Classroom management can be disrupted by the funky nature of kids.
Yes, school is funky! Now, I’m not talking about funky as in the syncopated stylings of a James Brown or a Tower of Power. No, no dear friends. I’m talking about the kind of funky that leaves sticky fingerprints all over the place, or smells bad, or leaves unpleasant stains on your clothes. Hey, we’re dealing with human life at school and life is messy.
I’m bringing it up here because too many reform initiatives and criticism of teachers don’t take this funky human element into account. Sometimes we teachers have to dress for the occasion, which can make us look a bit unprofessional or unfashionable. I was lucky to have worked with some very conscientious plant managers but even the cleanest school can be an incredible source of dirt and funk. I’ve already written about the time I found black mold in a book cupboard. But we also get dirty dealing with dusty books and shelves, crawling around on the floor plugging in computers, projectors and TVs, or just cleaning up after the hoards of youngsters who storm through our classrooms on a daily basis. Please remember, it takes time and energy to deal with the funk. In an effort to save time when dealing with some of it, I invented the ‘Gum Museum’. But before I tell you about the ‘Gum Museum’, let me give you some human background (which you may already know about but maybe haven’t considered from a classroom management perspective).
It doesn’t take much to convince adults that most teenagers are hygienically challenged. But I had to teach 2nd grade to remember how bad a sweaty 7 year old could smell. There’s not too much you can do (at school) to help a stinky 7 year old (obviously if you suspect abuse or neglect you act) but teens are another matter.
In my classroom, I’ve encountered kids who smelled so bad nobody wanted to sit next to them – so I had to take time and deal with it! If it was simple B.O., I’d usually take the kid (male or female) aside and whisper, “Hey my friend, I know it’s only Wednesday but I think maybe you should consider taking your Saturday night bath a bit early.” Some kids were genuinely surprised that they smelled bad, most were appreciative of the heads up, and some broke my heart, “Aw, gee, I’m sorry Mr. D.. I know I’m kind of funky. I didn’t go home last night. My mom took me with her to her boyfriend’s place. I had to sleep on the couch and I wasn’t able to change clothes or take a shower.”
What do you say to that?
Everyone has bad breath from time to time so I always had a package of those small, Listerine, dissolvable breath strips at my desk. When students came up for help and had serious ‘carnivore breath’ I’d take out the package, put a strip in my mouth and hand the package to the student without saying anything. Usually they’d take a strip and whisper, “Thanks,” and that would be the end of it. Sometimes they’d refuse and I’d gently suggest, “Uh, I believe you really do want to do this. No, you REALLY want to do this. Your true friends tell you when your breath stinks.”
But sometimes there’s no way out.
Susie, a sweet, little girl in my 6th grade music class, was crying her eyes out at the end of the period so I asked her to stay behind to see if I could be of any help. I couldn’t tell if she needed medical care or personal counseling. I sat next to her, put my hand on her shoulder in a paternal gesture of support and quietly asked, “What’s wrong Susie?” She turned her innocent little face toward me, tears streaming down her cheeks and with breath foul enough to sicken Satan she sobbed, “My mother likes my sister more than me.”
My eyes began to water and not from emotion. I knew her pain was as real as her repulsive breath and I had to say something encouraging to help, but it took a while to recover from the stench. I did get her calmed down but the whole time I kept thinking, ‘This girl doesn’t need family counseling, she needs an exorcism!’
Every child gets sick. In the morning you can’t always tell if that runny nose will clear up or turn into a full blown flu. But what happens when parents send their children to school BECAUSE they are sick (usually because they don’t want to leave the child at home alone)? We especially see this during cold and flu season when most of the class is physically present but so ill that all they can do is cough and sniffle. When the coughing or sneezing was severe, I sent students to the office or home in an effort to protect the others. There’s not much else you can do. But remember, you’re not teaching your subject when you have to take time out to perform nursing duties. And now I want you to consider how to handle the students who make themselves ill intentionally.
