The Sleeper

Oh, Natalia, such fond memories I have of you. Mostly they are of the back of your head because you were face down on the desk, sleeping through my class. We all have them: the sleepers. I’m not talking about the honors kid that pulls an all-nighter and falls asleep accidentally while you’ve got on “Romeo and Juliet” with the lights off that day. No, I’m talking about Natalia, who comes in 3-to-4 days of the week and after the first three minutes of class, curls up in her coat (even though we’re in Florida and it’s a trillion degrees outside), puts her head down on her desk, and goes to sleep. The first few times, of course, I ask Natalia to, “wake up, please,” and join the class activity, which, naturally, she does not do. After that, I ask a couple of times if she is feeling all right. Much to my (un)surprise, Natalia has headaches. She has them every day. At 1pm. During my class. She asks to go to the nurse the first time, but after I impress upon her the uselessness of this action (Really, what is the nurse going to do for your headache? She can’t give you medicine, and she’s not going to call your mom.), she doesn’t ask again.

What am I to do? I talk with Natalia before and after class several times, at which point she assures me that she will start getting more sleep at home and will try to stay awake during class. I am lucky, because Natalia promises me that it’s not that she hates me or my class. (Incidentally, my reaction to the student who simply hates me and my class and chooses to sleep is exactly the same as my response to Natalia.) I thank her for her effort.

The next day, Natalia falls asleep in my class. This time I call home. Perhaps there is some domestic issue (or medical?) of which I should be aware. Natalia’s dad (I know, can you believe it? The phone number was right and someone actually answered! Score!) is adamant that he will make sure she gets to bed at a decent hour so she can stay awake in class.

The next day…and the next day…and the next day, Natalia falls asleep in class. Perhaps I should involve guidance. I think back to some of the other students whom I have referred to that department. The stellar lack of results convinces me that I can bypass this step. But maybe your guidance department is different. Best of luck with that. I debate writing a referral. But what will that gain me? I’ll look like I can’t handle what’s going on in my classroom and the AP will be annoyed with me. Plus, Natalia will just get a day of ISS – which she’ll sleep through as well. So, yeah, that’s pretty much useless.

How do I keep Natalia awake?! What must I do to motivate her to stay awake during my class? I show her her grades. I give her opportunities to make up missed work. I bargain with her and promise if she just does one thing a day with the class that she can put her head down the rest of the time. That one actually works for a few days. But she just.keeps.on.sleeping.

I have to figure out a way to fix this problem! The other students have seen Natalia sleeping for weeks, now. Surely they are going to think that it is all right for them to sleep in class as well! Soon, all my students will be napping as I try to teach them the excitement that is Romeo and Juliet (or factoring polynomials, or Newton’s third law, or the underlying causes of the Civil War…take your pick)! I cannot let this one student (because it really is just one student – I’ve rarely had 2 or more sleepers in a single class) undermine my authority as a teacher! I cannot let her sleep in my class!

But I can. I’ve done everything I can do (except that guidance step, but…really, if you have a Natalia, you know that will be ineffective, too).

One of the things I had to learn as a first-year, idealistic teacher was that although I may want to save them all, I can’t. My time is a resource and it is limited, and it is better spent on students who want to be saved. If Natalia changes her mind, I will be there for her. I will do whatever it takes to help her succeed, but I’ve done what I can do for now. I have 25 (or 30+) other students who need me; who want me.

And believe it or not, the students get it. I’ve never, ever, ended up with a classroom full of napping students. They understand that I care about Natalia and I want her to be successful, but she is choosing not to. They don’t see her as undermining my authority as a teacher, they see her as missing out on an opportunity to learn. They don’t envy her, they pity her. Sometimes her friends will even try to shake her awake, but for the most part, she is left alone, in the corner, until she wakes up (pardon the pun) and realizes what she’s missing.

Does this make me a bad teacher? Does this mean I don’t care about my students? Does this mean I give up on those who need me the most? You may think so. I’d love to hear how you get your Natalias to stay awake (and for goodness’ sake, don’t tell me to make my lessons “meaningful” – this is a single student we’re talking about here, it’s not my entire class that isn’t engaged – my instruction is sufficiently authentic and engaging). But the way I see it, I’ve done what I can and I’m just waiting for her to do the rest.

And while it is sad and profoundly tragic that Natalias exist, I will take her any day over Bryan, whose sole goal between 9:30am and 10:25am is to make my life a living hell. But that’s a post for another day.

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