Classroom Management: A teaching memoir
Classroom management was the key buzzword in teachers' college when I went back to school to learn to become a teacher after a first career as a woodworker. I remember being disdainful of the philosophy of education that seemed implicit in the term, seemingly a philosophy based on control, organization and business. My image of teaching was much closer to the Socratic picture of peripatetic dialogue among the olive groves, a calm, honest search for the truth conducted with mutual respect among convivial colleagues and students. My first teaching position at a Sacred Heart girls' school in Omaha, Nebraska was enough like this description that I sailed through my first four years in a new career with undiminished enthusiasm. True, I wasn't in Greece and none of us had Plato or Aristotle's intellect, but I did manage to feel like we were engaged in learning significantly motivated by passion and the desire to understand the world. The girls were cooperative and patient with my inexpert methods. But this position came to an end when my wife accepted the position of Curator of Programs and Exhibitions at Yale University. When Yale calls, people come.
In Connecticut, I immediately sent my resume to many private schools and looked into teaching in the public schools as well. The agency of the State of Connecticut looked suspiciously at my Nebraska teaching credential, four years of experience teaching in a High School, three years of teaching as a graduate student and my all-but-dissertation PhD in the Philosophy of Education. They required me to go back and take a course in American History, which somehow I had failed to do in 10 years of higher education. While I was taking the course at Southern Connecticut State University to satisfy the credentialing requirement, I taught a course in World Religions at Norwalk Community College (a great pleasure, by the way, because the students were mostly adults returning to school, genuinely interested in the subject and intent upon maximizing their opportunity for its own sake). But then a full-time position fell out of a tree, literally.
I was called by the Principal at Portland Public High School for an interview. They needed someone to substitute for a full year for a teacher who had fallen 75 feet from a high branch of a tree. To earn extra income during the summer, he worked as an arborist, but the inherent danger of his second job had caught up with him. The force of the fall had broken his arm so severely that he had actually shoved the bone into the ground. The result was very slow to heal; a bone infection had set in and was proving intractable to antibiotics. One man's disaster is another's opportunity. It was strange to profit so directly from someone else's misfortune, but there it was. I saw my opportunity as a proverbial "foot in the door." They wanted me to teach four sections of English: one senior honors World Literature class, one "regular" freshman class, one junior honors class and one "regular" junior class. The teacher I was replacing was something of a master teacher. He was beloved by his students and the courses he taught were wildly varied. The senior literature class was small but was an amazing assemblage of talented students, indeed, as a whole they were the brightest I have ever had the privilege of teaching in sixteen years. The junior classes could not have been more different. While the honors section students were nipping at the heels of the talented seniors, the "regular" class was almost a teacher's worst nightmare. These students had one mission in life: torment teachers.
They arrived or rather slouched into class and sat down as if they awaiting their execution (or perhaps mine). They would throw their books down, sit with legs akimbo in every postural effort to demonstrate that they couldn't care less about the class. Their gelid eyes were alert to only one issue and that was how they could turn the tables of authority and humiliate me. The teacher's problem in this circumstance is existential. And although reliance on the bureaucratic power structure to keep order is a last resort, it is inevitable. The teacher knows that if he is to have any shred of credibility, he will have to confront at least one student and send him or her to the principal's office. The students know this as well, and they love to play the cat and mouse game of pushing the line. Of course the most talented student is always the one who is best at the game, and I was reluctant to alienate the one leader who could make the class intelligible if his loyalty could be enlisted. But that only happens in movies or perhaps in near miraculous circumstances. I had had one conversation with the teacher I was substituting for before the year began. and his words of advice regarding this particular section of students were "don't try to inspire them." At the time, what he had said made no sense to me because I still believed that my idealism could overcome all adversity. What he knew was something that I had yet to learn which was that the effort to inspire was an open door of weakness from the point of view of alienated students. For the teacher to care was a soft underbelly to be exploited, aped, ridiculed and finally humiliated. There was not a single student in the class who had anything like a proper attitude except perhaps one girl who seemed to play, perhaps out of pity, both sides of the fence. Naturally, it was she who I finally sent first to the principal's office for some snide remark. And like a dam bursting, in the following weeks, a virtual parade of students were dismissed to sit in lines at the main office waiting to be chastised by the vice-principal who was the lord of discipline. Two students were finally, permanently expelled and sent to a remedial vocational school of last resort. The conversation about "classroom management" began to make more sense to me even though it was a conversation that never really got to the bottom of why such students carried the attitudes and values they did in the first place. Instead it was a conversation about control, organization and discipline designed to allay the fears of existentially exposed new teachers. However, oddly enough, it wasn't this class that taught me the most poignant lesson about teaching and authority; it was my freshman class.
Teaching fourteen and fifteen year olds about the wonders of grammar and literature is not an easy task in the best of circumstances. Facing thirty such children in one classroom and keeping them "on task" (another buzzword from teacher's college) is no easy trick. I quickly realized that it was essential to start bringing students to order immediately and firmly with clear lesson plans in hand even before the bell had stopped ringing, if I were to get on top of classroom management. After a semester of honing this skill, I was beginning to congratulate myself on my bullying talent when a guerilla raider began to undermine my valiant efforts. She was a student from a neighboring classroom who somehow decided it was her favorite activity to run into my classroom at the last second and converse excitedly with a friend in the back row, and then after disturbing things a bit, she would run out to the classroom she was supposed to be in that hour. The first time she conducted her raid, I didn't think too much about it, but give a kid an inch, she will take a mile. In the course of one week, she must have played her game three times, and I began to get annoyed. So I made a plan to deal with the interloper: I would stand in the doorway as the bell rang and block her entrance. So the next day, I was smiling at my cleverness as I stood in the doorway, calling for order, and right according to plan the miscreant came running around the corner , pulled up short upon seeing me, but then tried to push past me to get to her friend in the back row. Putting my hands up in front of me, I said, "Hold on there...you don't belong here." She was so intent on her friend, that she wasn't going to pay attention but I wasn't going to budge either. She jumped up in an effort to see past me and perhaps to squeeze by at the same time, but I blocked her with my hands and a wide stance. In doing so, I pushed her lightly on the shoulder and suddenly she stopped, looked at me as if for the first time, and then swung her fist with all her might and yelled at me, "Don't you f..king touch me." Her blow landed directly on my left cheek with full force.
I was stunned and simply gaped at her audacity in disbelief. Fortunately another teacher, directly across the hall witnessed the entire circumstance and quickly came to my aid by interposing himself between the girl and myself. She tried to elude him as well and yelled at me "come on, hit me back, hit me back!" She had her fists in the air as if she were in a boxing ring and being held back by the referee. The other teacher hustled her off to the principal's office while I turned, shaken, back to my students and tried to gather my wits. The students were concerned for my sake and expressed anger at the student who had hit me. We talked, amazed.
The upshot was that the offending student was suspended for a month and charged in juvenile court with assault. I was asked to explain the event to the board of education. I told my story and was treated with a modicum of sympathy, but it seemed also like I had in some way failed by even being party to such an occurrence. I was distressed on some level for months and reconsidered the profession of teaching. But time heals all wounds.
The happy ending to the story was that my resume caught the interest of a private girls' boarding school, and I was hired for the following year. I have now taught here for ten years, and I have left "classroom management" behind, at least as a primary existential teaching task. Where I teach now, discipline is a rare problem that can easily be handled with a poor grade or an after-class word with a student. On a good day, I can almost smell the olive groves.