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.
These educators deserve our gratitude for the work they do and the grief they put up with every day to give these young people brighter futures. That goes for teachers as well. Many don't make it too long. At an elementary school, I spoke with a teacher who had started in January because the previous teacher quit after one term. At a middle school, a sixth-grade teacher I assisted was new as of last fall because two months into the school year the original teacher had quit.
Following the principals' visits, most students in my now-smaller sixth-grade class did get to work. But many accomplished little. Each student received an Apple laptop and was paired with a peer to research a subject for an upcoming presentation. I walked around to encourage and assist — and to stop them from photographing one another and checking e-mail. For the most part, I was dealing with students doing as little actual work as they could.
Discipline problems are what everyone sees. But this active reluctance to learn points to something deeper, something just as strong as their fascination with video games, the NBA, gossip and horseplay.
I asked my sterner teacher colleague about it. "They're embarrassed," he said.
To express an interest is to expose a passion — and that is to be vulnerable. Maybe admitting an interest in Civil War history is a little like admitting which girl or boy you like. Perhaps, having had little encouragement early on, a kid can't imagine having something useful to contribute. Perhaps, having once fallen behind, a child worries about being exposed and ridiculed.
And then, once an ethos of not caring has developed in the school, sticking your arm up (a k a neck out) and asking a question might bring derision, even rejection, from peers. I could imagine the problem. I could see it.
Not every student resisted work. But while effort was great to see, it was also saddening. Both my fourth- and sixth-grade classes had students who silently sat by, waiting for the loud ones to settle down so class could begin. Though it's controversial to say it, racial lines often divided these groups.
I remember looking at a couple Hmong girls and feeling as if I could read the thoughts behind those silent faces — sick and tired and helpless as their peers made school a chaos. I felt terrible that their education was being eaten away.
I asked my fellow teacher about this, too. "It breaks my heart," he answered.
Islands of order
From these early experiences, I came to believe that success wasn't going to be about removing the unruliness, but learning to deal with it as best you can. But then, about six weeks after I'd started teaching, I met two women working at a different school who changed my mind.
One day I was assigned to assist an eighth-grade English class. I figured I'd need to prepare for a busy day of keeping students in line while the teacher gave the lesson. But that wasn't necessary this day.
An early-30s, tall, thin black woman with long, braided hair came into class. Though she wore jeans, she had a businesslike appearance with her erect posture and firm delivery. Yet she was also polite and unafraid to crack a smile when the situation warranted. Her confidence was impressive, and so was the response from the students.
One boy stood up to throw something in the wastebasket. As soon as he started, the teacher turned her head in his direction. He stopped midrise, in a hunched position, his mouth ajar. As soon as he saw she was OK with it, he continued without a sound. As she went on, the students continued to listen, raised their hands to speak and took part in the lesson. I was shocked.
At this same school, I also met a petite white woman of only 25 who taught sixth-grade math with similar effectiveness.
Sitting in a desk in the back of her classroom, I watched the students come in and get right to work on their opening assignment. She gave other assignments, setting time limits and issuing firm but kind directions. The students would go right back to work. Like the English teacher, she never raised her voice. She never had to.
After class, I went up to one boy and asked, "Do you like [this teacher] more than other teachers?"
"Mm-hmm," he said with a nod.
On other occasions since, I've watched these very same students act out in rambunctious, emotional, even aggressive ways. But somehow these two teachers broke through the kids' resistance to applying themselves, creating islands of order and focus within a squalling sea.
This storm can be as close as the hallway or some other teacher's room (maybe mine). And it certainly stretches for many students beyond the walls of the school. There is only so much a school can do.
World of noise
"I don't want to know too much," said the math teacher when I asked her about the students' home lives. She said it might undermine her ability to be fair and effective at teaching if she's too worried about a particular student's plight.
Sometimes, though, you don't have to ask to find out about children's lives away from school.
"My dad was shot," a girl declared to her girlfriends one morning in a sixth-grade class I assisted. She went on, completely nonchalant, adding that her father's brother saved his life "because he's a doctor."
Another day, while I was teaching third grade in another Minneapolis school, the students had sheets of paper bearing images of an object they had found in nature — a feather, a rock, a leaf. Below the image, they were to describe the object. One boy said his rock was grey and cold. A girl wrote that her feather was light and soft. Another boy wrote about a bone he had found.
I proofread his little essay, since these pages were going to be put on display for their parents to see. I read that the bone was white and smooth. It reminded him of a dead animal. And it reminded him of his dead uncle, who had been shot in the forehead by his best friend.
I froze for a moment, bent over his desk reading those words. Then I turned and looked at the boy. I think he sensed my surprise, because he dropped his head. I told him that expressing these feelings about his uncle was good, but that maybe we should leave them off this assignment. I asked him a couple of questions. He said the shooting had happened the previous summer. His uncle's best friend had also shot himself.
This boy was 9. And it was the second time that day that he'd mentioned his dead uncle. I asked him if he had someone he could talk to about this. He said he could talk to his mom.
I think of that boy and girl, and the shootings in their families, when I remember the day the school psychologist was in an office right across the hall from a fourth-grade class I was teaching. She said I should bring any difficult students to her.
Things were, as usual, getting loud and a little out of control when one smaller-sized boy lost it. He stood and started yelling at the class to "shut up!" A moment later, the bravery and anger fell away, and he fled underneath the table in the back of the room and cried.
I went to him, and he came out from his hiding place without resistance. I took the defeated-looking lad across the hall to the psychologist. She looked him over and quickly diagnosed the problem. My room was "too noisy."
She was right, of course. But I was a little frustrated, because I was trying hard, and because her response captures how we only scratch the surface.
There's a noisy world behind that noisy room. It's loud with gunshots and broken homes and drugs and joblessness and welfare and racism.
I wish that world would shut up — or at least quiet down to a reasonable level.
Brandon Ferdig has been substitute teaching in the Minneapolis Public Schools since January. He writes at ThePeriphery.com, and his book, "Reaching New Heights in China: Experiences, Interactions, and Social Observations While Living in The Middle Kingdom" comes out this fall.