The Butterfly Effect

imgresIn chaos theory, the butterfly effect relates to how a initial, small change can lead to significant differences later. The metaphor, which I love, mentions that a hurricane can be affected by something as minor as a butterfly fluttering its wings several weeks ago. A tiny change can lead to a drastically different outcome.

So far, this has been a challenging year of  teaching, and I need to remember the butterfly effect.

Last night, I had a terrible teaching dream. I haven’t had one of those in a long time. In this particular nightmare, I walked into class, late and unprepared. Then, I got two new seventh grade students. One boy sat quietly, but every time I looked at the the other boy, he yelled, “WHAT?” at me.  Also, he kept changing shape. I’d look at him and he was short with thick glasses. Then, when I’d glance at him a few minutes later, he transformed into a tall, lanky, surly youth, his face covered in red acne boils. Eventually, he handed me a little white pill, and said, “You might want to make sure I take THIS every morning first thing.”

I stood by helplessly while my class continued to lose their marbles-ignoring the boring lesson, talking, walking out of class whenever they felt like it. Worst of all, one of my colleagues, who I admired a great deal, was observing me that day, and every time I looked over at her, her face was full of intense disapproval.

My teaching nightmare reminded me all too well about my first years of teaching, when my class often resembled barely controlled chaos. Kids threw things. I  had to break up more than one fistfight. I wanted to quit every single day.

It also reminded me of a recent conversation with a relative, who said, “I think everyone should have to spend an hour in a classroom so that they can marvel at what teachers do.”

I replied, “I think that everyone should have to TEACH a class for an hour.” When I was observing classrooms during my college teaching program, I’d watch teachers make it look so easy. I must admit that it was easy to sit back and judge. “I could do that, no problem,” I’d gloat to myself. Then, when it was my turn to teach fractions, chaos ensued. It was a sobering reality. The pros make managing twenty-five kids look like childs’ play, when in fact it is a masterful act.

And, I still have those days which echo my nightmare. This year, one of my classes contains what you call in the business, ‘a tough dynamic.’ It contains kids who bounce off each other in negative ways, who are unconfident learners for a million different complicated reasons, who stir up excitement to conceal what they are afraid to do, who would rather fail than try. Let’s just say that we are working on these things.

One afternoon last month, my well-laid plans were faltering. Students kept getting called down to the principal or the counselor’s office for various negative reasons. My blurters were in high-blurt mode, my dramatists were stirring up trouble, and my fragile eggshell kids were about to crack in many tiny pieces. With this group, I often remove kids from the classroom briefly to refocus. It is not my favorite strategy, but when kids start to take away other kids’ learning, sometimes a location change is necessary.

Then, the drug dogs showed up. When the drug dogs arrive, we close the shades in our rooms so that kids can’t see whose lockers are being sniffed. No one can leave. We are in lockdown, and it can last for up to an hour, depending on what the dogs find.

In that moment, I flashed back to my nightmare. My class was in crisis, from  for the sweet, silent students who never utter a word and have to deal with boisterous, blurting belligerence on a daily basis to the blurting, high-needs challenges of mine.  We were all trapped with each other. No escape.

I should have taken some deep breaths, but I didn’t, and forty-five minutes felt like an eternity. I surrendered to the chaos and the dysfunction, albeit briefly. It was hard to feel like a rookie again.

But always, always, I reflect. Sometimes, I am too impatient. I want results NOW. Then, I remember; learning takes time. Little wings continue to flutter and flap, and their movements can change the course of a hurricane.

Eventually, I will see growth, and hopefully, my students will, too. Unlike an inexperienced first year teacher, I know that by the end of the year, this may very well be my favorite class. It’s happened before. Those groups who test you, who challenge you, who drive you absolutely insane, who make you want to call in sick every day? Those kids are often the ones who need us the very most.

I’ll do the dance this year with them this year. I’ll remind them about respectful boundaries, I’ll push them to do their best, I’ll nurture their fragile teenage selves, and I’ll keep building relationships. I always hope I’ll reach all of them; I know I reach some. Until then, I will keep reminding myself.

Be patient. Think about butterflies. Have faith.