“The Fart-Free Classroom” (Jerry Heverly)


After the previous post on the teachers being practical politicians, Jerry Heverly commented on it and sent along a post he had written illustrating the inexorable dependence of teachers upon their students and the inherent dilemmas teachers face in exerting power, fostering relationships with students and managing their behavior. In effect, teachers have to engage in  practical politics by working out with students compromises to the dilemmas they face in order to get students to learn.

Heverly granted me permission to use this post. He is a veteran San Leandro High School English teacher and written extensively about his experiences teaching over the years. This post appeared March 28, 2012.


“Mr. Heverly, you can’t tell somebody not to fart!”

I was trying to get my students to read, something I struggle with every day.

“It’s like a natural thing. You can’t stop it. People can die from that.”

This was “Sustained Silent Reading”, basically a time for my students to pick a book or magazine and read.

I try very hard to get my students to like reading. My room is lined on two sides with books I’ve accumulated.  My bookcases are a kaleidoscope of colors. I have novels by Jack London, picture books of African-American history, a history of football, teen romances; anything I can find that might appeal to a 15 year old.

I was trying to keep the room quiet. It wasn’t working.

It’s a tight rope I walk every day. If I want a quiet, organized room I must devise rules and enforce them. But therein lies the rub.

“No food or drink in the classroom.”

“Wear your pants over your underwear.”

“Don’t throw things in class.”

“Don’t use profanity in the classroom.”

“Don’t use anti-gay slurs.”

“Keep your hands to yourself.”

“No paper airplanes.” Etc., etc. etc.

And, yes, no intentional farting.

To get through the day I must “manage” my students’ behavior. It’s the crucible of most teachers. Books are written about it. Teachers are evaluated based largely on how–or whether–they do it.

To outsiders or to those rare teachers with overpowering personalities it seems obvious; adults are there to be in charge, kids are there to obey.

But there’s a fundamental contradiction in the process that doesn’t get acknowledged enough. To teach my students I must have a good relationship with them. I must be a combination of entertainer, coach, father-figure, and guru.

Yet every time a kid violates a rule I must cast off those other roles and become a cop. And each time I police their behavior I make those other roles increasingly unbelievable.

If the stars align and most of my students are quietly working on whatever the day’s tasks are, I can stay in character as Mr. Rogers.

But the rules of school say that students must be tracked; good kids in one room, fractious kids in another room. And in any class of disaffected teens there will be some kids who hate quiet and orderliness. They crave attention; they resent the teacher’s power.

Which means someone will challenge those rules.

It makes my day seem like the navigating of a ship on a rough sea. If I punish a behavior I anger at least one student (and generally more than one, since that student has friends). That anger leads to more bad behavior and more punishments. Act as cop too much and you can permanently and irretrievably alienate 35 students. Do that too little and you can’t expect learning to happen.

I want my classroom to be a safe, amusing, interesting, serious place. To make that happen I now realize I must face the fact that each day is a new negotiation with 160 individual personalities. It’s not an easy thing to face.



Filed under how teachers teach

8 responses to ““The Fart-Free Classroom” (Jerry Heverly)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry (and Jerry)—thanks for this….I teach all boys, so I deal with these sorts of issues often. Something to point you to: on Twitter, behavior management has become a big thing among UK teachers lately. Tom Bennett (who is the mastermind beind researchED) recently put out an independent review of behavior management in schools for the Miniitry of Education that’s very good and is very relevant for those of us in the US. See here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/behaviour-in-schools

    Larry–you would also be interested in what he has to say about technology…

  2. My first year teaching high school Spanish, the SSR time happened during 3rd period. There was a talented fartist in the class that made sure that our quiet reading time was punctuated with his colonic art and his loyal laughologists. The struggle is REAL. I pity all new teachers.

  3. When I was working in the context of wilderness therapy, farts were transparent in a way they aren’t in most public life. I lived with my co-workers and our clients 24/7 eight days at a time in close proximity. With a diet heavy in beans and cheddar cheese. After two years of this, when I was at work I didn’t feel embarrassment about farting anymore. It was, as your students suggested, normal. Unpleasant sometimes, but normal.

    And, yes, there was snickers and laughter. Or questions of, “Who was that?” and I would respond by owning it. I came to think of this as a great metaphor. Our clients, coming to us in crisis, often held back, hid, disguised parts of themselves to conform or take care of those around them. A fart stood in as an analog for normal feelings of hurt or fear whose expression was unacceptable or seen as such.

    Jeff Heverly frames his post in two different and contrasting yet similar ways:

    “I was trying to get my students to read”
    “I try very hard to get my students to like reading”

    As Alfie Kohn says in refrain, you can usually “get” students to do something with sufficient reward or threat, and you can’t “get” them to do it for the right reason. In this case, trying for the first of these two quoted goals may undermine the second, communicating the role of teacher as police. My question, is why “get” students to do something at all? Why not send invitations?

    People need to have fun in their lives, and it makes sense that students would seek out ways to accomplish this in the classroom. I’m agreeable to that, and I have concerns when I think it impedes learning goals. This would be an opportunity to communicate those concerns and adopt a problem-solving stance. To counter the above link to UK behavior management resources, I suggest taking a look here: http://www.lostatschool.org/.

  4. dienne77

    “To outsiders or to those rare teachers with overpowering personalities it seems obvious; adults are there to be in charge, kids are there to obey.”

    That’s never seemed obvious to me at all. Why should children obey adults? Are we trying to raise obedient adults? Assuming not, then why not raise them with the attributes we want them to have as adults: independence, critical thinking, compassion, empathy, self-control, passion, judgment, integrity, etc. None of those come from obedience. They come from respect, trust, understanding, etc.

    Yes, yes, I hear what you’re saying about trying to promote reading and keeping the class quiet in order to facilitate that. But with that large of a group of kids, they’re not all going to want to read or all be able to control themselves in order to read (and allow others to read). So maybe we need to look at reducing class sizes – what is the ideal class size in order to create a community of learners who can balance their own needs and desires with those of their classmates, and care enough about their classmates to do it? Far less than the 30 or 40 we typically shove into each classroom. It also doesn’t help that in junior high and high school we shake them up every hour (or less), so they actually have more like 100 kids they’re trying to form a “community” with. Maybe Waldorf/Montessori/Progressive/etc. models should be the norm for the country.

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