School, Interrupted

Frustrated that excellent teachers are overwhelmed, and students who yearn to learn are discouraged, a teacher ponders the distressing effects of disrupted learning in schools…

by: Alice Carter Butler

I had just hung up the phone following a long conversation with Sarita’s mom in which I utilized almost every word of Spanish in my possession when I heard pounding on my classroom door window.

The rattling of the glass startled me, and I reacted instinctively springing up from my desk and running towards the sound. I saw April looming in the window, palms lifted, ready to slam on the door again.

April saw me and waved her hands around frantically, pointing to the bathroom and miming making a phone call. I tried to understand what she wanted. Who did she want me to call?

I yanked the door open and before I could say a word she gasped. “Call the office. I need backup!”

April’s face was bright red and she was laughing and crying, seemingly on the edge of hysteria. She wore a raincoat with the hood pulled up. Being that it was sunny outside and we were inside, I briefly wondered if the job had finally gotten to her.

“I will,” I said assuredly.

As I turned to run for the phone a small naked figure darted out of the bathroom and hurled a bundle of dripping clothes at April and then scampered away, skidding on the wet floor to land under a locked stall door.

I froze for a minute, not sure how to process what I had seen. The final bell had rung ten minutes earlier and most students were out of the building boarding their buses or waiting for their parents. What was this tiny unclothed person doing in my hallway?

I shook my head to clear it and rushed to my phone to dial the office. “We need help in the 4/5 hallway. There’s a naked kid on the loose,” I said.

I was surprised at the calm response from the head secretary as if this was in some way a common occurrence. “Got it. I’ll radio John.”

I wondered what she would say to the principal, and if he would be as unfazed as she.

I went back to the hall to stand guard with April. “What’s going on? Who is that?” I asked.

“He’s in kinder,” she said, but before she could tell me more the little guy ran out screeching with glee, two soaked socks dangling from his hands. He launched them, one for me and one for April. We dodged, slipping in the urine and water that covered the floor. He ran back into the bathroom.

“We need to keep him in the building,” April said.

“I’ll wait with you.” Now I wished I had my raincoat.

“I tried to restrain him, but he bit me on my leg and my arm, and got away.” April pushed up her sleeve to show me the bite mark and the bruise that was forming around it.

“He bit you?” I swore under my breath, words that should not be heard coming out of an elementary school teacher’s mouth. “I don’t know how you do your job.”

“My dentist told me I need to get a different job.”

“Your dentist?” I wasn’t following the logic, but then we heard the toilet flush and prepared for another wet clothing assault. This time it was a shoe that was launched over the stall door. It missed us.

“I’m grinding my teeth at night and cracked a couple. It’s stress.” I don’t think she noticed the tears that were leaking onto her cheeks because she was chuckling at the same time.

I touched her shoulder, “I’m sorry. You guys do a great job, but you need more help. This has gotten out of hand.”

Being a Special Education teacher had never seemed easy, but the last few years had been especially hellish on the SPED staff with the escalating behaviors, trauma, and mental illness we were seeing in our students. I’m glad I teach English Language Learners, though SPED and I have shared many children over the years.

Soon the principal and a couple of other SPED teachers were advancing down the hallway in a wedge formation that reminded me of combat troops, except they were only armed with walkie talkies and behavior management strategies.

They coaxed the child out of the bathroom, and April nabbed him, hooking her hands under his arms. She was able to guide/drag him down the hallway and into a small group room, past the ruined fifth grade artwork that he had ripped off the walls in his earlier mad dash. April held the door closed, and I think we all hoped that once corralled the little guy might settle down, but that didn’t happen.

“He’s climbing the cabinets.” John looked grim and radioed the secretary to call the parents.

Eventually, the child’s dad came to retrieve him. I’m not sure how they got him off the cabinets or dressed in clean, dry clothes, but the last I saw of him he was thrown over his dad’s shoulder beating on his back and screaming to be let go as they marched down the hall and out of the school. I couldn’t begin to imagine what went on in their home, and my heart broke for the whole terrible situation.

