Those who can teach

Because the teaching anecdotes in the comments to the Left Behind post below deserve their own thread, a story.

I landed an internship after college graduation, but it didn't start until August. So I spent May and June substitute teaching in the middle school of my alma mater. My mother, a 40-year veteran of the trenches of second grade, gave me a piece of wise advice. She told me what she always told new, young teachers: Don't smile until Christmas.

But I didn't want to be like that. I wanted to be, you know, their cool older-brother buddy figure. With sixth-graders.

They ate me alive.

The lesson plans had them reading Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" — going around the room, taking turns paragraph by paragraph. That sounds easy until you realize that if there are 20 sixth-graders in a room, and only one of them is reading aloud, then the other 19 are doing something else — something potentially loud, disruptive or even destructive of property.

Finally, in a move of desperation, I wrote the most disruptive student's name on the chalkboard. I had no idea what this meant, really, but it produced audible gasps from some of his classmates. "If you interrupt our lesson again," I told him, "I'm putting a check by your name."

Again, I had no idea what that meant, but it seemed to buy me some time.

At the end of the class period, I ran down to the middle school principal's office and told Mr. Baehr about my check-by-your-name gambit, confessing that it was a hollow threat. "A second check," he said, "means they come to see me."

That was a big help.

"There's an old saying for new teachers," Mr. Baehr said to me. "'Don't smile until Christmas.' Do you understand what that means?"

Yes, I said. Yes I do.

  • A. Kennedy

    I can certainly understand that, if your default method of keeping control in the classroom is by being 6 foot 6 and having a deep voice. All you have is “authority”: you can’t afford to tell students to think for themselves.
    Um…. do I know you? I’m not sure that level of venom is really warranted…

  • ako

    My kids, however, also learned at an early age that they didn’t have an inalienable right never to be bored. I agree, that’s a lesson best suited for a parent to teach, but far too many parents are afraid to pass it on.
    I think learning how to manage boredom is a good lesson. With kids, though, it seems to work best to give some guidance about reasonable ways to manage boredom, and not set the bar too high in terms of how much you expect them to put up with. I think most of us were bothered because we had the experience where we were supposed to not only stay quiet, but stay focused on relearning stuff we already knew. Which is rather pushing the limits of concentration for anyone short of an adult.
    nd the large group reading aloud, where each kid does one paragraph seems to me to combine the worst of all possibilities. The kids who have trouble get to be on public display, the nature of the exercise sets the pace very slowly, unless the kid’s very into the story or good at both concentration and self-directed learning they’re likely to spend a good chunk of time not getting much out of it, and kids who lose focus for any reason (reading ahead, daydreaming, difficulty following the story) are going to get nailed for being “off-task” when they don’t pick a particular paragraph out of a page fast enough.
    Also, I’ve known more than a few kids who spent a lot of time doing this sort of things because it seemed like an efficient use of the teacher’s time in a large class with no assistant. And a lot of them got very good at rattling off the words in a voice close enough to a monotone to be hard for the teacher to focus on and correct enough so as not to have many obvious mistakes, but have terrible reading comprehension.

  • Jesurgislac

    A. Kennedy: I’m not sure that level of venom is really warranted…
    No, it wasn’t. I was at work in a bad mood, and normally Slacktivist is the blog I read to cheer me out of a bad mood. I apologize for the venom in that comment: I will try to find some less venomous way of expressing what I feel about a school system that teaches children to knuckle under to undeserved authority first and foremost. Not your fault, though, nor really any individual teacher’s fault: has to do with the hierarchical educational system that won’t permit children to question authority.
    (Home, now, and have had a beer, a cheese-and-salad sandwich, and am about to have homemade broccoli, garlic, and pea soup. *passes you a virtual bowl* Am therefore in a much better mood than I was then.)

