We started by brainstorming our classroom "covenant". This is a UU practice--we have the kids come up with the rules to live by and write them down so they feel more obligation to follow them. I'm sure that can work fine with any group that wants to have a standard of good behavior. But that didn't describe all of our students. We've got a lot of cut-ups who viewed this as chance to mess with the teachers. After they had their fun for a while we put that aside "to be written up formally" and went on to the next activity.
It's not that these kids are evil or damaged. Brendan's autism drives me nuts at times with his random noises and comic book recitals, but that's something he has a hard time trying to not do. The student who was the biggest problem I know because he's the son of a friend of ours. I had a run-in with him last year when Laura and I were brought in to show Jamie to a sex-ed class. While the girls clustered around the baby the boys faded to the back and started fooling around. In this case, taking out a lighter and a candle and getting a fire going. When I had a chance I went over and just took it from them. No dramatic displays, just taking an action and making it clear that he didn't get to appeal. He got it back afterwards, but the distraction in class stopped.
With that as background I kept on eye on him in the previous session and disappeared the lighter as soon as he pulled it out. He learns quick. Yesterday he and his buds were playing Magic:TG while waiting for class to start. When I told them to put it away they went back in the box and didn't get touched again. Lesson learned. But watching how well he learns drives something home to me. This kid has learned that showing off to the rest of the class by being an obnoxious clown to the teacher and other students is a successful strategy with no chance of punishment. And he's taking full advantage of that knowledge.
As do a lot of the others. One of the teachers is a long time member of the church who's a public school teacher in her day job, so the rest of us were deferring to her as the lead teacher. But I don't think she's taught these grades. When we were wrapping up the snack time to go into the final segment she went up to the whiteboard and I hushed the class. Then she stood there waiting for the last bits of chatter to die out. Which, of course, didn't happen. So the conversations expanded into the vacuum while she stood there not doing anything. Finally one of the other teachers hushed them again and got her started. At this point I figured there was nothing that a student could do to get her to chastise him.
The final segment was the lead-in to our topic for the year--studying the life of Jesus of Nazareth. To get them thinking we asked the kids to brainstorm about what they already knew about him. We got a lot of stuff, much of which would horrify a theologian but not bad for thirteen year olds. Then the problem child I discussed above spoke up. He wanted to make a real point, that Jesus' conception happened when Mary wasn't married. The word he used to express this was "bastard." Then I saw our teacher come down on him, because that is a Bad Word used to Denigrate People. So one of the other students offered "illegitimate" as an alternative, and she said that was better but people were trying to avoid it because that had also acquired negative connotations. Well, yeah--lots of people have a negative attitude about the situation and whatever word you use to describe it will get those negative connotations. But we moved on from the PC vocabulary lesson and went back to our topic. It was a reasonably successful brainstorming session.
The worst part of the class was realizing that one of our better students--smart and well-behaved--was crying. I don't know when it started, probably when I was running an errand out of the room, there were several of those for chairs and supplies. But she was crying and I couldn't figure out a damn thing to do about it. Really makes me feel useless.
So I think the whole thing is a great argument for homeschooling. All the @#$% that was going on was behavior that was trained in school and the kids were acting that way as their routine. I can see two ways out of the trap: one, have the kids be actually interested in the subject being taught. Which will never happen when they're dumped into a room for storage, even if they'd want to know about this under other circumstances. Two, set a standard of behavior and hold them to it. That takes some training for the teachers, but the important part is the back-up that the school AND PARENTS provide for the teachers. Undercutting the teachers is just teaching the kids you can ignore any consequence from disobeying the teacher.
Right now I'm committed to teach the whole school year. I'm going to stick it out unless we give up on the church entirely (i.e., can't handle the political frenzy). But it'll have to be a lot better than this to have me teaching another year.