Not in the customary sense of teaching an actual language, although I am a high school language arts teacher. Rather, this post is about the instance(s) that sparked the creation of this blog. I had been in a bit of a writing slump, partly due to the fact that I found my old blog unwieldy. So after unexpectedly waking up this morning, I was mulling around trying to go back to sleep. My thoughts wandered to the past couple of days, which were my first days of teaching.

So the first day of class, my co-teachers and I walk in, and we can smell trouble brewing. By the time we get up to teach, the kids are ready to eat us alive. And they more or less do. We start what I’ve learned in teacher-land is called a “whip-around,” though I referred to it as an ice-breaker. The kids were supposed to find an adjective that described themselves that matched the first letter of their name. I was “Lively Ms. L” (although I’ll readily admit I probably was not that lively when I said that). Anyway, one of the kids, R, could not think of a word. His classmates immediately started snickering and muttering, “Retarded R.” R was embarrassed and after a few days with him, I’m not sure he doesn’t need specialized attention.

And I balked. My mind was spinning. If I said, “Watch your language,” I might have derailed the entire lesson by explaining to them why that was inappropriate language, as it’s not universal that people understand ableism. And while that was something I have no problem doing in regular conversation, this was different. I had 11 days to get these kids’ reading levels up to grade level and teach them reading strategy. Monday was supposed to be on behavior management, so that they could behave in class so they could learn. If I derailed the entire lesson, that would go out the window, and we were already running so far behind. When addressing bad language/behavior, we’re told to say, “Don’t do X” and move on, so as to minimally disrupt teaching (which makes sense in context). However, I’m not used to that–because in adult situations, if I told that to a peer, they’d (kind of rightfully) cuss me out. So as much as I wanted to stop and point this out, I couldn’t do it. So I pretended that I didn’t hear.

The other part to this story (yeah, it’s a long one) follows up from yesterday. I got up in front of the class and this time, R instigated the trouble. He started singing softly to himself, “Ching chong.” Now, I happen to be Chinese, although to follow along with my “rule,” I guess, I should add that this doesn’t matter and that you don’t have to be in the marginalized group to be bothered by something. That being said, being the model minority has its own difficulties to navigate. Anyway, I did the same thing. And I’m bothered by it. I don’t think these types of behavior are done from a malicious center, but a lack of education. After all, there is a girl in the class who is borderline MR and the kids defer to her special needs.The question is: how can I do that?

These are not young children with no perception of language. These are teenagers who have probably seen more hardships than I ever will. I’m facing a struggle between my teacher self, who has to pick what battles to fight in a class with little to no customization to behavior management (the first day of teaching was a zoo–there were sticks of gum being thrown, kids walking out of class, you name it, it probably happened), and my feminist self, who tries to go out of her way to educate people on the harms of -ist language.

I guess what I should have done was to go up to R after class and to explain to him, and then separately take the other boys aside too. And that’s probably what I’ll try to do. However, I didn’t know all of the boys’ names at that point, and I had a hard enough time tracking one of them down yesterday for an unrelated issue. That’s not a sufficient defense by any means, but I just wanted to highlight the entire story.

I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it (and issues similar to it). Our classroom’s management has drastically improved, which means that hopefully, once the class progresses and I establish a good enough relationship with the students, I’ll be able to pull them aside to discuss them.