When a Chicago Public Schools teacher swears in class

I admit it. On Thursday, March 27, out of frustration in my 7th period AP English Language class, I said to my class of 32 juniors, “I’m sick of this shit!  You’re being passive aggressive.  Stop it!  Yes—I.  Said.  ‘Shit.’”  Not my proudest moment in an 18-year teaching career.

The following day, after I entered my students’ report card grades, I did what I always do: I asked them to grade my teaching that quarter.  Here’s a summary of what 7th period said (turn your phone sideways if you can't see the whole image):

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They complained to my friend and colleague about me the following day: “Ms. Garfield—Salazar said shit. Yeah.  He called us passive aggressive.”

I deserved that C and comments and criticism.  But when I looked at my 8th period class’s evaluations, I earned different grades.

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My 8th period students are exhausted by the time they get to our writing class—their 7th class of the day.  Their only break is lunch.  They sometimes don’t want to write but despite the complaining, they come around.  We actually laugh a lot—a lot.

How is it, then, that I do the same exact lessons 7th and 8th period but 8th period gave me higher ratings?

I messed up Thursday when I swore out of frustration.  I knew it.  But maybe my 7th period could use this experience as an opportunity to reflect, too.

On Monday, at the beginning of 7th period, I told them I wanted to discuss the “Shit” incident.  “I want to explain my reaction so we can move forward as a group,” I said.

So Monday, I started by showing them the results of their evaluations of me.  “I don’t expect straight As.  But I would like to help you see the ‘shit’ incident from my side.”  Then, I showed the class of teenagers what I posted on my blog’s Facebook page on Wednesday, the day before I swore.

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I told them how impressed I was, how proud I felt, and how grateful I was that they saw value in our guest speaker’s ideas.  So how could I go from feeling so much pride about them Wednesday and swear out of frustration with them on Thursday?

Here’s what happened Thursday within about the first twenty minutes of class.

Students walked in.  They grabbed their “glue-it-and-do-it” sheet to help us begin our study of parallelism.  These writing exercises teach them a concept or skill by having students cut out and manipulate pieces of information.  They create visual representations of concepts, practice skills.  Sometimes they glue it in their notebooks before the exercise, sometimes after: glue it and do it.

They worked through the first part with lots of chit chat, lots of movement, lots of heads shaking, lots of that little buzz without an unidentifiable source—lots of giggly conversation.  It’s parallelism—there’s nothing to giggle about.

We moved through the exercise as they finished their visual representations of the three types of parallelism we were studying: anaphora, antimetabole, and antithesis.  A couple of students drew their visual representations on the board.  Still, I had to stop so we regained silence, calmed the giggles, and focused on the lesson.

They cut out their visual representations.  We matched up the examples.  Armstrong’s quote from the moon “small step for man, a giant leap for mankind” was letter A.  King’s sentences from “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” were B.  Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” was C.

As I surveyed the class to see which example they matched with each type of parallelism, I got loud, annoying responses shouted out with smiles: low pitched “ehhhhhhh”s for A.  Sheep-like “beeeeee”s for the letter B.  Then, they shouted out sounds so I couldn’t tell if they were saying “B” or “D.”

I annunciated, “Beeeeee? or Deeeee?”  A few responded so that I still couldn’t tell.  Again, sounds from all over the place.  My patience began to stray.  We figured out the matching.  Finally, they glued the pieces to a sheet of paper.  Still—lots of chit chat.  I kept going.

To see how parallelism works, we watched the high point of President Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech—just a couple of minutes, just a paragraph, nothing long.

"For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  (Applause.)  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law  –- (applause) -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  (Applause.)  Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.  (Applause.)  Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity -- (applause) -- until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.  (Applause.)   Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm."

When Obama finished, we heard silence—in the video clip—not in class.  When the president said “always safe from harm,” the camera zoomed in on a child in the crowd.   One of the most intelligent students in class—a student who scored a 30-something on the English section of the practice ACT said, “I hate that kid.”  I ignored the comment.

I remembered my theory: high achieving students can be highly passive aggressive.

A quick show of hands showed me all of these book-smart students knew Obama used anaphora, the repetition of a phrase. We moved on.

