There’s a lot teaching programs can teach a new teacher about classroom management such as having clear objectives, a seating chart, consistent rules and procedures, and greeting students as the door (preferably with a smile). But they don’t prepare teachers for the actual flesh and blood students who sometimes ignore the cheerful “Good Morning!” to sit wherever they want, and have objectives and rules of their own that do not seem to align with any standards. These are the students who were not cast in the teaching videos of utopian classrooms where the attentive mini-scholars are upright at their graffiti-free desks with their own pencil and paper (brought from home!). These are the students who teach us our limits, show us what we’re capable of, strengthen our spines, and drive us to drink.
Stephen had the look of a troubled kid. Unwashed hair, rumpled clothes, and always seemed a bit malnourished. He looked like his hobbies included playing with fire and watching things explode. On the first day of school (my first day of teaching high school EVER, mind you), he eagerly introduced himself as one who “enjoyed playing bloody video games to shoot and kill people.” The class waited for my response; my shaking hand jotted down this tidbit on my clip board as I tried not imagine my new place of employment as that night’s breaking news. I don’t remember my response to him, but I do remember rushing to administration as quickly as possible to find out his history. His record showed a history of snarky remarks, but no inclination toward violence.
And that was Stephen: one long string of snarkiness aimed to keep me off-kilter. When the class drew pictures representing vocabulary words, he drew a really fat baby trying to get a Twinkie for the word “motivation.” It was like he spent his time walking to school coming up with things to say me to evoke my bewildered look. I began to understand that he did this just for my reaction, and while I learned to be nonchalant, there was always that glint in his eye. What I really wanted to do was beat him at his own game, but he was street-smart and I was book-smart. How would I accomplish this?
The opportunity arose in my territory: the library. I took the class there to choose their SSR books. Stephen swaggered up to me with a few snickering classmates in tow, and I knew I was being set up. But here, Stephen made a miscalculation; here in the library his street-smarts were no match for my book-smarts as he thrust his chosen book into my hands: William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer, a journalist, lived in Berlin through Hilter’s regime and went on to write this very long book with very tiny print about the experience. A large swastika also graced its cover. I clearly understood my role in Stephen’s game: I was to be horrified at such a choice (Hitler! Nazis! Swastika!).
I smiled at Stephen as I told him how proud of him I was for choosing such an interesting book; if he wanted to learn about Germany under Hitler, he picked the definitive source; I had no idea that he was so interested in history; I, too, was interested in history and had that very same book at home; I couldn’t wait to hear his thoughts on what he learned. By the time I was done commending his excellent choice his friends for once no longer laughed at me, but at him, and he looked like he had the weight of the book on his shoulders. Walking back to class I noticed he carried a thin fantasy novel.
I wish I could say he stopped baiting me after that, although he did it less frequently. He did, however, start staying for a few minutes after class every now and then to tell me about what was going on his life. The first time he did this I was edgy and confused waiting for the shocking comment, but there was none.
Stephen taught me that the way to connect to students will not always be from warm and fuzzy classroom moments or stated classroom objectives. Nor will reprimanding a student gain the behavior I want. Sometimes it’s the ability to be one-step-ahead or at least at that student’s pace. Sometimes I don’t know how I connect to a student; it just happens (sometimes not, oh well). Thanks to him, such behavior doesn’t faze me anymore, and because of it, students are less likely to behave that way (and I’m less inclined to drink).