National Writing Project

The Myth of “Next Year's Class”

By: Lori Pohlman
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4
Date: 2004

Summary: Pohlman describes two classes, one a sparkling success and the other an intense challenge. She concludes that one cannot generalize about "next year's class" but must see and teach each student as an individual.

 

"Just wait," the voices said as the school year was drawing to a close. "Wait until you meet next year's kids. You may decide to change careers." These ominous warnings are often passed on to teachers by their well-meaning peers, the teachers of lower grade levels within their school community.

It's only natural that teachers, fresh from the battle wounds and the triumphs of the classroom, would share their stories and their on-the-spot decrees about kids in general. While such behavior may seem unprofessional to some, it is certainly human, and I can't think of a vocation more involved with the essence of humanity than teaching. As long as there are classrooms with real teachers and real students in them, there will always be stories about certain classes.

But what I've learned recently is that one cannot generalize about "next year's class." Every class is made up of individuals, and it's these students—one at a time—who make the difference in how a particular class functions. Consider two eighth grade classes of mine from the recent school year. Although these students were not "tracked" into particular classes—their formation was simply the luck of the draw—the classes could not have been more different.

My third-period class was a joy. We created classroom magic together that, while hard to describe, was real and tangible. I believe this was because of the climate we created: The way we learned to work together and the way we accepted one another encouraged each of us to do our best. I use the word us intentionally. The students helped me to be a better teacher.

When I think about how this atmosphere emerged, I recall the students who set the tone. There was Joey, a natural-born leader with a sense of humor. He was the kind of kid who volunteered to read aloud. He gave a speech about his uncle that made us all laugh and cry. When a Holocaust survivor came to speak to the class, he gave her a flower, thanked her for coming, and said, "I just want to shake your hand." And there was Shelly, quiet and perceptive. She painted a poster for the classroom and shyly handed it to me one morning before school. Knowing that frogs are kind of an obsession of mine, she created a poster featuring dozens of frogs twisted into the letters of my name. She said she had seen something like it and wanted to try it herself. It's a treasure. These kids and a few others set the tone in third period. They helped create an environment that made this class sparkle.

But third period represented only a part of my day; I taught four other classes—and one of them almost broke me. Using the same materials, curriculum, and, I believe, the same me that I employed successfully with third period, I attempted to engage my sixth-period class. But here, if there were a Joey or Shelly to lead the way to learning, that student never felt comfortable enough to come forward. Rather I allowed the class to fall into the hands of one angry student.

Her name was Michele. She had been in my summer school class the previous summer, and I must admit that my heart sank when I saw her name on my roster for the new school year. She bullied kids into giving up their lunch money. She hit anyone who stood up to her. She was suspended for incidents like these on a regular basis and was close to permanent expulsion. She was often absent and turned in only one assignment during the first quarter. When she did attend school, she came to class late and sat wherever she chose. When I, noting her tardiness, looked across the room at her and said, "Michele," she would immediately lash out at me. "What?" she would scream. "I couldn't make it up the stairs," or "Mary's in my seat," or "I had to pee!"

I am not a confrontational teacher. My style is to gently remind students of their responsibilities. If they're talking during silent reading, I'll simply put my fingers to my lips or hand them a new book or magazine to read. If they're chewing gum, I'll hand them a wastebasket. I am not out to catch them doing anything wrong, just to support them, and I try to demonstrate this every day with love and humor. But none of my regular techniques worked with Michele. I could not win her over. It was almost as if the nicer I was, the angrier she became. I privately talked to her numerous times, encouraging her talent for writing and letting her know that every day was a new beginning in my class. I told her that she could start fresh anytime. She sneered. She laughed. She stared.

I became extremely self-conscious around her. It got so bad that I found I couldn't read aloud to the class without stuttering. Whenever I looked up from my book, she would be sitting, staring directly at me with a mocking smile on her face. Finally, one day, I stopped reading and said, "Michele, please stop staring at me. You're interfering with my concentration."

Not a good idea.

"You freak!" Michele yelled, jumping to her feet.

I opened the door to the neighboring classroom, asked my colleague if he would cover my class for a few minutes, and proceeded to walk Michelle to the office—something I never do. I'm ashamed to admit that I told the shocked office staff that I never wanted Michele back in my room.

When I returned to my classroom, I stood outside the door for a few seconds to catch my breath. It was quiet as a tomb in there. What must the kids think? I wondered, chagrined. But I had to face them. I walked in, picked up my book, and climbed back up on my stool. I smiled in embarrassment and said, "I'm sorry, guys," and then, "I just can't help but ask this. Am I a freak?"

Laughter is a great tension tamer. When the class had had a few minutes to chuckle, Jimmy raised his hand.

"Yes, Jimmy?" I asked.

"Well, Mrs. P.," he said, waving a hand around the room at my two-hundred-plus-piece collection of frogs, "you are kind of obsessed with frogs."

I relaxed. They weren't going to rebel against me. I felt so much better that I decided then and there to try again with Michele. And I started the next day with an apology. I told Michele that I was sorry for having lost my temper and that she was always welcome in my class. I wish I could say it worked.

After all was said and done, did Michele ever "come around"? No, she didn't. She wound up getting into trouble with the law and was removed from school. I am saddened to this day when I remember the sound of her angry, mocking, pain-filled voice. I failed her.

But by allowing Michele to dominate the class I had failed the rest of the students also. Without Michele, this class might have looked more like my third period and my other classes, with their class clowns, serious scholars, and students who have not yet found their own voices. Even with Michelle, I was able to support most of my students as individuals, typically in little ways—a word of comfort in a journal, a compliment for a job well done—but every day was a challenge.

So why didn't I have Michele removed from my class? When I was at my wit's end, I did request that she be removed, but I changed my mind when the school counselor told me she [Michelle] would know what I had done. The assistant principal said to just send her to the office when she got out of hand. Neither administrator seemed willing to actually find her a new spot, and I realized that if I didn't want her in my room, I'd be sending her to one of my colleagues, and I certainly didn't want to add any more stress to their days. I knew I had to deal with it.

I have learned one thing from the experience of working with Michele, Shelly, Joey, and all the others. I learned not to listen to the voices that tell me to beware of next year's kids. The voices that tell me kids are worse than ever. The voices that tell me kids are lazy, irresponsible, or cruel. I know there are no kids "in general." There are only individuals. And we must look not at next year's class, but at each student as a unique and special learner.

It's easy to love the kids who love to read, who do their homework, and who behave respectfully. But our schools are public schools; they have to serve all of our children. Some of those children haven't learned to love reading yet. Some haven't learned to do their homework yet. Some haven't learned to behave respectfully yet. But that doesn't mean—it can't mean—that this won't be the year they do learn these things. Every child lives in a much larger space than the space allotted him or her in my classroom. I intend to give each child one safe spot roughly one hour a day, five days a week for 180 days of his or her year. But if I am teaching "next year's kids" instead of individuals, I won't be able to do this.

About the Author Lori Pohlman teaches eighth grade language arts at the Mary Putnam Henck Intermediate School in Lake Arrowhead, California. She is a teacher-consultant with the Inland Area Writing Project, California.

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