I’m not talking about drugs. I’m talking about the little girl who found out she got more attention when she threw up so she figured out how to make herself vomit and threw up three times in an hour – on purpose (that involved a very strange phone call home to mom, i.e. time spent dealing with funky instead of teaching). Or that time during first period when a girl called out to me, “Hey Mr. D. I think Anita is getting sick.” I made it to Anita’s desk with the waste basket just in time to get most of the ejecta. It turned out that Anita was lactose intolerant and went to the local mini mart before school and ate an ice cream bar!
I would regularly scan the room to make sure everyone was on task and safe. So I regularly got to witness those myriad unconscious faux pas of which we all are guilty now and again. I saw such strange manners as the pretty girl who scratched her head and then smelled her fingertips; or the kids who sat at their desks biting off their fingernails and spitting them on the floor. I can’t begin to count the number of times I saw great gobs of hair floating across the floor, “Okay! Who’s been picking at their weave?” Or what do you say to the pretty girl you catch slobbering on the floor of your classroom? And don’t ask the band instructor what the purpose of a ‘spit valve’ is – if you’d don’t know, you don’t want to know. But these are mostly failures of strict propriety and must be dealt with and then forgiven. There are other sins that are harder to forgive or forget.
Once when I was subbing, as the Asst. Principal was showing me the roster, a kid went around and left saliva samples on every seat in the room – he/she was slick and we didn’t catch sight of it until someone sat down – talk about a time waster! I’ve already written about the mischief that can occur in restrooms but I wasn’t ready for what we found the time I took my Special Ed. boys into the restroom. Norman pointed to the wall of a stall and said, “Hey Mr. D. look! That doesn’t belong there. Let me take it down.” “No, Norman. That’s not clean. We’ll stay out of that stall and tell the Plant Manager what we found.” Of course the Plant Manager found it hard to believe that what I said was stuck to the wall really was stuck there – until he saw it for himself. I could go on but these are extreme cases. They exist at all schools but not all the time. What does exist at all schools, all the time is gum.
The Gum Museum:
When I started in my own classroom with mostly high school aged students I figured, ‘I don’t want to fight about gum. If they want to chew and it doesn’t become an issue, I’ll let them.’ Unfortunately it became an issue.
I stepped in gum. The Principal stepped in gum. I sat in gum. Kids sat in gum. Not only did I find gum under every table, desk and chair, I found gum inside textbooks – gluing the pages together. When I found gum stuck in a computer disk drive that was the last straw! Time to invent ‘The Gum Museum’.
I bought a plastic, gallon cookie jar with a screw on lid and ‘The Gum Museum’ was born. From that moment on and for the next year, every time I found gum or any other flotsam and jetsam (except paper), no matter where I found it (the floor, under a table, on top of a bookshelf, anyplace but the trash), I put it in ‘The Gum Museum’. At the end of the year, that gallon jar ‘The Gum Museum’ was filled to the brim with gum. And there was other stuff too – hard candy, gum wrappers, a broken chop stick, a couple of cigarette butts (I don’t allow smoking in class so how the butts wound up on my floor is anybody’s guess), gobs of hair, and 3 or 4 cockroaches I killed with my bare hands! It looked disgusting and if you took off the lid the combined aroma of bad breath and bubble gum would make you weak in the knees. But it was worth the time and effort because of its assistance with classroom management.
Once I had ‘The Gum Museum’ I used it regularly. I’d catch a kid chewing gum or passing gum and I’d make them throw it away. When they’d object, “Why can’t I have gum in your room? I’m not hurting anything.” I’d reply by taking ‘The Gum Museum’ off the shelf and sticking it in their face and saying, “This is why! Other irresponsible people wrecked it for you.”
Usually that would be enough but if they wanted to continue to claim to be the victims of sharp practice, I’d say, “Okay. If you’ll unscrew the lid and stick your nose in ‘The Gum Museum’ I’m willing to negotiate.”
That would end all discussion.