  • A. Kennedy

    Ah, beer, often appropriate (I should be in marketing!).
    There’s no harm done, and in fact I agree with you about how terrible the nature of the school system can be. Part of the trouble is that you have to train students to be successful in a flawed outside world. So what you do, if you’re idealistic but don’t want to produce social failures, is teach them what they need to know and a very strong sense that things should and can be questioned. Occasionally be mildly irrational in their favour. Tell them a popular untruth, then explain why it’s untrue. State opinions that can be shocking to them (and genuinely shocking, not just conformist-shocking, like “south park”) but are still kind.
    At the same time, teach them that the refraction of a beam of light across is absolutely and without question proprtional to the ratio between the speed of light in the first medium and that in the second. It can be challenging.

  • hapax

    “Part of the trouble is that you have to train students to be successful in a flawed outside world.”
    I think this is one of the best one-sentence summations of the teacher’s dilemma I have ever read.
    Far too many people expect the schools to not only teach the students for the world that is, but ALSO to fix the rest of the world’s flaws. That burden, alas, is the responsibility of everybody.

  • Izzy

    In fact, I think teachers are better trained to make allowances for that now; my kids have never had a teacher who didn’t allow (even encourage) students to read, or draw, or work ahead, on their own if they finished early. (My kids, however, also learned at an early age that they didn’t have an inalienable right never to be bored.)
    I (millennial generation) had a few, but I went to a small school and I was stubborn: a few “see, I can *prove* I know this stuff and there’s no reason I should have to do it” incidents, and the teachers generally let me off of group reading. I like that the trend is growing for kids to be allowed to read ahead/read different stuff, and I don’t see any reason why you *shouldn’t* allow the fast readers to do some sort of non-disruptive other work.
    Because, seriously, I don’t think most kids–especially most fast readers in middle school, which is practically code for “I’m a geek and I hate most of these people,” middle school being what it is–would respond well to the suggestion that they have to sit and stare into space so that their classmates can learn. Nor should they. You don’t have an inalienable right never to be bored; you *should* have the right to deal with that boredom in quiet, nondisruptive ways.

  • Jesurgislac

    Part of the trouble is that you have to train students to be successful in a flawed outside world.
    Actually, I’d say the root of the trouble is that “train students to be successful” is always defined as “train students to sit down, shut up, listen to authority, and do as they’re told”.
    And that’s how you get a nation where a significant proportion of voters still believe that the President* wouldn’t lie to them.
    *or Prime Minister: this applies to the UK educational system just as much.

  • New Duane

    I can certainly understand that, if your default method of keeping control in the classroom is by being 6 foot 6 and having a deep voice. All you have is “authority”: you can’t afford to tell students to think for themselves.
    A 6’6″ lady with a deep voice might not be trading in authority. It might be something else. Wonder, perhaps.

  • A. Kennedy

    A 6’6″ lady with a deep voice might not be trading in authority. It might be something else. Wonder, perhaps.
    I’m not, actually, a woman… you may have to alter your notebook, Duane.
    I realised I earlier said I’d prefer to have my baby in a hospital — I was being rhetorical.

  • Blabbermouth Duane

    I’m not, actually, a woman… you may have to alter your notebook, Duane.
    I wasn’t actually suggesting you are a woman. I was just extrapolating the concept..

  • Spherical Time

    There are a lot of interesting opinions and ideas in this thread and post. Can everyone agree that no one method works for all teachers and students?
    I know that despite being promoted to Advanced English twice in high school, I learned more in a remedial English course with a teacher with whom I was more compatible than the English AP teacher.
    No disrespect to the English AP teacher but I was bored and frustrated with her teaching style, whereas the remedial English teacher taught me more about the language than any other teacher I’ve ever had, despite the wide variety of skill that her students had.

