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It happened, not two weeks into the school year.
A student vomited during class.
Now, this is something for which my teaching credential program did not prepare me. The cheerleader shrieked, the surrounding students rapidly pushed back their desks, and the room was consumed with student reactions and freak-outs. Meanwhile, Chad sat there, as if in some sort of stupor, staring down at the bile he just produced. And there I was, a brand-new teacher in my very own classroom, now tasked with the need to restore order to the whole situation.
It felt like the ultimate classroom management adventure; as if I had been “leveling up” the past two weeks in preparation for fighting this “boss level” in the video game of teaching. My students will take a cue from me – but had I created a strong enough level of trust with them? Authority? Or will the descent into chaos consume the rest of the ninety-minute period?
“Chad, go to the nurse’s office NOW,” I exclaimed. He stood up, started out the classroom. Not to be outdone, Chad then vomited a second time, this time on the door. He pushed his way out, vomiting more outside, and then worked his way to the nurse’s office. I sent a student to accompany him.
Students continued to react, and I made my way to the phone. I let the nurse know to expect Chad, and she offered to send someone over to help clean it up. I felt proud for having the wherewithal to get that far, but I still have chaos on my hands in room 603.
“Class!” I exclaim. The room quiets. “I understand we all just experienced something gross, but that does not give us the excuse to act like children. If you vomited in class, you wouldn’t want your classmates talking bad about you, huh? Take a moment to calmly debrief this experience with your table group, but then I expect everyone to be focused and on-task with their readings on federalism within a few minutes.”
Students followed suit, remaining in their seats and “getting it all out” (pun intended) at their table. In the meantime, I maneuvered the offending desk outside the classroom, and propped open the door. As I did this, students reacted: “Ew, Ms. Dooley!” “No, don’t touch it!” “You’re a hero, Ms. Dooley!” “Be careful; don’t slip!”
Still the maintenance staff had yet to arrive, but I had cleaned everything I possibly could with disinfectant wipes. The students had those five minutes to debrief among themselves, and I was using my newly-developing “teaching ear” as I multitasked to ensure the conversations were respectable.
“Okay! You had plenty of time to discuss what happened. Now I expect you to turn your attention to your federalism readings. Remember, you are annotating the text as you read, and then answering the three focus questions. We will come together and discuss the main ideas in 15 minutes.”
I was worried about delivering these instructions – after all, how can I expect them to really focus, given the distraction? But sure enough, students got on-task, and they completed all of their work. Of course, distractions continued, between the official clean-up, the late student, and the returning TA – but these were easily abated. When all was said and done, it ended up being a pretty productive class period. And they actually had some awesome, evidence-based things to say about federalism!
I learned a few important lessons from this experience. One, being a teacher really requires spontaneity skills. How does one react when something so unexpected occurs? Second, being a teacher also requires the ability to take charge in a situation—no matter how gross—and restore order to chaos. In my graduate work, I had studied how media-given “narratives” influence how people perceive, understand, and react to an event. Here, the teacher is the narrator, able to frame an experience as either immature and gross, or part of life and not worth freaking out over. The students respond accordingly.
Third, I learned that it really is important to create a strong trust-based rapport with students. Of course it’s needed day-to-day so that students will “buy in” to what the class is doing, but it also becomes important when you really need them to follow your lead and trust that you know what you’re doing (even when you are just winging it yourself!). Finally, I learned that there is much more to teaching than what I experienced as a student teacher, and that I will always be learning, growing, and evolving as I continue in this profession. And I’m sure there will be more times with vomit.
Have you ever had an unexpected and gross situation happen in your classroom? How did you handle it? I’m curious to see how teachers of various experience levels have handled such a distraction!
I’m Ms. Dana Dooley, The New Teacher here at The Educator’s Room. I am currently experiencing my first year of educating 12th-grade government and economics in northern California. Throughout the year I will be chronicling the good, the bad, and the epiphanies of entering this profession in the era of Common Core. I look forward to you joining me on this journey!