Experimenting with space, vulnerability, and powerlessness in the classroom

Listen to the Podcast version of this post here.

As I was creating a border with my purple masking tape to finish off my upgraded “School, College & Career” vision board area of my classroom this week, the last few inches of tape did not stick properly. When I tried to push the tape forward, my feet slipped from the shelf I was standing on, my side falling onto the dusty, scratched up, and faded blue colored tiles of my classroom floor. My feet touched the ground first and bent at an angle. I once again sprained my right ankle.

I have sprained my ankles many times since high school, usually when I am running on the cross country team. So, my ankle has been weakened and vulnerable all these years. This was my second falling incident as a teacher in the last five years. The first time was during my first year, where I actually sprained my back a little bit from trying to hang table numbers on the ceiling; I had to visit a clinic after school two days later.

In addition to falling physically as a teacher, I have fallen mentally, spiritually, and emotionally as a teacher many times over, revealing how vulnerable and weak I was to my students.

One of the many elements that constantly make me feel stressed out and vulnerable was feeling cramped in my classroom. I have these big clunky desks that invade my walking space. Every year, my “teacher desk” becomes a storage area, not an actual working, planning station. And as each period creeps by, students subtly inch the desks closer and closer to the front of the room, encroaching into my teaching bubble. Throughout the past five years, I have changed the layout and tables of my room over five, six times to try to create the perfect space, but I could never get it as spacious as I wanted to. I still felt squished by the presence of my students and misplaced furniture in the room.

But this week, I have come very close. On Monday, I had another incident of a student throwing a pencil across the room, hitting another student close to the eye. Many students were laughing when I addressed this issue. Last week, I was hit with a small piece of eraser close to my eye also, barely just scraping the side of my cheek. We never figured out who did it. When that pencil flew across the room, I didn’t see who did it again. I lectured my students on how dangerous this was. I was so angry when they kept laughing, not taking me seriously. So, I waited until they calmed down. As I tried to use my most serious voice to explain how they were being disrespectful, I was using all my strength to sculpt an intimidating tone, with my arms crossed, my eyebrows scrunched, willing them all to understand the gravity of the situation, fearing that they will laugh again at any moment. I felt control was going to slip out of hands any moment. I felt so powerless.

It reminded me of a nightmare another teacher once described to me. The students were getting bigger, and I was getting smaller.

Though I was unsure how to do it at the moment, I knew I had to make same major changes.

I went to see one of the assistant principals and was told I can try switching up where students were sitting. Unfortunately, I recently already changed my students’ seats and did not want to take more time to create more movement in the class again. I then decided to consult a neighboring teacher who also shared the same students as me. I was trying to understand how he prevented objects from being thrown and the best seating arrangement. There were many factors to consider, but we focused on creating a space where I can always be eight feet away from my working/teaching station, a place I can walk to and from with ease, enabling me to get a good view of the class. I needed to be able to see my students better, especially if they were trying to cause trouble by throwing objects. He came over to my classroom to see how my class was laid out.

“Do you use that table in the back?” He pointed to the “teacher desk.” “If you don’t use it, you can push it back closer to the wall to create more space for the students who sit right in front of it.”

He then examined the front of the room where the whiteboard was facing the classroom, “How do you use this space? Where do you usually stand?”

I demonstrated how I would walk to and from my computer to change to the next slide for my lessons and back to a table corner where I had a pile of papers, envelopes, referrals, reflection papers, and post-its. I basically walked in an “L” formation multiple times.

“Seems like a lot of work.” He remarked.

When he stood in one of the back corners of the room, he described how the front of the room, specially where I set up my computer and overhead projector, looked like a fortress.

“Is that a good or a bad thing?” I asked him.

“I don’t know.” He said, not wanting to offend me.

A fortress. This word stuck with me. Something clicked in me. Perhaps, this whole time, I was unconsciously building a fortress around me to fend off my students—to close up my vulnerabilities—but it ended up inhibiting my teaching and connection with students. This cramped space was something that I created. It was almost as if there was an invisible wall that I set up between me and my students.

After he left, I reexamined my room with a fresh set of eyes. I knew what I had to do. I spent an extra hour after school decluttering and moving my overhead projector table around—eliminating the “L” shape path. I tossed out boxes. I rearranged all the technology wires. I was even so ready to throw out the three years of teaching materials I had been hoarding. At the end, I felt like a burden has been lifted off my shoulders. I was able to get up and walk around the front of the class much more freely. An open space.

Two days later, when I woke up for work and arrived in my classroom, waiting for the bell to ring, for class to start, I realized something. I was not anxious. I was excited. Excited for the first time, for class to start!

It was a strange feeling.

“Ms. This is the first time I see you sitting down. It is so strange. I don’t think you ever sat down this year.” A student noticed during my last period that day. The comfy, swiveling chair that had been buried in storage at the back of my original teacher desk was now in front of the room, right where I can sit down properly in front of my new planning and teaching station. For the past five years, I have never sat down when I was teaching. I was always walking around putting out fires, making students were focused, answering questions and all the other miscellaneous teacher duties you can think of.

It felt so strange to feel so comfortable in my classroom.

No longer was there a “fortress” covering and protecting me. This new vulnerability was quite empowering.

This new open space made me feel more comfortable in being vulnerable with my students. Could I be entering into a new stage of my teaching career?

Experimenting with the physical space of my classroom to allow a sense of renewed vulnerability forced me to reflect on some of the questions that students have asked me before, and how I may have deflected or given guarded answers for:

Ms. What book do you want to write?

You should write about your teaching experiences, so people will understand what it is like.

Ms. Should I come to school tomorrow? You want me to come even though I annoy you so much?

Ms. Can you say something in Spanish? There’s a rumor going around that you can speak it. (I can’t actually speak Spanish, but am very familiar with a certain profane phrase that I catch my students saying here and there).

Ms. What’s your Chinese name? Can you speak some Chinese?

Ms. Have you watched Inventing Anna? Encanto?

And on the list goes.

How vulnerable can I get? How can I reshape my vulnerability and turn it into empowerment and a bridge to my students? How do I find the right balance of not feeling the constant need to gain some sense of control in the classroom and being comfortable enough with my students to allow them to grow at their own pace without inducing an overwhelming powerlessness and chaos within me?

I kept up with the cleaning momentum throughout the week, but I was getting too ahead of myself when I forgot about the lesson of not climbing up and standing on shelves. I forgot how physically vulnerable I was. Nevertheless, it was a good wake up call.

With each year, I rise again once more, lifted up from the depths of despair and suited up with the armor of God, inching closer to the hearts of my students, one step at a time.

Thank you for stopping by Haunting Comforts, where I share teaching, faith, and life through stories, reflections, and analyses. Subscribe & follow me on Instagram for more updates!

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