Larry Efird: When students sleep and teachers wonder

Published 8:01 pm Saturday, July 4, 2015

One of the many things they forgot to tell us in college before we began our teaching careers was how to deal with a teenager who habitually sleeps in class.

I’ve had some successes with kids who can’t hold their heads up, but I’ve had a few who are destined to go through life as sleepwalkers. My noble plans to inspire them so much in my class that they would want to stay awake didn’t exactly culminate as I thought they would.

I still remember one young lady who told me, “I try so hard to sleep in your class, but you talk SO loud!” I almost thought that she expected an apology.

Another student who was able to tune me out was Colin (not his real name, but the real problem). He successfully slept through seven months of school, except for an occasional   interruption of his peaceful slumber due to a fire drill, a class change, or my admonishing tap on his shoulder.   

The routine was always the same.  Arrive on time. Get in his seat. Say hello. Put his head on his desk. And then he was gone — for at least 90 minutes.   

“Really, Colin? We’re going through this again?” I would think.  “How incredibly pointless! How irritating!” 

And to make matters worse, he was so extraordinarily smart! Such is the frustration of many a teacher.  We’ve all had kids like Colin who work far below their level of ability, and who, with just an ounce of motivation, could have been one of the top students in the class.   

One day, to my surprise, I heard Colin was moving.  I also found myself becoming unexplainably emotional.   Why?  I don’t really know, except that trying to keep him awake during first block had become one of my daily routines, I guess.

No teacher wants anyone messing with his or her routine. It’s how we’re wired.  And I had also come to really enjoy his semi-conscious presence because he always brought such a calming influence to the rest of us.  He was like having a giant cat on the front row,  whose rhythmical  breathing was the only sign he was alive.

When I later stopped him in the hall  to tell him how sorry I was he would be leaving, I also told him that  my desire for him in his new school would be to show all his teachers he would be one of their brightest students.   

I also told him that whenever he felt like sleeping in public, I hoped he would hear  my voice in his head saying, “Colin, it’s time to wake up.”   

He looked me straight in the face and told me, “Mr. Efird. Can I tell you something too?”  I wondered for a quick second what exactly that might be. He then said with a giant smile, “You are my favorite teacher at this school. But just don’t tell anybody!”

I was so caught off guard that I almost teared up right then. As I thought about his remark later, I wondered how that could be. Was it because I had let him sleep so much, or could it have been he knew I cared about him even more?

I also learned later that Colin was leaving us because he and his family were being evicted from their apartment. That, too, made me sad. It also helped me realize that what Colin had gained in my class was not information from a text and not even a good grade.   But what he had gained was a true understanding that I did unconditionally care for him. Maybe he had been awake more than I realized.

Perhaps they didn’t tell us about those situations in college or grad school because they weren’t abstract educational philosophies and ideas. Colin was a real kid with tangible issues. I needed to be a real teacher with a concrete concern for him. Ironically, maybe I learned more from Colin than he learned from me.

Larry Efird, a teacher at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, writes Rough Drafts on Teaching  encourage fellow teachers and give the public insight into the teaching profession.