When I was a child, I believed at some point in my twenties I would become a grown-up. Being a grown-up meant knowing right from wrong and what to do in every situation. It meant being able to tell people what to do and always being correct. From my perspective, adults always knew how to act at all times and when I was the right age, I would, too.
As you all know, this is not the case. I’ll be twenty-eight in February and am still waiting for adulthood to kick in. This isn’t necessarily a problem for most people. It takes time to mature and become a person who makes wise and thought-out decisions; I’m not sure if we ever grow out of making mistakes.
The fact I don’t consider myself to be a “true” adult is important when I manage a classroom. I took classes on student psychology and classroom management. We did activities in college where we role-played student/teacher interactions. However, these experiences did not come close to preparing me to handle the insane situations which arose when I started student teaching.
I was twenty-two when I did my student teaching. I taught at an incredible school with a diverse student population. I had an amazing cooperating teacher who let me make mistakes and gently corrected them without making me feel like a failure. Most of them were small. For example, on the first day I introduced myself as, “Miss Nicole” instead of “Ms. Goebel.” The biggest mistake that stands out, and the first where I thought to myself, “This is my responsibility and I don’t know what to do,” came during group debates.
I taught ninth grade English and my goal was to connect the literature we were reading to current events. We read a portion of “The Circuit” by Francisco Jimenez and one group decided to debate immigration in the United States. The story clearly portrayed the struggles of this family and through research students were supposed to connect this narrative to immigration’s societal impact. One side was arguing for stronger border security and the other for comprehensive reform that let more individuals into the United States.
Students had several days to work in the library. My teacher’s intuition wasn’t fully developed, but I had a sneaking suspicion something was going on with the border security group. I would hear loud laughing coming from the group and I would go over to check on them. By the time I got there, it appeared they were working on researching and writing their arguments for the debate. I know today I should have pushed them and read their scripts.
The day of the debate came. My cooperating teacher was sitting at his desk behind the group and I was sitting among the students. A Latino student, Alexis (name changed), who was frequently absent showed up that day and sat down next to me. I don’t remember exactly how the flow of the debate went, but I clearly remember when Ricky (name changed) began his presentation.
Ricky began reading from his paper a series of stereotypical statements about Latino and Hispanic people. I don’t remember the context, but I can still hear him clearly enunciating, “enchiladas, tacos, and burritos.” At first, the other students in the class were horrified, but as he kept going they started to laugh. I still don’t know if they were laughing because he was making such a fool of himself or because they thought he was being funny.
I could feel my face heating up with anger. I looked over at Alexis and he was vibrating with rage. I had no idea what to do. Thoughts raced in my mind. Do I stop the speech? Do I let him keep going? What do I do when he’s finished? Should I stop the whole debate? I have to make him apologize. How do I explain to the whole class why what he did wasn’t funny? Should I let my cooperating teacher handle this or should I do something?
During his speech, I was frozen. When he was done, the only thing I could think to say was, “Ricky, after the debate I need to talk to you.”
When the debate was over, I pulled Ricky aside in front of the room. I asked him if he knew why I was talking to him. He stated he thought so. I explained the comments he made were offensive and racist. I told him he needed to apologize to the class for the statements he made. When I was finished talking to him, he half-heartedly said to the class, “Hey, guys. I’m sorry,” and sat down.
The apology was not as heartfelt as I expected, but I didn’t know how to proceed. I talked the situation over with my cooperating teacher and the day went on.
Later that afternoon, my cooperating teacher and I were called in to talk to the Vice Principal. He told me that during lunch, Alexis told several of his friends about what Ricky said during the debate. His friends were angry and a group formed around Ricky to beat him up. Alexis told them not to hurt him, and the group dispersed. The Vice Principal stated he spoke to both Ricky and Alexis and advised that we talk to Alexis about the situation.
I let my cooperating teacher talk to Alexis because I felt so much shame about the situation. I should have made better decisions during the process in class to prevent it from happening at all.
There is no easy solution when a crisis occurs in the classroom. You can’t rely on the fact that you will automatically know what to do. Sometimes you won’t. The only thing you can do is learn from it and never make the same mistake again.