  • KnightHawk

    “Throughout my jr. high and high school life, I learned that, of all the things you can do during class that you’re not supposed to – sleeping, talking, writing notes, staring off into space, deliberating over sticking a pencil in your eye just for something to do – nothing makes a teacher anywhere near as angry as does sitting quietly and reading a book.
    (Including when there’s absolutely nothing else you should be doing.)
    It’s kind of funny, in a bleak, Vonneguttian way. ”
    Ain’t that the truth? 4.0 gpa, or no 4.0 gpa, I got in trouble constantly through middle and high school for just this very thing. Whether I was reading R. L. Stine, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Jordan, or, yes, Vonnegut, they always threatened to take my book away, and always blew their lid when I told them they could try.
    “Dahne, on reading books in class: Many teachers felt that not even pretending to listen to them was disrespectful, so they came down like a ton of bricks on kids reading. Being obviously bored out of their minds instead would at least have affirmed the teacher’s power over the kid’s time.”
    While that does sound somewhat true, on the other hand, it makes, at the very least, the majority of teachers out to be power hunger assholes.

  • Alara Rogers

    Huh. I read in class all the time and never got in trouble for it. My strategy was to put my hand up to answer every single question, get 95-100 on the tests, and read any group reading assignment with normal speed and intonation, so there was really nothing they could nail me on. I was obviously paying enough attention that I could do any assignment they gave me, so they basically just left me alone to multitask and only called on me half the time (which still meant they called on me more often than everyone else, because I was a giant attention whore and would volunteer for *every* question.)
    In college, I finally encountered a professor who didn’t want me reading. It was an early morning lecture hall and I sat all the way in the back, so I really couldn’t figure out what his problem was, but I obeyed him, and then stopped coming to class because if I couldn’t read in the class I couldn’t stay awake.
    I suppose it was practice for long boring meetings at work, when you plainly can’t read because everyone will see you do it. :-)

  • Alexela

    Ako,
    It sounds like you have a learning disability. My brother is the exact same way. If you test him on some things he scores in the top few percentile (mazes, some verbal stuff, etc), and in others (recognizing faces, handwriting, arithmatic, etc), he was n teh bottom few percent. This lead to him being labelled lazy, and “if only he would try”, until we came to Canada, at which point he was promptly diagnosed within a few months, and given special education and accomodations to cover his weaknesses (he was allowed to type, instead of handwrite… he just *can’t* do it passably). I’m a little the same, though not nearly so extreme.
    Beth Note to psychologists: Surprisingly enough, screaming, threats, and enforced social isolation — “grounding” — do not appear to be helpful in relieving symptoms of depression.
    Speaking as a non-clinical psychologist, yes, absolutely, 100% right. That’s what the research has consistantly shown for 30 years. Authoritarian and permissive parenting styles both don’t work, it’s all about setting boundaries, being fare about them, following through on what one says about them, allowing room to explore within them, etc. People on this thread seem to have it exactly right, on the whole.

  • ako

    It sounds like you have a learning disability.
    I don’t think it was that. I was put in the special kindergarten due to a physical disability, and all the kids there got pretty well tested for everything. Plus, one of the teaching assistants wanted to see how small children reacted to various tests of things like intelligence and learning disabilities (she was getting a graduate degree), and she payed ten bucks a kid, which my mom let me spend on a new doll, so I got even more tests. They probably would have spotted a learning disability.
    Plus, I wasn’t that bad at the things I was bad at, closer to Cs than Fs. The problem was more teachers who had very specific ideas about “bright” and “gifted” kids doing barely adequate on assignments. So while other kids getting C- got either help or nothing (which I would have preferred), I got long lectures and meeting with my parents, about how I was doing so poorly, and how I was so bright that if I’d just work a bit harder, I’d be getting As for sure. This led to much anxiety and misery about dealing with these teachers, as I built up a mental association of “Talking privately with my teachers about my schoolwork=being told that I was doing everything wrong and it was all my fault for not trying.” This didn’t help my class performance. And if you really want to see interesting performance results, take a student who’s just passing, have her associate the teacher with fear and unhappiness, and add a dose of guilt for every poor performance. I actually loved it freshmen year in college when I discovered the large lecture hall class. The less one-on-one attention I got, the better.


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