Monday, April 14, 2014

The Flu Game

It was only my second class of the day but I was already feeling a full day's worth of exhaustion.  Not only was I weighed down mentally by the foreboding amount of material we have to cover in class over the next two months, but I was also starting to feel the effects of a stomach flu coming over me.  In addition, the students were restless and inattentive as they had just returned from a week long break from school. Despite all the challenges, I had great plans for our time together and was ready with some well thought out strategies to navigate us through some rough curricular waters that were heading our way.  I mustered up my remaining strength and began the lesson that I hoped that would get us back on schedule. 

Whenever I need inspiration to complete a difficult task in the midst of an illness, I draw strength from my memories of Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals in which a stomach virus stricken Michael Jordan lifted his team onto his shoulders and carried them to a legendary victory.  This event became known as “The Flu Game” and I’ve never forgotten how the sheer grit of one player fighting through physical adversity could spark an entire team. I fancied this class period to be my own version of the Flu Game and I hummed the Chicago Bulls theme song in my head as I stepped up to the chalk board. 

 Just like the Bulls in Game 5, we found ourselves in an "away game" seeing that our class had been forced out of our usual room and into a grade 8 room for some reason that no one in the staff room could explain to me.  The new room brought an open season on desk territory and a flaw in my game plan was revealed when I realized that the students had rearranged their seating assignments.  This rendered my freshly handcrafted seating chart useless as I stumbled down the first row of students trying to check and record their homework for completion.  After it took me nearly a quarter of the period to find a quarter of the 70 or so names on my once well ordered chart, I decided to call an audible and opt for the grading honor system. 

To be an effective teacher, one must have a good sense of when to pick a battle.  Rather than spend valuable time reprimanding the some of the slightly talkative students scattered throughout the room, I decided to proceed with the lesson and let the buzz of a holiday week’s worth of stories and gossip quiet down on its own.  I wrote out several problems in great detail, taking an opportunity to wade through each step and let the flow of the problems sink in.  I could feel the discomfort of a fever beginning, but I willed myself to make it through all the examples I planned and I was ready to collapse from exhaustion when it was time for the students to work though some problems on their own.  I gave one more opportunity for further explanation and one hand owned by a shy studious girl shot up instantly. 

“Teacher, I don’t understand”

I thanked her for her honesty and asked her to tell me which step from which problem she was having trouble with since I had generously numbered each step along way.  She responded,

“All of them, I don’t understand anything you taught today”

I figured I should ask the rest of the students to raise their hands if the preceding statement described their comfort with the new material.  Nearly every hand in the room was raised, with the exception of a few distracted gossipers in the back row.  I did my best to stay positive as another student began to speak up with another request for clarification, but at this point the irrelevant chatter had gotten so loud that I could barely hear her question.  I walked over to some of the noisier students but my proximity had no perceived effect on the volume of their conversation.  I raised my voice above theirs and told them how disrespectful it is not just to me but also to their classmates when they are holding them back from learning because they can’t keep their mouths shut. One of the students retorted in Zulu and half the class laughed out loud.  I had lost control and I scrambled through my options to regain order.

While I was observing some of the other teachers in weeks past, I noted that some of them would hit the chalkboard with a stick when the class got unruly and it seemed to be a good way to gather attention in the room.  The best tool I could find for the job was an grungy old broom resting in the corner by the door.  I picked up the broom, wound up, and took a good swing at the chalk board.  The impact created a plume of floor debris and chalk dusk that hindered visibility for a few moments.  As the cloudy mixture and shrieks from the girls in the first row settled, the students fully appreciated what they had just witnessed and an explosion of laughter filled the room.  A combination of the virus, blatant disrespect and the utter failure of my lesson plan brought me to my breaking point. 


I yelled with apparent ferociousness, because I finally had their silent attention.  I gave them the most guilt-producing speech I could improvise regarding their misbehavior.  At this time I had grown weary and pale with sickness. I must have looked like a deranged cast member from “Stomp” as I waved the broom around and smacked it on the floor for emphasis a few times.  The look on the students shifted from one of fear of punishment to concern for the well-being of their teacher as the bell mercifully brought the period to a close.

I can try to be like Mike, but my last name isn't Jordan.  I can try to be a great teacher, but I haven't anywhere near the experience of the great ones I know.  I can try to will an entire class of students the knowledge of the skills they need to pass, but I'll always be disappointed when I can't reach everyone.

All that being said, if you take yourself too seriously you'll crumble under the pressure you create for yourself.  I am learning from my mistakes and learning to laugh at them too.


  1. I remember those days! Keep working hard. Most times we learn more from mistakes than successes!

  2. Lots of prayers are with you. I admire your ability to recognize your faults and your unwavering spirit. You have a true teacher's heart. Remember that MJ had a whole team behind him whereas you seemed to have the whole team on the other side! Hope you are feeling better.