Last year, the last period of every other day was small, and the students were mature, self-motivated, academically successful 12th graders. (Yes, I got very lucky with that class.) This year, my last period of the day is still small, but that’s where the similarities end. The students should be in 11th grade, but most of them have been held back, and all of them are taking Algebra 1 for the second (sometimes third) time. Several of them were suspended last year for violations ranging from talking back to administrators to fighting inside and outside of school. Two of them have IEPs, but I’ve had no luck tracking those IEPs down. There’s even one student who I think is physically incapable of speaking above a whisper. (Oddly enough, he’s not one of the two with IEPs.) It’s no surprise, then, that I initially expected this class to be my biggest challenge, academically and behaviorally.
I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong. Though the semester started off a little rocky, the students have begun to work their butts off to show that they can and want to learn math. Granted, attendance is still atrocious, which makes differentiation a challenge. And granted, their extreme reluctance to answer questions aloud is mind-boggling. But these things just underscore the impressiveness of their numbers: 88% average on a unit test about arithmetic sequences, 77% average on an absolutely critical unit test about solving and graphing equations, and 69% on the most recent unit test about solving and graphing inequalities (this is a HARD topic, as anyone who has taught it can attest). We’re still a long way away from our big goals, and the kids know it, but we’ll get there if we keep this up.
Even more impressive has been the change in mindsets and characters that I’ve observed, both formally and informally. On the Quarter 1 survey, when I asked what students could do to better demonstrate the class values to themselves, to their classmates, and to me, JB wrote, “I can work on my Professionalism because I wasn’t really being polite and professional.” This is the same kid who walked into class on day one cracking terribly offensive sexist and racist jokes without batting an eye. When I asked if students were satisfied with their Quarter 1 grade, LT (the top student in the class) wrote, “Yes, because that’s one of my highest grades I got in math, I’m proud of myself.” I can hardly believe that this is the same LT who was suspended for nine days last year for fist-fighting in the middle of English class and whose favorite phrase at the beginning of the year was, “I don’t care.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates the depth of their growing maturity and self-awareness better than the conversation that we had after their progress assessment today. We somehow started talking about school uniforms, which led to a discussion about student behavior and discipline overall. My impression had been that high school students hate uniforms, including the “mandatory” polo shirts and khakis that my school implemented this year. (Quotation marks because district schools are legally not allowed to mandate uniforms.) Interestingly enough, it turns out that students actually want an even stricter uniform, with button-up shirts and rigid rules regarding slacks and skirts. Why? “Cuz then we’ll actually look good, and kids will stop sagging, and parents won’t have to worry about school clothes shopping.” Can’t argue with that. Later, when we were talking about the school-wide disciplinary policies, LT said, “If I was running this school, nobody would get away with nothing. I would suspend half the school if I had to, so we wouldn’t be so hick [ghetto].” The other students agreed vehemently. Finally, when we wrapped up the discussion with ideas for how to improve the way classes are run, LL (one of my bigger behavioral challenges) declared, “Mister, nobody else at this school has class values. We need that. I like that.”
This is why teaching is awesome. Impossible, but awesome.