It wasn’t that long ago that there were only one or two students in the school with extreme behaviors. All the teachers knew who they were. If things got too crazy and the children were a danger to others they ended up spending most of their days with the SPED teachers and Instructional Assistants in the Resource Room.

There was the boy who loved animals but would occasionally turn into a feral cat, jumping up on tables and hissing, his hands becoming claws scratching the air. He was in my English class and was on his best behavior when I snuck my puppy into school a few times. The promise of seeing Breezy would bring days of model behavior, but I never knew what could trigger his break from reality.

Then there was (I’ll call him Raymond) who came to us from a district that had placed him in a special school because he was aggressive and unsafe. His parents enrolled him in our district because we have an inclusion policy which means that nearly all students with all types of disabilities are taught at the school in their neighborhood. Inclusion is a wonderful practice in theory, but our current reality makes it clear that we need more support to continue.

Things aren’t as they once were.

We knew there was something terribly wrong when Raymond called his teacher a bitch, and when he told a group of third-grade girls, “Stand over here, who wants to be raped.” He also punched a small boy in the stomach once  and regularly yelled creative profanities at recess.

When I served as an interpreter for meetings with his dad, I struggled to come up with translations for sexually explicit terms that Raymond knew in English, but I had never spoken in Spanish.

“I don’t know how to say blow job in Spanish,” I stammered in one such meeting, feeling my face flame red in embarrassment. Then I thought again for a minute. “Oh, wait, I do know, but I’m not saying that!”

The principal looked at me, shaking his head. I felt mortified that I did indeed know the word.

I wasn’t about to mime the action or say it, so I interpreted around the vulgarity by explaining that Raymond told a girl that he wanted her to suck on his penis. As if saying that was any less embarrassing in front of the stone-faced father, who insisted that his son had never behaved like this before and, clearly, he had learned all of this from the other kids at our school.

We worked with Raymond. The SPED department came up with a plan that provided for his learning and rewarded appropriate behavior while protecting innocent kids. I taught him in a group of two, always wary of the safety of the other boy, and my own. I was relieved when he moved on to sixth grade. One of his former classroom teachers and I have talked about how we hope to never hear his name in a news report.

The boy who pretended to be a feral cat and Raymond were the standout exceptions a few years ago, but now the term disrupted learning has become part of education lexicon. We didn’t talk about room clears in those days, but now it is too common to see an entire class of young children quickly moving out of a classroom that another child is destroying with chairs, scissors, crayons, and pencils flying in the air.

What has changed in the last several years? Why are there more children in crisis than ever before? I have my ideas, but the experts will have to research the causes and make their conclusions and, I hope, come up with long term solutions. The results are that excellent teachers are overwhelmed and students who want to learn lose out and are in turn traumatized.

This needs to be solved.

A few of weeks ago I joined thousands of teachers, students, and parents wearing “RedForEd” at a gathering and march in front of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem.

The sign I carried read: “Disrupted learning means nobody is learning!”

Other signs told sadder stories:

“Why does my right to a safe class matter less than the kid who hurts me?”

“My wife comes home from work with bruises.”

A burly man with stringy hair and a closed face seemed to be at the wrong event. He stood on a corner silently holding a sign that said: “Build the Wall.”

“Build up schools, not the wall!” we teachers and families chanted over and over as we marched past him.

I hope that we are heard.

For now, I will continue teaching and take joy in my students. A visit from Laura, who tells me she wants to be a teacher like me when she graduates; eager little learners soaking up knowledge; a sweet note from Maria saying “I love you!  You are the beast!” (I have some work to do with her spelling). All the good teaching days make up for that day when a naked boy threw urine-soaked clothing at April and me.

April ignored her dentist’s advice. We are both hanging on.


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