For the second viewing—again, just a few minutes—we watched Obama’s speech to focus on the audience’s reaction after every use of anaphora and infer the reasoning behind the order of ideas.

When we got to the silence after the last line emphasizing the need to keep our children safe, when we heard utter silence from the crowd of about 1 million, the same student from before—the brilliant one—said the same thing when we the camera zoomed in: “I hate that kid.”   The chit chat continued.  That’s it.  That’s when I said, “I’m sick of this shit!”

During our debrief on Monday, I also wanted this group of high-achieving juniors to see what else I witnessed within the first 20 minutes of class. So I juxtaposed my view of them Wednesday with my view of them Thursday:

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As each annoying example of distracted and distracting behavior appeared one at a time, I saw some students’ eyes open wide.  I saw some frown.  I think someone said, “Oh.”

In early February, the chit chat and lost instructional time became so bad that I set up a new seating chart.  I told them that instead of just re-assigning seats, I’d let them write down three students they wanted to sit with and—let’s face it—one student they did not want to sit with.  After plotting like a Secretary of State, I had a new seating chart, which, until Thursday, March 27, worked to end chit chat and keep us productive.

I admitted to them: “This list of unnecessary, socially unskilled behavior is why I swore and called you passive aggressive.”

As our debrief continued, I showed them their evaluations of me next to 8th period’s evaluations.  I looked at them and said, “We do the exact same lesson 8th period, so how is it that the evaluations are higher that period?  Maybe I’m not the only one who has to work on control.”

A young woman raised her hand and said, “Yeah, but you only have about 10 students in that class.”

I responded, “There are 15 students.  The other 15 students who qualified for that class take it at Daley College.  Also, while those students have high test scores, they do not have the same history of academic success that all of you do.  Remember my theory: high achieving students can be highly passive aggressive.”

I told them I did not want to be the only one talking during this debrief.  “Would anyone else like to say something?”

A young woman raised her hand and said, “It’s actually good that you said shit because as a class,” she looked around at the students, “we can be passive aggressive.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I admired her confidence.

A young man raised his hand, “It’s good that you’re showing us because, lots of times, we make teachers angry but we don’t know what we did.”

I said thank you to both of them.

Another young woman spoke up: “What’s passive aggressive?”

I realized, again, teenagers, don’t always know the impact of their behavior.  I explained passive-aggressive behavior by saying, “It’s being mean or disruptive with a smile.”

Then I remembered the email I sent our guest speaker the morning before her visit.  “Hold on!  Let me show you what else I said about you before I swore.”

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In that same email to our guest speaker, I also wrote: "I anticipate a good conversation.  This group is definitely more book smart; we've been working on social skills."

A student, who is one of the coolest, kindest, and smartest guys I’ve ever had in class, raised his hand to challenge me, “Why do you say we don’t have people skills?”

“You’re right,” I responded.  I’m generalizing. Some of you have phenomenal people skills.  But as a class, as a group, you need to work on your relationship with others.”  I told them how shy I used to be and how I hard I worked to develop my people skills so I can comfortably walk into a room of strangers, stretch out my hand and say, “Hi!  I’m Ray Salazar—The White Rhino.”

They giggled.

I continued: “I can call you on your passive aggressive behavior because guess what?  Once upon a time, I was a student with really good grades and really bad people skills.  I’m sure I was passive aggressive in class quite a few times, too.”

To close our debrief, and to repair our relationship, I listed these reflection questions one by one and asked them to express their decision by show of hands.  Their options were yes or no.  If they did not want to raise their hand, they didn’t have to.

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I raised my hand to show “yes” to the questions referring to me.

Almost every student raised a hand to show “yes” to the questions referring to them.  A couple of students did not raise their hands; they had that option.  No one said “no” to any of the questions.

We enjoyed each other’s company for the rest of the period and worked productively.  And they started calling me out again in their intellectual way.

Me: “Hey, who’s absent today?”

7th period kid: “Who’s even supposed to respond to that?”

Me, chuckling: “O.K.  Good one.”

Or another kid on another day: “Salazar, are you being passive aggressive?”

Me: “Yes, yes I am.”

Sometimes, we must admit to students that we learned something before they can learn something.

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