Almost two weeks ago, I was faced with the most challenging and emotionally charged day of practicum that I have personally ever experienced. Although it has been a little while since these events first occurred, I have been prolonging this post because I wanted to give myself some time to decompress from the day’s tension, and to reflect upon my learning.
March 3rd, 2016 started off in a relatively low-key way. With more than half of the class away at a half-day trampolining elective, the children’s Math/Science teacher and I had decided that rather than present any new material, I should focus on reviewing yesterday’s Math topic (which was the area of composite 2D shapes), and allow the students to work on a learning task for the rest of the period. This plan went over well as a whole, and after recess, I gave a quick recap of the poetry writing techniques we had been working on, and had the students work using the school’s laptops until lunch. This portion of the day was slightly more hectic and unstructured than the first instructional block, but I did the best that I knew how to do, and managed to get some poetry out of a few of the students.
However, after lunch was another story entirely. The class had returned from their trip with their Literacy teacher, and the room was buzzing with energy. In addition, we were sharing our classroom space with about six to eight of the Grade 7 and 8 students from next door, because their teacher had left with the rest of the class for their time slot at the same trampoline elective. My second Associate Teacher and I had planned an Arts work period for the class, with elements of free time built in as well– many of the students were watching a movie and socializing, and many were taking advantage of the open-ended afternoon and working on some Art activities that I had taught to them earlier in the week. I had printed activity pages for the class, and the period started off relatively well, and quite productively.
About half way through the instructional time, chaos broke out. This is because for some reason, one of the Grade 8 boys from the other classroom began to argue with one of our grade 6s. My Associate Teacher attempted to remedy the situation at first, but it seemed that her presence only caused the altercation to escalate more quickly. The fight soon turned physical and before I could even begin to grasp what was happening or why it started (I’m still not sure what sparked the argument, to be honest), the two boys were attacking each other, and sending furniture across the room. My Associate Teacher did exactly what I would have done in my own classroom, by sending two other students to get help from the school Principal, and eventually, the fight was broken up. In the meantime though, all I could do in that moment was move away from the violence and stare at my placement students in shock, watching with a horrified, doe-eyed look on my face as the smart, witty, inquisitive children I had been teaching for the past couple of weeks turned to volatile, angry, and impulsive young people, using language that I had rarely heard from 11-13 year olds before that day.
What was almost more upsetting for me was watching the aftermath of this fight unfold. My heart broke as I saw one of my placement students spiral into a panic attack, and as I watched the Grade 6 student who was directly involved leave the classroom with tears in his eyes. My whole body filled with the worst kind of fear-induced adrenaline as I witnessed several other students storm out, and I felt completely helpless and lost. I thought: “What am I supposed to do? I’m only a student teacher! I should have done more to help them. What happened? Why didn’t I do anything?” I helped to clean up the classroom, gathered my belongings at the end of the day, and cried as soon as I walked into my apartment. My Associate Teacher and I spoke that evening, and she told me that volatility was likely a factor today, but it was hard to tell exactly why the fight had broken out.
The next day was mainly focused on damage control and reflection. Our normal Math period was spent having a whole-group discussion of the previous day’s events, and I remember that their teacher kept telling me she was sorry that we were going to have to move my planned lesson materials to the following Monday. As much as I understood and appreciated this, I told her “please, do not apologize. I completely understand why we’re having this conversation with them, and it is far more important than the trapezoids I was planning on talking about today.” She smiled and thanked me for being understanding and flexible, and I recalled that in many cases, the curriculum should not be a teacher’s top priority. As shocking and emotional as March 3rd was for me, looking back, I can see that it provided me with a great deal of insight into teaching at-risk students. It reminded me that each of these children are incredibly complex individuals dealing with a variety of emotional difficulties, and that our role as teachers is ultimately to show them that we care, and to provide them with a safe and supportive space every single time they enter the classroom.