Is there ever a time when you should allow your students to sleep in class? My answer is a resounding YES. Of course, a teacher cannot allow students to sleep all day, everyday; but if a child can’t sleep at home, he or she must sleep sometime, somewhere.
Steve shuffles into class, drops his books on the floor beside his desk, flops down in his desk, and puts his head down. Roll call has been done, bell ringers completed, and Mrs. Shuler has begun a question answer session on the previous night’s reading of Thoreau’s Walden excerpt, yet Steve’s head is still down, eyes closed, and drool sliding down his cheek. Mrs. Shuler notices Steve and the hair on her neck bristles. She has worked hard on planning the unit on her favorite piece of work in the class’s literature book. How dare one of her students sleeps through it. She guesses that he didn’t even bother to open his book last night. “He was probably using or dealing drugs or at the least out running the streets,” she thought. Mrs. Shuler stomps over to Steve’s desk, all eyes except Steve’s are following her. She loudly clears her throat, but Steve doesn’t move. She shakes him and exclaims, “Night is the time for sleep and the classroom is time for work! If you can’t keep your head up, you can go to the office!” Steve jumps up and slams out of the class while muttering a few choice words.
Have you heard of, witnessed, or participated in a scenario such as the one above. Unfortunately, I was such a teacher at one time. I have always been an over achiever, and I work really hard on everything I do, including preparing class lessons. However, my Steve (not his real name) taught me a valuable lesson. I had been warned by other teachers that Steve was dangerous and that I had better be careful in the way I handled him. However, one afternoon soon after a similar event as the one above, I happened to walk out of our school building along with our county sheriff. For some reason I asked him if he knew Steve and did he think Steve was dangerous. With an affirmative response of “yeah it’s a real sad case, and no I don’t think he is dangerous,” he told me Steve’s story. He said that he and his deputies had made several domestic trouble calls to his house. They often would find Steve and his siblings sleeping in the car, even in the dead of winter, while their parents were involved in other unmentionable acts inside the house. He also explained that Steve’s little sister had been taken to the doctor a couple of times with broken bones. My heart hit the bottom of my stomach, which wanted to regurgitate it back. I realized I had only added to this child’s agony.
This encounter with our sheriff made me recall events in the lives of some of my other students, events that at the time evoked sympathy but did not alter the way I taught my students. Events such as the one during my early years as a teacher in which I was subbing for one of our special education teachers. One of her students kept trying to sleep in class. After several times waking him, I finally asked why he was sleeping in class. He told me that he didn’t get home until five o’clock that morning because his mom was at the casino? I asked where he was during the time his mom was at the casino, and he said, “in the car.” Another event that came flooding back was the time I learned that a student’s dad was molesting her on a regular basis. And then there was the student who missed a couple of weeks of school because he tried to defend his mother against her drug dealer and the dealer beat him until the student was unconscious.
The next day after a night of serious contemplation on the things many of my students face at home, I went to class with a new outlook. As usual, Steve lumbered in and plopped down in his desk and put his head down. That day, however, I let him sleep. When the bell rang to change classes, I asked Steve to stay. He grudgingly remained. I genuinely expressed my concern for his low grades and that I sincerely wanted to help him. I assured him that I understood that his home life may not be ideal and that I recognized that he apparently wasn’t getting enough sleep. We then made a pact that if he would work the first half of class, I would let him sleep the second half. He also agreed to come in at break to make up work when necessary. We had a great rest-of-the-year, and Steve passed my class.
Steve truly taught me that before we can teach a child, his or her basic needs must be met; and one of those needs is sleep. Most schools now provide for the basic need of food and sometimes the need of clothing, but what about sleep?