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    Too Many Balls in the Air–Literally

    While subbing at my local, underperforming middle school in San Diego County today, I had a strange impression of disorder and its relationship to the expression: “too many balls in the air.”

    During one period I was a P.E. assistant. The P.E. teacher was absent and had left for his substitute the plans to let the students shoot baskets in the gym. That sounded pretty simple until I realized upon entering that there were about 60 students in the P.E. class. I dodged flying basketballs and volleyballs–I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many unspectacular teenage athletes in one place before–to walk over to the substitute P.E. teacher to see what I could do to help. Basketballs and volleyballs zoomed across the gym with no aim or order and their loud crashes made the gym reverberate like a war zone.

    Many students were launching shots from half court, which means that other students were dodging their airballs. Some students were kicking volleyballs so that they ricocheted off the walls and flew every which way. Now, it’s important that I say two things here: 1. I was just supposed to be the assistant; since the P.E. substitute didn’t see any problem with the situation, I didn’t want to infringe on her authority. 2. I’ve often been the stern substitute teacher at this school of no discipline and no structure, and I’ve found that I need to choose my battles carefully because the students–who are used to behaving disrespectfully and doing very little work–don’t respond well to authority, and when I’ve called in the administration for back-up after asserting my authority, I’ve usually received very little help.

    So, there I was biting my tongue and finding every opportunity to leave the gym (even though it was raining) by delivering the attendance to the office, etc. I was practically getting whiplash from trying to steer clear of so many flying balls, and I was trying to stay as calm as possible in the face of such awful noise and disorder.

    Man, I hate chaotic situations. And I especially hate chaotic situations in schools. After working at American Indian Public Charter School and American Indian Public High School and seeing how students can thrive academically and get in great shape when there is structure, discipline, academic rigor, and a no-nonsense approach to P.E., I have a hard time tolerating schools that don’t provide that environment.

    From what I could gather, the plan to shoot baskets was a common one for the P.E. teacher. He obviously doesn’t share my same aversions to noise and chaos, but I couldn’t help but think out of the blue: Would this ever be acceptable behavior in China? I had a vision of students lined up in straight lines doing exercises in place, like jumping jacks, push ups, stretches, martial arts, etc. I had another vision of students jogging–without cutting corners–around the gym and running sprints. (Like at AIPCS.)

    I was an award-winning basketball player in high school, and I could not stand this sight of so many out of control, out of shape, horrible little basketball players spazzing around. I wanted to line them up and get them working out and following instructions, but with 60 students, 100 balls, 0 whistles, and no authority I figured it was best to let the impulse pass.

    It was also baffling to me that the students could gleefully participate in the chaos. It was as if their tolerance for loud noise and craziness had gotten so high that they didn’t even realize how chaotic their environment was. Needless to say, the remainder of my day as a substitute in the classroom was frustrating. Though I could control the noise level and disorder better in a classroom, I still ran into what I always run into at this low-performing middle school: The students are used to acting like fools and having no consequences for their actions, so when I am strict with them I receive a lot of attitude, back talk, power struggles–just overall defiance.

    It’s not their fault per se–it’s the lack of structure, discipline, and academic rigor that surrounds them day in and day out. They’re not given a sound educational environment, so they don’t even know what it would mean to behave properly within one.


    Comment from Daniel Wright
    Time January 25, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Hang in there Carey, these kids will be bleesed just by being around you, even though a situation like that left you feeling powerless. My wife Nancy is an elementary educator, and has always been a strong disciplinarian. The students may resist her at a given moment, but in the end always benefit and appreciate knowing where the boundaries are. A situation like what you described with the PE class is an example of wasted time for those students. They would benefit so much more if they were organized into a constructive team-oriented activity.

    Comment from Daniel Wright
    Time January 25, 2010 at 10:37 am


    Comment from admin
    Time January 25, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Thanks, Dan, for commenting! I agree that the PE class was wasted time; too many wasted hours in school unfortunately leads to a wasted education. I also agree that students like to know what the boundaries are, and they feel more confident in their educators when those boundaries are enforced equally and fairly. Thanks again for your comment! -Carey

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