I walked into the class knowing that it would be a little tougher than other places I taught. I based this hunch on the location, and it was confirmed when I arrived and administrators told me the students can be “a little wild”. I was wrong, however, in what this meant exactly.
See, when imagining teaching in North Minneapolis, I pictured students giving the teacher a real hard time and getting under their skin. What I got instead was sort of the opposite. Students didn’t care at all about trying to “get to” their teacher. To them, I just really wasn’t there. This apathy–toward me and their assignments–I found even more difficult than a head-on challenge.
This day I was the middle school English teacher overseeing classes of 6th and 7th graders. Despite being warned, as the first period began and the students rolled in I sat at my desk anticipating that gabbing students would lower to a dull roar as they entered and quiet down as they sat. There was no such transition, and the talking continued and continued. (I don’t think the seating situation helped. Students sat around large tables that held about 8. This arrangement put students in little social bubbles that made it easier to ignore anything from the outside—like me.)
Soon I was at the front of this class of predominantly black students, with a few white, Latino, and Asian students throughout the day. Students looked nice as they all wore blue uniformed tops at this newly-built public school. I said something loudly to get their attention; half looked up. I’d say something more; a new half would look. You could say I was treading water, but a response rate like that means you’re drowning. (It should be reiterated that I was the sub–this makes a difference.) But by the actions of other teachers, this chatter and playfulness wasn’t that unusual, either. I learned this because–and thankfully–another teacher entered the room soon after as he always does for the first two periods in this classroom each day. And this other teacher–another 30-ish white man–wasn’t taking any guff from the students. He ordered them to work. The gentle-looking guy took me by surprise.
[But what are you to do? I felt my patience tried as the students didn't listen, yet I also know that if you demonstrate that you're losing your cool, the kids won't respect you. Plus you'll get tired and lose your voice. Trying to mimic my role model here, I would settle on a matter-of-fact strictness that isn't out of anger, but is rigid. But then two weeks later, I taught at this same school--a fourth grade class this time--and, during an all-4th grade event, saw fellow teachers react to ongoing chatter in a quite different manner. They'd simply stand quietly with a hand raised. I didn't think this would work as it might have in my school growing up. I'd tried this same move in other difficult classrooms, but was stuck looking like an unimpressive statue that the student couldn't care less about and left me felling silly. Yet these 4th grade teachers did it, and it worked. (Because they weren't subs? Because this works with this age?) I don't know, but it seemed to do so because they weren't trying to slam the door shut on the student's activity, but instead worked with it in a manageable way that saw the students--within 2-3 minutes--calm down to a reasonable, though rarely totally absent, level of noise.]
My fellow teacher this day, though, with these 6th and 7th graders, was more stern. And he was listened to better than me. Because of him we got the instructions out for the hour and work commenced.
The pinnacle of this undisciplined first day was an enormous afternoon class of 6th graders—34 of them–that I had to handle by myself. It was like previous classes of elevated and hard-to-extinguish chatter. But the force of these 34 was beyond my meager and solo skill. After a failed raised voice, I tried a tried-n-true method of attention-getting: the ol’ I-clap-you-clap routine. I went, “Clap…Clap…Clap, clap, clap.” They repeated. It worked—in a way. Because while I’m a former drummer and so did some fun beats that got their attention and participation, it also got a few of the more animated boys standing and dancing to the rhythms. The class loved it.
I had to smile for this as well.
What I did next, though, was something I hate: making examples of a few to get the others to be quiet. As most the class was talking, the bar was set fairly high as to who would be the ones to pick. But four managed to be a head above the rest, and so I asked them to come to the front for discipline. (They did listen to this order, actually.) Yet, I didn’t know what discipline in this school looked like. (Do they send students to the principal’s office these days?) I asked these four what the school does when students get out of line. Turns out there’s a three-step process to going to the office. I guess this was to be step one. (I said it was step two.)
Soon after these four sat back down–and things weren’t getting much better–I took the recommendation of a couple quiet students who sat at a front table. From the get-go they had been suggesting in resigned tones, and in response to my raised voice, “They’re not going to listen. You should just call the principal.”
“Not so fast”, I initially responded. I wanted to try to get this under control without bugging the head cheese. I realized it isn’t ideal putting a difficult student on the plate of the already busy guy.
After my failed discipline of the foursome, though, one of these boys asked again, “Should I just get the principal?”
I relented, and soon the assistant principal came in which quieted the children right away. The sharp-dressed, 40-ish black man gave my class a short talking-to. I felt like I failed, but so be it. We had already lost a third of class time. And this man was understanding of my challenge, asking me here and at the end of the day, how I was doing. Good man; as was the head principal. These men deserve our gratitude. I’d be grateful for them as I now am for all the teachers that deal with a difficult student body hour after hour, day after day.
Though the behavior–which included paper airplanes, profanity, and a girl telling me to shut up–is noteworthy, what I find more interesting are the implications of, and reasons for, these rambunctious youths. That discussion is for next time…