That is a popular term on the Google. One of the most common gripes with new teachers is that college never really taught them anything about classroom management. I couldn’t agree more. I also really HATE that term because classroom management is really code for how to make kids behave. (Maybe there are some amazing examples out there but the ones I have experience generally center around behavior modification, whether that be through positive or negative influences.)
When I was in school I was a good pupil. I still am to some extent. Students will tune me out in class, but truthfully, I really don’t care. I understand the plight of many of them, being forced to take a class they don’t want to. I have sat through many a professional development sessions, college classes, and even high school classes and felt the same way. Sometimes I would just go through the motions and sometimes I would completely disengage. For me, disengagement meant daydreaming or doodling, not rebellion. I had been in classrooms where students had acted out, but because I was tracked it didn’t happen often.
My 7th through 12th grade experience was marked mostly by being surrounded by good, complacent students. Though I knew acts of disobedience and rebellion did occur, I rarely witnessed them, let alone participated in them. I can only recall one time where I was openly defiant and that was during football, not in the classroom.
So the first time I took control of a classroom as a student teacher I was lost. My mathematics student teaching was in an Algebra I classroom in a school that tracked students, and I wasn’t with the good, obedient students.
I started presenting material, and a couple of students started talking over me. I made verbal corrections like I had witnessed my teachers do before, but I also began wondering, “Why do they do this to me, but not the other teacher?” Honestly, I still wonder this sometimes. I kept teaching like this for a couple of days. At first students would respond to my corrections, but eventually they stopped all together. I then moved to the next phase that I had witnessed in my schooling, the hallway chat. I took the worst offender into the hallway and discussed the behavior with the student. Finally, I reached the point where I started handing out detentions.
But it still wasn’t enough. There were still disruptions, still students being defiant. At last a couple of students spoke up, wondering aloud why that student was being disciplined, but not another student. Rather than end the discussion I engaged in a dialogue that was ultimately a power struggle between me and the students. Then a day or two later, it happened again. This time though, I lost it and cussed out the class. And when it started to happen again a few days later I took a couple of students out of the class that I was working with, told the cooperating teacher I was leaving and going to work with the students that wanted to learn. When I came back, my cooperating teacher told me that the kids were worried that I had quit on them. I was told to stay away from a parent teacher conference.
I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with strep throat. I don’t think I had it, but I was able to harass him into giving me a prescription and a note so that I wouldn’t have to go back until the next week. I wasn’t sure if teaching was for me, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I walked out of a class in the middle of the day. (Coincidentally this is how I obtained my first, semi-permanent job.)
Obviously I didn’t quit and am still teaching after 11 years. How did I manage to last that long?
This past Thursday we had a guest speaker come to talk to our students, of which many spoke highly. He did a brief presentation to the teachers before school during which he made the following claim.
“If you lie to a student and are caught, it is over.”
Yup, that perfectly summed up my student teaching experience. When I tried to discipline my students they challenged me, and deep down, I knew they were right. I claimed that one student was a distraction, but then insisted another one wasn’t. If I acknowledged the correctness of their argument, it would represent that I had lost control of my classroom, and I had been taught that was unacceptable.
My experience forced me to question the idea of authenticity. Across three different states and with numerous veteran teachers, I have heard a variation of the line, “You’ve got to take control, be the one in charge,” or in the case of female teachers, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to be a bitch.”
I am then left with the choice of either authentically acknowledging that I lied to my students and not caring that they will view me as a liar, including all the spite and contempt that comes with that position, or acknowledging that I am a mean spirited person. I really, really don’t like either of the those propositions.
While my positions on behavior and classroom management have evolved the longer I have been a teacher, I can pinpoint the moment that I think I actually started to realize that I would make it. After my meltdown, I slowly worked my back to being in front of a class. The first time I went in front to lecture, a kid in the front row, covered in crank bugs, looks up and says, “F*** YOU!”
The class was silent, waiting for me to react. They were probably expecting me to explode and kick the kid out of class. But instead of doing what I had seen other teachers do, I decided to do what came naturally to me. I looked the kid in the eye and replied in a dull, monotone voice, “Awesome.” I turned around and kept presenting material. I know many of my coworkers would be appalled that I would let something like that happen, but the students that have had me for years probably wouldn’t be shocked.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks I started to let myself come through in my teaching more. I would joke around with the kids a little more while at the same time asking more questions and demanding more work. I would share stories from school or be sympathetic to their frustrations incomprehensible rules while probing their minds about linear relationships. To act as if I got a glowing review from my cooperating teacher would be disingenuous, but at least I could live with myself.
Now I do the things that come naturally to me. My classes are loud and blanketed with chit-chat because that’s what my personality invites. This doesn’t mean that my classroom is unproductive. I like to get side tracked on conversations with students. This doesn’t mean that they are disrupted. To me it is normal to be referencing Back to the Future, discussing Carol of the Bells parodies, and teaching about angle relationships created by transversals; at the same time. My classroom is pretty barren and depressing, but I do have a buffalo head. Why? BECAUSE I HAVE A BUFFALO HEAD! What other reason would I need? I like to joke around with students. I like to throw around insults, that are meant in the most supportive way possible. I like to go to their musicals and athletic events. All those things build their trust. Once I have their trust I can do what I really want to do, which is push them to their limit, to their breaking point.
I still feel the pressure to conform, to have hooks, give out detentions, assign homework, have students sit in rows, keep them busy. I feel the pressure to be like other teachers, to use feedback devices like a ticket system, even though I believe they are pedantic. I feel pressure to hand out detentions or use reward days, even though I believe they are just extrinsic motivations at best or coercion at worst, never addressing any real issues. I feel pressure to give and grade homework assignments even though I believe that graded homework does not actually correlate with comprehension. I feel pressure to make sure my students are on task 100 percent of the time, even though I don’t believe that being on task does not automatically mean something is being learned. I believe that sometimes being off task, whether that means addressing other issues facing students or simply taking a break, is more beneficial to the long-term productivity of the class than making sure 100 percent of the time is used for academic activities.
It all makes me feel like I am weird.
Sometimes I wonder when it all will end, when that day will come where I am told that I am just too weird to belong here.