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“Miss, are you bipolar?”

July 15, 2017 in In the Classroom - No Comments

“Miss, are you bipolar?”

July 15, 2017 in In the Classroom - No Comments

Sometimes students ask the oddest questions. Sometimes they are even relevant. One lesson a student asked me this question, and it made me laugh and cry a little inside at the same time.

Our class was booked into a computer room to complete an online math test (PAT-M if anyone knows it). I knew the room change in advance, so I put it in the student notices, and wrote it on the door of our regular classroom, as is our school procedure.

I didn’t bother waiting at our regular room, making the assumption that my year 9’s were smart enough to work it all out for themselves.

On the way to the computer room, I walked past a couple of my boys. I told them where the class was, and they said they’d be there in a moment, they just wanted to get a drink.

Surprise surprise, the class comes along in straggles, some right on time, others not. As you might suspect, those boys weren’t there. One student offered to go look for them, but I refused. We were on a time limit for the test, so the other teacher and I decided we needed to get started without the boys who weren’t there.

About 5 minutes later the boys show up.

I was angry.

They knew where we were supposed to be. They saw me on the way there. And yet they had the audacity to show up late.

They claimed they didn’t know where the room was, and got lost. One even ventured to say they went to a staff room to ask for directions. I couldn’t care less if they were lying or not, to be perfectly honest. My suspicion is that they knew exactly where they were supposed to be, so I told them they would be remaining behind at lunch to make up the wasted time.

One of them decided to start mouthing off at me. I got angry back. I yelled in response to his yelling. Not my finest moment, that’s for sure. The rest of the class now had to wait for them to log onto the program, as they needed to start at the same time. And time was ticking.

Eventually they got seated. I went over and calmly offered to help them get to where they needed to be. Two of the boys readily accepted my help, either relieved to not be getting in trouble any more, or possibly they had already forgotten about it (as teenage boys sometimes do). I acted perfectly normal, like I hadn’t just yelled at them. I joked and they laughed. I was kind, and they responded kindly. This is my usual routine – if you are angry at a student for something, that doesn’t mean you are angry at them forever, or that you don’t help them when they need it. The issue had been dealt with, so everything back to normal.

The third, the one who had yelled at me, refused to engage. He literally turned his back to me when I talked to him. He refused to respond to me in any way.

I indicated to the other teacher to get everyone else started, and I would deal with this one. There was no way I was sending him out of the lesson. It would simply mean afternoon detention for him and him missing another lesson to sit the test at a later date. Better for me to try deal with the situation now and get him on track.

He sat there in his chair, pouting and not responding. All of a sudden I had images of a toddler, throwing a tantrum for not getting his way. I was amused, and told him so. I asked him, trying not to smile or laugh, if he was genuinely going to sit here having a tantrum. He turned his back to me again at that, then must have realised that was exactly what he was doing, because he turned back around.

I noticed his knee was bleeding, so I went and got him a tissue. I offered it to him, but he ignored it. So I sat on the desk directly in front of him. A bit closer than comfortable, but I wanted to break his epic-teenage-sulk-mode. I sat there and talked at him. Told him how we were starting the test, I could help him get up to speed, he doesn’t need to be cranky. He continued to ignore me.

Eventually I burst out laughing, I couldn’t help it any more. I told him that he could be as stubborn as he liked, but I would out-stubborn him every time.

This could have sent him over the edge completely, but I just knew it wouldn’t. He finally cracked a tiny smile, took the tissue, and turned to the computer. He still didn’t talk to me, but I helped him get on to the program and get started on the test.

The boy and I had a perfectly normal conversation at the end of the lesson. I asked about his knee, he explained how he was trying to do a jump and scraped it on the concrete garden edge. We laughed at his silliness, and he continued on his day.

Toward the end of the lesson, once everyone had finished the test, one of the girls asked me the question that got me. She asked in the loud, make-sure-everyone-hears voice that certain teenage girls have.

“Miss, are you bipolar?”

I reeled back a little.

“Why do you ask that?”

“You were so angry at the boys, but then you helped them right away. You do that all the time. You get angry, but you help anyway, you talk to us anyway.”

I stopped for a moment, knowing this was a crucial point for the whole class, who were listening intently. They wanted to understand me. Wanted to understand this alien adult behaviour.

“Of course I helped them. Just because I’m cranky at someone doesn’t mean I get to be mean to them, doesn’t mean I stop being kind. You can be angry at someone and still be kind.”

The girl looked thoughtful at this. I’m sure for at least some of the students they had never encountered this concept before. If you’re angry, you’re angry, you’re mean, you’re nasty, you do horrible things. The concept that you can be angry at someone and not act on that anger, you can in fact do the opposite, might have been foreign to them.

I’m hoping that I’m leading by example and they can see that you are allowed to be angry and kind at the same time. This concept alone is far more important for them to learn than any of the math I teach them normally.


Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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