NOTE: After teaching English for eleven years at her former suburban public high school, Jo Scott-Coe works now in voluntary exile, attempting a practice of recovery and creative witness--through writing, mentoring and art. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in publications such as ONTHEBUS, The Chariton Review, Nerve Cowboy, Pearl, Chiron Review, Rattle, Spillway, KB Journal and The Los Angeles Times. A freelance writer and independent scholar-researcher, Scott-Coe works as lecturer in Creative Writing and Composition at UC Riverside and Riverside Community College, respectively. She also teaches workshops from home. Her memoir in essays, Teaching at Point Blank, is currently in search of a publisher.
July 9, 2006
Not when they fall to the grimy tiles or scruffy asphalt, not when they cry or suddenly tear into each other?s hair, shirts, pockets or folders. Not if they open their arms and ask for a hug. Not when they turn green, show you a beesting, cower along the wall or have a seizure. Not when you see them cupping hands over pimply cheekbones, cracked eyeglasses, fat tummy, stained pants. Don?t graze an arm or hand by accident. Remove yourself from the scene if they draw a weapon or brandish a french fry, or if you suspect a water bottle is really filled with Vodka. Placing your body in the middle of two or more student bodies fighting, even to protect one or both or all of them, is a no-no. Avoid direct eye contact. Even a handshake or high-five can put you at risk. Don?t point or do anything that could be inferred as pointing. Do not touch any property belonging to a student. Do not look at or attempt to inspect any property belonging to a student. Leave this for someone who does not know the student, or for an animal such as a trained drug dog.
As a last resort, use proximity in establishing trust (bend down near face or desk-level) or asserting dominance (stand over anyone seated or shorter than you). Such methods are less likely to provoke lawsuits and much easier to explain to most parents. Never raise your voice. (Schools with microphones are now making progress to eliminate yelling altogether.) Students with sore throats must not be given cough drops or hot tea though you may, at least in California, counsel students regarding personal birth control, pregnancy or abortion. (It's best only to offer simply a silent car ride, as discussions about sexuality are to be avoided, unless prescribed by specific curriculum. Certainly do not contact parents if you feel an inkling of specific concern in this area.)
Don?t be alone with a child unless the door to your room is open, signaling intent not to molest. (The likelihood of being alone with a child in a room crowded with children is rare but may seem tempting simply as an antidote to chaos.) Do not fall into the trap of one-on-one contact as an opportunity to concentrate on difficult reading or establish trust or a break-through. Keep in mind, always: you could lose your paycheck or at least your reputation.
Be aware that these guidelines are not reciprocal. Students will occasionally: touch your hands, smear mud on your slacks, grab your hemline or your hair. They may poke holes in the family pictures you post on the bulletin board, or drop the glass frame you had placed on your desk. They may take food from your desktop, desk drawers, your refrigerator--sometimes because they are starving, and sometimes because they want to be mean. They may bring you flowers or trays of cookies. They may look inside your purse, or take it from your desk (this is why you should keep your purse with you at all times, unless you keep a locked cabinet). They will sometimes swarm around your desk, talking all at once. They will interrupt you, interrupt each other. They will talk about your makeup or lack of makeup, the shape of your body, your shoes and how many pairs you do or don?t have, the expensiveness or cheapness of your clothes. They will comment on the rip in your tights, the ink on your fingers, your five-o?clock shadow. They will certainly touch each other. They may very well brag about the salary and position of their important parents and step-parents, whom you will never meet except via email and speaker phone.They will ask about your teeth and what happened to them. They will pass notes they want you to notice and wonder about. They will write your name on desks and on websites and superimpose your face over photographs. They will demand to meet you in private, demand to be liked, will tease you with secrets. Those who can drive may follow you to the parking lot or follow you home. They will keep coming, will leave with no warning, then pop up again.
Other cautions: Don?t talk too loud or tell jokes. Don?t react spontaneously to any misbehavior or kindess. Don?t address private notes of encouragement, reprimand or questions to students in your own handwriting, which can be used against you in a court of law. Don?t express doubts about anything except your own judgment.
Do: say you?re sorry whenever you can. Keep in mind that you are not a private citizen. And remember that teaching works best when performed from remote control.