I felt about five blood vessels burst in my head. My students stared at me blankly. “No, we didn’t get it, so we didn’t read it,” one said. There went another blood vessel. “So what you’re telling me is that NONE of you read the rest of the story? None of you read the last three pages during the last 48 hours? None of you tried?!” I gripped my projector stand as I tried to calm myself down, but there was no going back. “Not one of you can tell me what happens at the end?” One of my boys who had to be the expert on everything raised his hand, “I can tell you.” I nodded my head, “Okay let’s hear it. What happened to the frog?” He paused, “What frog?”. I gave him a look that was meant to turn him into a worm, but he remained the same: a kid who did not finish reading “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” I was mad and let them know it.
It went downhill for me after that. I was near tears and doing the equivalent of lying in fetal position sucking my thumb as much as I could possibly do this in a classroom. I was so livid that they hadn’t done their homework that I couldn’t even look at them. My TA, a favorite student of mine who had had me as a teacher two years in a row, was stunned. “I’ve never seen you like this before,” she said. She popped out of her chair, said she’d be right back and left the room. A few minutes later, she returned with Kisha, another one of my favorites. Kisha marched up to the front of the class and berated my students, “I don’t know what you’ve done to Ms. L, but you should be ashamed of yourselves! You need to stop slacking off and do your homework!” She continued along the same vein until my students were pretty sure they had entered The Twilight Zone, gave me a hug, let me know that she always had my back, and then left. Not only was I really grateful that I had two students who obviously cared about me, one of whom was willing to stand up for me and chew out my class, I was also really, really embarrassed. A 17 year old just chastised my class, because I was too upset to maintain my composure.
What had taken me from being a nice, mellow teacher to exploding like the Incredible Hulk at the fact that they did what most teenagers do– ignoring their homework over the weekend? What took me to the edge was a lesson in work-life balance. The previous weekend, while my kids were not reading Mark Twain, I spent my time grading and commenting on their work, reading and providing thesis statements, lesson planning for the following week, preparing materials and quizzes, and basically not doing anything for me. After an insomnia filled night, I got up that morning tired, stressed out, and resentful. When the class didn’t do their homework, it wasn’t the butterfly flapping its wings to create a storm on the other side of the globe, the storm happened right then and there. I felt betrayed. I had done all of this work for them, given up my weekend for them, and they couldn’t even read three measly pages. Why? They didn’t get it. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of most of the stuff they wrote, but I kept reading it. I didn’t look at them and say, “I know you really wanted feedback, but I didn’t get it, so I didn’t read it.” I took it all very very personally.
Except it wasn’t personal. They all just slacked off. What I should have done was said, “Man, that sucks because you’re taking a quiz! Happy Monday!” and let them learn their lesson. Since this incident a couple of years ago, I have learned strategies to help students stay engaged and focused on the text. I have also (slowly) learned to keep my temper in check and blood vessels intact (mostly). Most of all, I have learned that I need time for me. As a teacher, it is so easy to let work take over my life. If I don’t take care of myself and feed my own interests, there’s no way I can care for my students. As a result, I only comment on work I need to, have given the more mundane scoring to my TAs, and have prioritized my weekend. I have also made a pact with myself that if I ever felt as tired and emotionally on edge as I did that morning, I will call in a sub and stay home.
(The students and I ended well, and the following term when I hurt my finger, the boy I tried to turn into a worm heard about my injury and interrupted a lesson because he brought me a finger splint and wanted to tape up my finger. When he finished, all of my current students drew designs on the tape. When I went to the doctor, a humorless man, he stared at my splint covered with happy faces and stars and asked, “What is this?” It was obvious he hadn’t spent much time with teens.)