January 27, 2012
Classroom management is usually at the top of the new teacher’s list of concerns. Excellent classroom management often takes years to master, and the only way to get there is through experience, largely because it’s nuanced. The things that disrupt your instruction in one classroom aren’t always the things that will disrupt it in another. Sometimes it’s the students’ attitudes; sometimes it’s a poorly planned lesson; sometimes it’s a fire drill; and sometimes it’s a pigeon flying around your classroom, pooping on desks.
It was a day in late March and I had planned a lesson to prepare my students for the Regents exam in USand Global History. The lesson involved a simple strategy for teaching students to find success on the document-based question (DBQ) essay. With pressure to prepare students for the exams increasing, I accepted teaching test-prep lessons, but my heart wasn’t entirely in it. This would not be a “Stand and Deliver”-style lesson.
I arrived to school sweaty and frustrated after having stood for over an hour on two trains and a bus to get to the school in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx from my apartment in Washington Heights. After passing students waiting in line to go through the metal detector, I turned the corner of the building and was blasted by a wave of hot air upon opening the door. I immediately took off my backpack, jacket, and hat.
“Why do they keep running the heat when it’s warm outside,” I had once asked.
“The budget for next year’s heat is based on the amount of fuel used this year,” another teacher had told me. Of course.
After gathering attendance and making copies, I pushed through the heaviest door in the building to enter the first of four classrooms I would teach in that day.
This one was on the second floor and had a massive furnace lining the wall opposite the door and beneath the windows. Although the door to the room was heavy, the hydraulics in the door closing mechanism created an extraordinarily slow swing speed until the last two feet, at which point the door would slam shut like a Venus Flytrap for slow-moving students. In addition to nipping any student taking his or her time on the way out, it also created a powerful gust of air that would consistently blow one student’s hair into the face of the student sitting next to her.
“Come on!” Enrique would say as he brushed Cynthia’s hair out of his eyes.
On this particular day, I walked in a few minutes early to what seemed like something of a commotion on the far side of the room near the window. After I told students about our activity for the day, I noticed Rosie in the back with a smile on her face like she had a plan. As I went back and forth between facing the board and the class explaining the DBQ activity, I noticed giggling around Rosie.
“Mister. Can we open the window?” asked Rosie. “¡Hace calor!”
She wasn’t wrong. The room was hot. It was temperate outside and the heaters were going full-blast, often making a sound akin to a workman pounding on the side of an aluminum room with an oversized hammer. But there was something about the beginning of class and the way she said it that made me think she had more at stake in opening the window than just cooling down.
The school aide opened the door to grab the attendance.
“COME ON!” said Enrique as he had to refocus.
“No,Rosie,” I said, using my teacher instinct. “I think we’ll be okay.”
I returned to my instruction on using the DBQ strategy when the assistant principal opened the door to tell me I was needed in the office as the school’s chapter leader. Janet, another social studies teacher, would be covering for me.
I walked out of the room for what would be fifteen minutes discussing a contract issue.
“PPPHHHHHFFFffffttttt!” Enrique made a scene as we leave. I imagined a minor skirmish ensuing.
When I returned to the classroom, Janet gave me a sideways smile. The door closed and Enrique threw his paper and pencil over his shoulder in frustration.
“We have a visitor,” said Janet, pointing at the ceiling.
I looked up and saw a pigeon perched on pipes near the ceiling. Beneath it was an empty table with bird droppings on it. The five students who had been previously sitting at the table were now clumped with five other students at a table on the other side of the room laughing and pointing at the pigeon.
I looked at Rosie and knew exactly what had happened.
Janet offered a sincere apology, wished me good luck, and walked back out into the hallway. This time Enrique ducked and came back up with a smile.
Preferring to teach and worry about the pigeon after class, I calmed the class down and convinced them they could still learn even with the banging, the heat, the hair in Enrique’s face, the pigeon, the giggling with Rosie, and a frustrated and exahausted teacher who wasn’t confident of the utility in teaching students to pass a state test. I yelled the rest of my instruction across the room as the heater was as loud as ever. On the plus side, the window was open, so I wasn’t sweating as profusely.
Students strained to hear me during instruction and wore looks of agony and frustration as we moved into the work period. They complained of being unable to concentrate. But many worked hard to write something down in their second language despite the banging, the heat, the hair, the pigeon, the giggling, and the frustrated and exhausted teacher.
When the bell rang, I collected their papers and stuffed them into my backpack in a hurry to get to my next classroom.
By the end of the day, the pigeon had escaped unharmed. The students, I’m not so sure.
James Boutin taught in New York City for several years and now teaches in a small school associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools in Washington State. This piece originally appeared on his blog, An Urban Teacher’s Education.