Scapegoats and Bullies – Managing a Classroom

Along with being a yoga teacher, I’m currently in grad school to become a certified ELA teacher for grades 5-12. Right now I’m in one of my final classes before I start my student teaching in January and it requires some in-school observation and teaching. Instead of doing the undergraduate experience like I did last semester (which required me to be at an elementary school several days a week and was simply undoable right now while we’re down a man at work), I’ve been set up independently with a mentor teacher at a different school where I have completed two days of observation and will be teaching three days in a row starting Monday, April 1st. It’s exciting and scary and awesome and anxiety-inducing all rolled into one.

 

High schoolers are a completely different animal compared to middle schoolers. They have this amazing ability to talk to you like a fully-formed human one moment and then devolve into a whiny, petulant five-year old the next. It’s challenging, and sometimes that challenge is good and sometimes that challenge finds you sipping a glass of wine at home after a really long day. The day that I will describe to you here is one where I imagine Ms. Abba* may have gone home and had a glass of wine and binge-watched some episodes of The Office to wind down.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the teacher and students.

The 10:10am class started as it usually does, with five minutes of students milling around, chatting with fellow classmates, and handing it work to Ms. Abba. After the students settled down, Ms. Abba explained the activity for the period: they would be reading aloud from their class text, taking turns reading and using the little sticky note flags that Ms. Abba handed out to mark interesting, surprising passages or bits that generated questions. Ms. Abba started off by reading the first few paragraphs and then called out a student’s name to ‘pass the torch’ of reading.

As the students read aloud, I noticed that three of the boys that sat together covered one of their sweatshirts in the little note flags that Ms. Abba had passed out at the beginning of class. Instead of using these as intended, Queen and AC/DC covered Zeppelin in the note flags, all over the back of his sweatshirt. When Ms. Abba noticed this, she stopped the reading aloud and admonished Zeppelin, telling him to take those off and use them as he had been instructed. Zeppelin’s response was to blame Aerosmith, a student across the room who was sitting by himself and had never even been near Zeppelin for the entire class period up to this point. Zeppelin’s flippant response had a thread of bullying in it, this felt like a normal instance, where Aerosmith was their scapegoat for all unruly activities. This was confirmed when later in the class, Zeppelin was reprimanded again and he threw the blame verbally back to Aerosmith. Ms. Abba told Zeppelin that Aerosmith was across the room and had clearly not interfered with Zeppelin at all.

There were a lot of things going on in this revealing little incident. The first thing that this incident highlighted was the overall lack of engagement with the materials these three students had. Instead of paying attention to the reading happening aloud in the classroom, these three were goofing off and playing with the supplies, distracting each other. The second thing this highlighted was the group dynamic, both the three students sitting together and creating the mischief, but also the singled out student all the way across the room, being used as a verbal scapegoat for their antics. Aerosmith, the student sitting by himself, looked like a loner in general, having all the hallmarks: dark clothing, headphones around the neck at all time, sitting by himself, only participating when asked by the teacher, but not against reading aloud when asked. I wonder what happened between this group of students where this negative dynamic was created. Is there a peer relationship outside of the classroom that created this animosity? Is Aerosmith the injured antelope for the popular/alpha Zeppelin to prey upon? The room held tension during this interaction and there felt like history between the students. The third thing I noticed is how Ms. Abba did her best to mitigate the interaction to keep Aerosmith from feeling singled out, but there is only so much one teacher can do. She diffused the situation as best she could and moved the class along.

This incident forced me to think deeply about the importance of classroom management, but in the same breath think about how there is only so much a teacher can do when these students all have relationships in and outside of the classroom. How should teachers best manage these potentially tense relationships? And when do you decide to investigate if this is actually perpetual bullying and not just classroom antics? Is it ever OK to assume it’s just classroom antics? Where should we draw the line in the sand? This too highlights the importance of knowing your students. I imagine that Ms. Abba knows her students well enough to know that she didn’t need to interfere or investigate bullying between these two students. It was eye-opening to realize how large a role the social dynamic between students plays inside the classroom. This interaction made me come to terms with the fact that a lesson plan is really only as good at the classroom behavior management will allow.

What do you think? When and how do we draw the line between goofing off and harmful bullying? How do we best defuse these tense situations in our classrooms? What should you do when you have a student who is mean?

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