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.