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The room is a mess. The floor is dirty. A chair is overturned by some of the randomly placed desks shoved against the window. Paper scraps are everywhere. One, in fact, sails by in projectile form on its route to its sleeping victim as we enter. The victim, awakening at the impact of the projectile, retaliates with an curse and a hurled pencil. His only pencil. But what the heck! He isn't planning on using it, anyway. Needing a pencil is certainly not his highest concern in this classroom.
"Students! Could I have it quiet in here, please!"
Conversations, well under way in several corners, continue, unabated, as if nothing has happened to require their cessation. Several girls in the back of the room dance provocatively to a radio which is playing the number one hip hop tune of the moment.
"Do you understand me?! I want all conversations to stop, now!" (Slightly increased volume on that last word!)
"Young lady, turn off that radio now!"
The Assistant Principal stands glaring, as several students who have been wandering around, pause with a "wassup?" Others look up from their conversations, their attentions engaged, if not their interest, yet. Others turn their gaze deliberately elsewhere. The volume level drops off.
"I'd like to introduce you to your new teacher, Ms. Hill. Now I know you've had to live with several substitutes for the first several weeks of school, but Ms. Hill will be your permanent teacher ('or at least until you drive her crazy,' I can almost hear her thinking). I expect you to give her the respect you would want yourselves. (And then aside to me, in a whisper). Good luck, Ms. Hill. I'll talk to you later."
As the AP leaves, conversations resume. The recipient of the pencil attack "disses" his attacker who verbally retaliates with something nasty about the attacker's mother. Catcalls ensue from several of the onlookers who are beginning to find the developing confrontation more interesting than their own distractions. The radio snaps on again. Several students who aren't watching the confrontation begin nodding their heads and singing out loud to the beat. With the exception of two tough-looking girls, wedged into black clothes that are obviously too scant and tight to appropriately cover their developing figures, and who are seated close to my desk, no one is in the least bit interested in me, that's certain.
One of the tough girls who is giving me the once-over speaks up.
"Wha's yo name?"
"I'm from Honduras."
"Where's Hon… where's that at? Is that in Africa?"
"It's a country in Central America."
"You talk funny."
(Okay! Don't loose your cool! You've been teaching for twenty years. You know what's going on. Students are always going to challenge you at first. Test you for your weak spots. And if they know you're from a foreign country, all the more reason to suspect you of weakness.
But God help me! How did it come to this? After twenty years in this district, I should deserve better than this!)
Two weeks into the school year, I've been moved to another school in the district. I've been given a class that is totally out of control (as, so it seems, is the majority of the school). I have thirty 6th graders, many of them repeating the grade for the third time, most of them functioning at a third grade level—according to their test scores.
Several of my girls, Nadia and Paula, are homeless. They live in a shelter and come to school late, if at all.
One of my boys, Tyrell, a huge kid with terrible hygiene, is in a juvenile detention center. He comes to school right from there every morning and goes back there at the end of the school day. Never does any work. Seldom brings a book or even a pen. Why bother?
The rest are in various stages of "at-risk" status: low self-esteem, low interest, failing school, failing their own lives.
("I'm being punished," I say to myself. "God is punishing me for something I did which was terribly wrong, sometime, somewhere.")
I seriously contemplate quitting for the first time in my life. I who usually relish life, who find a silver lining in even the darkest thunder cloud, want nothing to do with this reality.
(Something is going to have to change!)
Three weeks have elapsed. I'm sitting at my desk, watching the class. The desks are in orderly groups. The floor is swept. The walls and display tables around the rooms sport aesthetic and colorful arrangements.
The principal suddenly opens the door. (He has a way of popping into classrooms unannounced).
The students don't even look up! They are totally engaged in the task at hand. There are some conversations but they are soft and totally work-related. Most of the students are not aware we have a visitor at all. There is a sense of complete focus in the room.
A smile slowly curls the corner of the principal's mouth. The furrows in his forehead straighten. His face relaxes. He gives me the barest of nods: a mixture of pleasant surprise and approval. I recognize the expression. He is both surprised and impressed with the progress. I smile back. I can tell that he sees what's happening. Finally! One class where security guards will not have to be summoned this year. He turns on his heels and exits, a slight spring in his step. The class carries on, oblivious of his visit. His support will become invaluable to me in the coming months and I thank God for it!
