I had my first panic attack of the year on the second day of school – September 10, 2015. It was also my 26th birthday. My classroom descended into chaos. One minute, I was talking about adding fractions and the next, one of my students dropped a pencil and an argument started between him and another child. Before I knew it, I had one child standing on his chair, ready to climb up onto the desk, another child doing handstands with the intent of kicking others in the face, pencils were flying across the room, all other students very quickly riled up. Curses were being uttered every other word and when I took a few pencils out of the hand of a student who was attempting to launch them into another child’s face, I was called a “fucking bitch.” Another minute later, I was a “cunt.” Another minute later, desks were being flipped. One of my paraprofessionals was on lunch, my second had had to leave for the day, and my third was in the hall calling for our crisis team. And me? All I could see were six fifth graders in harm’s way with nothing that I, alone, could do to stop them. If I chased them around the room, I would be contributing to the chaos. But they weren’t listening to me as I tried to get them to sit down, no matter how firm I tried to be. And as I watched chairs get tipped over, surfaces defaced with the word “fuck” in Sharpie, kids trying to throw punches and doing my level best to stop any of them from hurting each other, I started to shake. My throat started to close up. My palms were clammy. I was having trouble breathing. But I refused to break in front of the kids.
The crisis counselor burst into my classroom with my para. He took one look at me, swallowing my tears back and doing my best – which was not nearly enough – to regain control of the room, and he said, “Ms. Tran, I need to speak with your class. Can you come back?” He was giving me an out. I nodded and I left the room, all my kids having fallen deadly silent, watching me go. I locked myself in the staff bathroom. And then, I cried.
I cried until I couldn’t breathe anymore, until I was exhausted, shaky, and feeling utterly hopeless. What was I doing? It was only day two on the job and I was making everything worse. Why did I ever think that I could do this? These kids hated me. What was I doing wrong? Maybe I never should’ve left my old career. Ten minutes passed. I splashed water on my face and took in a deep breath. No matter what I felt, I knew one thing – I had to finish the day. It was time to face the music. My classroom was calmer, both of my paras back in the room and speaking with each of the instigators of the whole incident while the crisis counselor colored with the other four. He stayed for a little longer to ensure I was okay, and he said to me, “This happens to every new teacher. It’s okay. You will get it. But. Never let them know they’ve gotten to you. If you do, they will eat you alive.” He patted my arm and stood up, quietly leaving the room.
This would not be the last panic attack I had in school. It would certainly not be the last time I went home and sat in my bathtub bawling my eyes out. In fact, it would become the norm for September through November. I would question myself, every single day, if I was really cut out to do this. Many days, I wondered if I was even helping at all. How many times would I have to call a parent to say that his or her child was punched in the face under my watch? How many times would I spend an hour after school cleaning up the destruction from the latest upset in the room? Could I do this? Some days? I didn’t think I could. Some days? I don’t think that I can.
But my students are human beings with an inability to cope. They are here, in my classroom, for a reason, and that reason is that they have a deficit in their emotional and social abilities. Some of them have cognitive deficits. Some have both. But underneath all of that, each and every single one of my students is incredibly bright. And underneath all the aggression and the cursing and the glorification of violence, there are six ten year-olds who are frightened of this world, insecure about their place in it, with no real model of how they might fit in. In their eyes, the world is bleak. Some of them do not know their birth parents. Some of them never see the guardians they live with. And amidst it all, they are expected to not only survive, but to succeed in an academic capacity that is simply beyond them right now. It isn’t that they cannot. It’s that they are convinced that they cannot.
When I realized that, after getting to know them a little more throughout the month of September, I stopped yelling (something I’d sworn over the summer I wouldn’t do in the first place) and I started listening. We came up with a daily schedule, with a reward system in place for positive choices my students made. We now have a very rigid structure in our classroom and everything is routinized. When things change, I give them as much notice as I possibly can, and I remind them of the changes consistently. When my students know what to expect, they feel calmer, and it makes them more willing to achieve, both behaviorally and academically. I don’t think they hate me anymore, though I know not all of them trust me yet. But I’m chipping away at that wall they’ve felt they have to put up slowly, day by day, lesson by lesson, conversation by conversation.
I don’t cry as much as I did when I started the job, but I still cry a lot. Sometimes, it’s happy tears, like when my lowest level reader got all five of their kindergarten level sight words correct two weeks ago and, when prompted to write a sentence, proudly spelled some of those newly acquired sight words out loud. Believe me when I say, we celebrated that victory hard.
“You made it!” all of my colleagues, who have been so incredibly supportive through my own struggles this school year, beamed at me in the halls on December 23rd as I walked with my students down to the gym to see Santa, reminding them as I do daily to, “please, show me a line, guys.” I’ve made it to the big first year teacher milestone of winter break. It’s supposed to be a pretty big deal, you know?
I am nowhere near the teacher that I want to be. Sometimes, I feel like a big mess. I juggle grad school with this and a part-time job too. It’s a miracle if I know what day of the week it is (and sometimes, I genuinely don’t). But the first four months on the job, though only four months, has taught me one of the most valuable lessons: We are all people with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, and we are all individuals with unique needs and preferences for everything, from learning style to what we want to eat at lunch. It doesn’t matter how old we are. It doesn’t matter if we are classified as disabled or not. We are all human.
I don’t know what 2016 holds for me. I’ve never really been one for New Year’s resolutions or anything like that. I am only at the very beginning of my journey in the education world and I am certain that I will continue to face the challenges I have faced for the last handful of months. I know I will doubt myself. But if my students can leave the fifth grade feeling just a little more like they can because they want to, rather than they can’t because they just can’t, maybe – just maybe – I will have made a small, positive, difference in their lives the same way they have made a big, positive, difference in mine.
So, here’s to a great year for all of you. Be safe, hug those you love, and believe.
Happy New Year, everyone.