State of the Michael: In which I learn so much about my students, it hurts.


Had a really rough week with my students, culminating in a blowup in 4th period on Wednesday.  If I was a single guy, I think I might have walked away from my career, I was so angry.  I calmed down, and I know that I lost it a little bit, but not without some reason.  I am teaching a group of kids who seem to think school is useless, who refuse to even try easy assignments like “write a paragraph about your favorite activity,” and who regard being asked to return to their assigned seat as if they’ve been ordered into the showers at Auschwitz.

The next day, I decided to try something.  I had them all write down their biggest complaint about the class, anonymously, and then wad the paper up and throw it in a box.  Then I took each paper, read it out loud, and set it aside.  Like a Milton critique, I didn’t comment on any of them.  Most of the papers actually complained about the students who disrupt class constantly, but a few called out behaviors I do that they don’t like.  Some of them were silly things that aren’t going to change, but a few were things I didn’t realize I did, or misreadings of things I do where I’m joking but they don’t realize that.  So I’ll be modifying my own behavior based on those, in return for them trying to modify their own behavior according to the rules of the classroom.

Then I had them write down “anything at all that you want to get off your chest, but haven’t been able to say openly.”  Again, it was anonymous, and this time some of them broke my heart.  Some wrote about parental problems–either they’re under too much pressure from parents who regard anything that isn’t school-related as unimportant and unworthy of discussion, or their parents are unrealistic about their academic prospects (getting furious that their child didn’t get an A when the kid worked his butt off for a C+ or B- and should be proud of their hard work).  Those were hard enough.  But some wrote about the death of family members in senseless violent acts.  Some wrote about how they wish their parents would stop fighting.  A couple talked about being gay or bi, and how afraid they were to come out.  One said she lies awake at night, wondering if God will reject her because she’s attracted to other women.  Another thinks her mother is literally going insane, and worries for her father’s safety.   One said she would kill herself if she didn’t have five younger siblings who depend on her, since her parents are disengaged from their kids (Yes, I urged this child to either talk to me, or to several on-campus support possibilities, and also put the Suicide Hotline number on the board and made every single student write it down even if they didn’t think they need it, so the one who does could remain anonymous.  I’m also working with our school psych specialist to see what can be done).

All in all, it was pretty eye-opening, and my heart goes out to them.  In the process of talking about these things, I gave them some of the less-icky details of my life, and some of them were completely surprised that I knew some of what they’re going through from the inside.  One kid came up after class and shook my hand, telling me he’d been wrong about me.  Another spoke about his anger issues, and told the class where they came from–he’s had a lot of trauma in his life.

It didn’t make everything all better–but it certainly began the process.  We’ll see where it goes and how far.

Writing and Mental Health

This has gone horribly this week.  I’ve done, all week, about 400 words.  This is disheartening.  I’ve been hearing that idiot voice in the back of my head that almost kept me from sending my VP application.

I’m on a scene that is just. Not. Working.  So I’m skipping ahead, and I’ll come back to that scene when I can figure it out.  I know the shape of it, so I can go on, and fill in details later or just cut the scene if I decide I don’t need it.

Physical Health

I’m adjusting to my medications.  They don’t make me exhausted anymore.  But life has made it hellishly difficult to get to the gym for the last two weeks, so I haven’t done any working out.  And I don’t like it.  It’s not like I work that hard, and I have to take it easy another couple of weeks until I see the cardiologist and he clears me for cardio again, but good grief.  So I take walks at lunch when the weather permits.

The diet… well, it is ongoing, and I’m still losing, though not as quickly as the first 50 pounds.  I need my activity back.

Published by Michael R. Johnston

Father of an eighth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Fifty years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA

2 thoughts on “State of the Michael: In which I learn so much about my students, it hurts.

  1. Wow. That sounds like an awesome class session in so many ways. Congrats on having the courage to open up the class, and yourself, like this. And good luck–maybe this will make the class more responsive, more willing to try. As for the writing…don’t kill yourself over it! I know this is contrary to most advice, but sometimes you gotta realize life will undermine your ability to write. That does NOT mean you aren’t a writer–just that you have a writing problem to resolve. Maybe try thinking of it as a challenge, instead of as a problem??

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