It is two and a half months into the term. We have just gotten the results of the first SFA district-wide reading test. My 6th grade class, as I said, had started the year, on an average, reading at a third grade level. The second poorest performing class in the 6th grade, out of 12 classes! (Frankly, I'm surprised they even made it to second!)
But now the test results are back and my class average is at… grade five! Less than three months into the year! The students are motivated, the class has developed self-control and their class average has jumped over two full grades—the biggest increase of any class in the 6th grade!
Does this sound like fiction? It's a true story.
How did this come about? How was this achieved?
I do not pretend to have done this all myself. The ideas that I am presenting in this book (for the most part) I did not create out of my own head. But the techniques that I use work! They have been proven time and time again, and not just by me. They are the result of a lifetime of teaching, of learning from my successes and my many failures, of listening to many mentors—seasoned educators far better and wiser than me. Some ideas have been culled from both education professionals as well as books in other fields, too; for I constantly read, study and work on myself and my communication abilities.
I also do not pretend that I am presenting "The Answer" in this book. In my experience and observations of the best and worst teachers in the educational field over 30 years or more, I have come to the conclusion that there is no magic bullet. No fool-proof system that works in every single classroom all the time in every situation.
There are, to be sure, standard practices to prepare teachers for the beginning of the year and plenty of systems to set up for getting the best results from your class. They work. They should be used. Some of the better practices I know of have been summarized in the Appendices at the back of this book. But in my experience, it is so much more a question of the teacher themselves and how they handle the face-to-face, moment-by-moment interactions with students that is the major factor in what I am calling enlightened classroom management.
So many times I have seen teachers with marvelous control of their classes who were not educating. I even sat in and watched, anxious to learn the secrets of these masters of discipline, only to discover that their systems and procedures had turned their students into well-controlled automatons who parroted back information with no concept of what it really meant or how to use it. Other classes I observed, who were little cherubs with their teachers, became the class from hell as soon as they were no longer with that teacher. The "control" that the teacher had set up was entirely external. Those students had developed no sense of self, no personal goals, no direction and no internal discipline.
These are not the results I am after. We need students who can survive in this changing world, who have the academic tools and skills developed in their years of schooling: and who also can use those tools; who think critically; are creative, imaginative, values-oriented and caring; and who can adapt, improvise and overcome unforeseen problems they are suddenly faced with in that new world. Not just cogs in society's wheel.
We are, after all, dealing with human beings, not mathematical formulae. And fledgling, as-yet-largely-unformed, developing humans, at that! These are students whose lives are beset by increasing levels of stress unknown in our own generation's childhood; students who are living in a world which is finding pockets of growing enlightenment among its citizens, even as the civilization itself is spinning more and more out of control; students who are living in a world that is constantly changing at a more and more rapid pace.
What is in this book, then, is the human side of classroom management, and what I believe to be the essential side. These ideas have worked for me and for many successful colleagues who observe these practices. If you can use them, fine. If they are not your style, perhaps you can adapt them. If you are a brand new teacher, perhaps you can use them to avoid making some of the many mistakes I made. If you are a seasoned professional, perhaps they will give you a fresh perspective on what you already know.
It's really up to you, though. You are the key!
In their brilliant book One Minute Millionaire, Mark Victor Hansen and Robert G. Allen talk about "living above the line." The "victim" lives below the line in blame: It's easy to blame the students, the parents, the school environment and administration, the economy, television, the federal government, or even farfetched things like the climate (you'd be surprised how far people will look for someone or something to which to attach blame) for the growing unrest in our young people. But it really doesn't matter who is to blame. Because the point is, you have the power to correct the situation. You have the power to live "above the line." Whereas the victim blames other people and circumstances (and even him or herself, at times), the "victor" learns from failures and adjusts.
That's what I have done, and that's what got me to the place where I could, as a newcomer to the school, turn an out-of-control class into a group of self-motivated, self-controlled achievers. And that's what you will need to do, too. Whether you come up with the same formula anyone else uses is not important. What is important is that you glean what you can from my experience, learn from your own mistakes, and adapt. Times will always change. So must you.
In the meantime, let's see what can be extracted from the lessons I learned during my experience in the "school or hard knocks."
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