Garrett Hedman, Former Instructor at Northwestern University
[Trigger warning: this story contains grotesque imagery and talk of death]
When I was a student in high school, the classroom was quiet. It was a place where a teacher talked, and students listened. If a student acted up, they would be sent to the principal’s office, but this happened on the rarest of occasions because we knew our job was to be silent. There was no fighting of authority. Occasionally, a student would fall asleep during the dull of the day. If a teacher chose to address it, their response was often akin to a practical joke—dropping textbooks on their desk to startle them. Or teachers would direct questions toward students nodding off to humiliate them into staying awake. This was the norm.
When I was a high school chemistry teacher, students fell asleep in my classroom too. I was told by the administration that having students fall asleep was bad. It was my responsibility to keep students awake, to engage them, and to keep my classroom at attention. I never questioned their authority, but if I was to ask them now why sleeping students was bad, they would probably say something along the lines of, “they should be learning”. But should students always be learning at school?
During my second and third year of teaching, my classroom was full of life. We would play review games where everyone was so excited that they would yell over a win or a loss of the game. On several occasions, teachers would come into the classroom thinking a fight broke out, but the students were quick to reassure the teacher it was all in good fun. It was a great place to be for both the students and me. I felt like I knew them, and they knew me. I created a space where students could be alive. Little did I know how important this was for my students and for me.
Despite the classroom energy, students would still fall asleep in the classroom. I never found a way to wake up a student in a manner that everyone could all laugh about. Nor did I humiliate students with questions they could not answer. Those tactics sat wrong with me. Generally, I went for a calmer approach. If I saw a student fall asleep, I would have the class work on a problem, and then I would make my way over to the student and quietly ask them to wake up. I would do this quickly, so they would not fall into too deep of sleep. This allowed me to isolate the problem to myself and the student–not myself, the student, and the class. Most of the time it worked, and everything could continue without a fuss. But one day this tactic did not work.
Ray (not his real name) sat in the back of my chemistry classroom, but was always engaged. One day, at the beginning of class, I saw him asleep. From what I remember, I used my usual tactic of having everyone work and went over to Ray to try and wake him up. He apologized and began working on the problem. But just a few minutes later he was out again. Something felt off, so rather than waking him a second time, I let him sleep. We had an hour and a half class, so he was able to get some good rest.
When the bell rang and people started leaving the class, he woke up frazzled. He apologized to me for sleeping in the class. I’m not sure what I said in response, but he felt comfortable enough to tell me that he could not fall asleep the night before because a smell kept waking him up. I did not ask further questions but assured him that we would catch him up and all would be well. It was a few classes later when I learned the truth about the smell. The previous night, a woman had put her three-year-old son in an electric oven, and the baby died. That smell–that smell that kept my student from sleeping—was a burning baby.
I could not believe this news. It is still hard to believe. But in reflecting on this incident there is one thing I know for sure; I am SO glad I let Ray sleep. Forget that my superiors do not want students to sleep. Forget my history of teachers doing practical jokes to wake students up. I am so grateful Ray felt safe and comfortable to talk to me and got some much-needed rest.
You never know what students are going through. And we, as teachers, can choose to abide by the acts of the past or rules of the present–or we can choose to meet students where they are at. Students do not always have to stay quiet or resist the teacher’s authority. We can create safe places together that prioritize each other’s well-being.
About the author
Garrett Hedman is a graduate researcher at Northwestern University. He taught high school biology and chemistry over a period of five years. He is the longtime cousin to the CEO of Teen.Self.Health.