Saturday, June 7, 2014

Surviving Kindergarten

As a teacher we all have our difficult students. I like to think I love all my students equally despite the difficult behavior they throw my way. However, this past August I had a student in my class that tested me more than any child I had taught in the past. My bag of tricks didn't work on this kid and for the first time ever, I questioned my ability to teach every child.

Having taught kindergarten for 15 years in the same small school district, I had the confidence that comes from having done a job many years. At this point in my career, I was a veteran teacher but I still had plenty of the enthusiasm I'd been known for as a rookie. I was the fun teacher who taught her kids to line dance to Thriller dressed as zombies and did dance aerobics with them to the beat of Madonna and Katy Perry. Kids loved me and I only had to walk down the hall to have at least one former student hug me and tell me they wished they were still in my class. I loved hearing it but honestly, who doesn't love their kindergarten teacher?
My little zombies after dancing "Thriller" in the hall for parents and students. 
Teaching in a small, rural school district in Oklahoma, there's only one teacher per grade. One kindergarten teacher and I'm it. We don't have the luxury of dividing up the difficult kids among classes the way bigger districts do. I teach every kinder who walks through that door.

I began the 2013-2014 school year with all the enthusiasm and high hopes I have every year. I was excited to start school. That first day, my students came through the door with enthusiasm to match my own. They listened attentively as I went through my usual routine song and dance.  They were a high energy group so I made sure that there were plenty of opportunities to get up and move around.  I could tell this was a sweet bunch and once they understood the rules, we would do just fine. Except for one problem. Seth.

Seth was a bright boy with a sweet smile but about an hour into class he let me know very vocally that kindergarten was boring and Ms. Champion's class (his pre-k teacher and my best friend) was more fun. He didn't want to go over the routines; he wanted to play in centers. With a smile, I firmly told him we would be going over the center routine a bit later but we were currently learning the rules that would help us do our best in kindergarten. He sat down on the carpet with a sour look. Moments later he began messing with a little boy behind him and soon they were giggling. I asked them to please be polite listeners because Mrs. Liddiard had something important to share with the class.

The little boy behind Seth immediately straightened up, but not Seth. He ignored me and continued to try to engage the children around him. I was frustrated but determined to get a handle on the situation. In my firmest voice I told Seth, that because he had chosen to not listen to me, he would need to take his seat at the table and could rejoin us when he chose to listen.

I expected a bit of pouting and perhaps the reluctant walk to his chair. What I did not expect was the meltdown that ensued. I dug into my bag of tricks and walked over to him and handed him a tissue and told him in my firmest voice to get up and walk to that table like big boy. He didn't budge. As gently as I could, I picked him up and took him to the chair where he immediately flung himself at me, threw his arms around my legs and cried loudly.

 I looked at the shocked faces of my students. My perfectly planned morning was going down the drain and I worried that if I didn't get this train back on the tracks I would have a hard time ever getting a handle on this group. Begin as you plan to proceed and I was losing them.

I was a veteran teacher. I'd had worse. In my years, I'd had chairs thrown at me and even been called a dirty name or two. It had never flustered me or caused me to be anything but professional. However, this sweet faced little boy left me feeling powerless. Why? Perhaps it was the words he was wailing as he clung to my leg with a death grip. "Mommy NO!"

That's right. My little problem student was none other than my own precious son, Seth Gabriel. So began a 9 month long battle. We butted heads all year long. In Ms. Champion's class he had been a well behaved student who never uttered a disrespectful word. With me, he became surly and disrespectful  and had meltdowns pretty much daily in the beginning. I was at a loss as to how to handle this new Seth. Nothing I tried worked.

In an effort curb the meltdowns in class, I started the Grumpy Book. Whenever he was grumpy and looked ready to throw a fit, he had to go out into the hall and draw in the grumpy book. Being a kid who loves to draw, you would think Seth would love going out in the hall and drawing for ten minutes. No. He loved the other kids and couldn't stand to be away from the action. Because of this, his stints in the hall were forced and the pages in the grumpy book could be brutal and always aimed at me, his rotten teacher.
The Grumpy Book.  Translated: "Stupid mom, Dumb mom." Ouch!

The rule was he could write whatever he wanted in the grumpy book but he couldn't share it with anyone but his dad and me. This rule was put in place after the first time I put him in the hall to write down his feelings. Five minutes later I walked into the hall to find the table covered in picture after picture of me with a big strike across my face and the words "stoopid mom."  I was mortified to hear a group of second graders snickering at the display. With as much dignity as possible, I gathered up the pages and put them up to share with his dad later.

I went from being the fun teacher to the teacher who smiled a little less. It was hard for me to let loose. I couldn't stop being Sheriff Liddiard and I realized my expectations of Seth were sometimes unrealistic. My boss had warned me in the spring before Seth entered my class. She wanted me to teach first grade because she was afraid I would have a hard time treating Seth the same as everyone else.  I was just sure it would be fine. I knew I wouldn't show special favors to Seth. I didn't. I was harder on him than any other kid and he knew it. He resented it. Who could blame him? I worried that our relationship would be forever marred by his time in my class.
My class discipline system as explained by Seth to dad. 

In May, three days before school ended, Ms. Champion was battling with a student that she had had trouble with all year long. The child had tripped her hard the day before (not the first time) and was screaming hateful words while repeatedly slapping her arm as she was led her to the office. I gave her a sympathetic look and knew that was my student in August. During my last interview with my boss, she asked me if I was ready for next school year and some of the difficult behaviors I would be encountering in August. I smiled and said, "Definitely. I can't wait!" At her look of surprise I explained to her. "You see in August, I can walk out that door at 3:30 every day and if I don't want to, I don't have to think or talk about school until I walk back through the door at 7:30 the next morning. I can have dinner each evening without burdening my husband with mine and Seth's latest blowup. My son gets to go home and not have his mean teacher go home with him. Next year is going to be absolutely awesome!" She laughed and said her usual, "I warned you." Yes she had.

On the last day of school, as I watched Seth walk across the stage looking so handsome in his red cap and gown and receive his kindergarten diploma from our principal all I could think of was, "I love you and I'm so proud of you. THANK GOODNESS IT'S OVER! You no longer have to deal with that horrible, mean teacher and I don't have deal with that mouthy disrespectful student!"
Seth Gabriel. Kindergarten was tough but you made it! 

I have done much in past weeks since the end of school to repair my relationship with Seth. I make sure each day we do something creative and fun and I can tell we are becoming close again the way we once were. Some people teach their kids and do fine. I know a few who did wonderfully. I'm a good teacher; just not the best kindergarten teacher for my son. Maybe someday we will laugh about this.