. He showed me baking videos and said he wanted to be a baker. Another time, two students flirting with each other took it too far resulting in a shove which led to a student falling into me. Immediately another boy who witnessed the accident asked me if I was okay. I wanted to cry, not because of what happened but, because in all of the negativity he showed compassion. It was those tiny moments of light where I took a deep breath and reminded myself to keep trying.

I’d imagine that’s what the administration and the teachers at this school felt. They too must search for those moments of light where they see a student has made progress. I am in awe of the administration and teachers at this school because I’ve never been more challenged in my life. Those teachers are strong hearted, caring people, who care enough to try to put back the pieces of souls that have been ripped apart. The things they hear, the things they see from twelve to fourteen-year-olds, it must break their heart day after day, and still they try again hoping to make a difference. That is an incredible person!

How do we make it better? I believe it’s up to the community. I also believe our school structure should change beginning in elementary. Students that struggle with behavior and or academic success should not be grouped together in one typical American classroom with desks, and behavior cards and threats of referrals. All that does is put the focus on behavior. Teaching in those types of classrooms is extremely difficult. We should think home-school–in school. When students have more moments of feeling like someone cares for them, feeling academic success, and feeling as though they’d rather research how to 3D print something or how an airplane flies rather than how to shock their teacher with inappropriate behavior then we’re succeeding in educating all of our students.

They are our future America. Do we want them to continue the pattern of anger and negativity thinking their future will be a jail cell or do we want to challenge their minds in a positive way giving them a chance to choose what they’d like to do with their future? We have the opportunity, to teach them to be curious, knowledge seeking individuals. We know what doesn’t work; now it’s time to change it. We need to begin to think beyond four walls and rows of desks.

Check this out! AltSchool. When we can have schools like this for everyone and not just the ultra rich, then we’re valuing every child and investing in our future.

Nontraditional Schools Across the World

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