There's a secret to maintaining order in a classroom, and I admit that it's one I've yet to master, especially in urban schools.
I walked into my classroom at a K-8 public school in north Minneapolis expecting that it might be a little tougher than other places I had taught. Yet this was no run-down inner-city school.
A new, sharply designed brick-and-glass exterior surrounded an elegant interior of tiled floors, wood paneling and bright natural lighting. The students also looked sharp in their dark-bottom/white-top uniforms.
Soon after I arrived, a preteen black boy walked in early. Thin and outgoing, he looked at me, walked over and asked, “You the sub?”
“Yes, I am.”
I said I was there for just the day, told him my name, and he told me his. Satisfied, he proceeded to kill time walking in and out of the room as more students gathered in the hallway prior to the morning bell. A couple of girls came in and also asked if I was “the sub.” Students here weren’t shy. They came right over and asked if I had a pencil they could use or about my smartphone sitting on the desk.
On this day, I was the middle-school English teacher, overseeing classes of sixth- and seventh-graders. And though I’d been warned about students being “a little wild,” I’d been wrong about what that would mean. It wasn’t that they would give the teacher a hard time; it was that they didn’t care at all about trying to “get to” their teacher.
Once they all got into class, I just really wasn’t there. The seating arrangement didn’t help, with the kids at tables holding about eight apiece — little social bubbles that made me even easier to ignore.
I stood in front of this class of predominantly black students and said something loudly to get their attention. Half looked up. I said something more. A different half looked up while the rest chatted as if it were recess; a few paper airplanes took flight. Thankfully, another teacher soon entered the room, as he always does for the first two periods in this classroom. Like me a 30-ish white guy, but with more experience, he wasn’t taking any guff from the students. He ordered them to work.
Discipline is an interesting riddle. Your patience is tried as students don’t listen, yet if you lose your cool, the kids won’t respect you. Plus, you’ll lose your voice. Trying to mimic my role model, I aimed for a matter-of-fact strictness, rigid without being angry.
Two weeks later, though, while teaching fourth grade at this same school, I saw teachers handle a raucous class by standing quietly with a hand raised. I didn’t think this would work, as it might have in my school growing up. I’d even tried this move in other difficult classrooms, but was stuck looking like an unimpressive statue the students couldn’t care less about. Yet these fourth-grade teachers made it work.
Because they weren’t subs? Because this works with kids of a younger age? Maybe, but it seemed to work simply because they weren’t trying to slam the door on the students’ playfulness, but instead were just managing it. Within two minutes, the noise fell to a reasonable (never absent) level.
With the sixth- and seventh-graders, though, my sterner colleague was listened to better than I. Later that day, when I was alone with a class of 34 students, my solo efforts reached a kind of absurd climax. As soon as I would quiet one table and go to the next, the first had started back up again. (Never mind the other tables.) So after a failed attempt at raising my voice, I employed the tried-and-true method of attention-getting: the I-clap-you-clap routine.
I started: “Clap … clap … clap, clap, clap.”
They repeated it. It worked — in a way. I used to be a drummer, so I did some fun beats that got them going. Soon a few of the boys were on their feet, dancing to the rhythms. The class loved it. But it wasn’t exactly getting us down to business. Now they had me goofing off!
I had to smile at the futility of it all. I knew they weren’t trying to be bad. This regular rumble was simply the norm for them. In a sad way, I was actually impressed with how little they cared about my presence and about doing any work. Nothing besides fun and games and even some f-word-laced quarreling seemed of interest.
Eventually, I took the advice of a couple quiet sixth-graders at a front table. From the get-go they had been suggesting, in resigned tones, “They’re not going to listen. You should just call the principal.”
I had wanted to get things under control, but finally I gave in. The assistant principal’s arrival quieted the children right away. The sharp-dressed, 40-ish black man gave my class a short talking-to. I felt like a failure.
He was understanding, asking me then and at the end of the day how I was doing. The head principal, another African-American man, was equally helpful. Soon after his assistant’s intervention, he came into the class to take some students off my hands and lighten my load for the hour.
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