Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Teaching Story

I talked a few weeks back about a story from my years teaching English at MLK here in Nashville, so I thought I'd share some of that with you guys.

I was very fortunate to get a teaching job right out of college and even luckier to get one at an academic magnet school. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a magnet school, the idea is that something about the school draws kids from the suburbs into the inner city areas. In MLK's and Hume-Fogg's cases, it's academics. It's all a part of the desegregation plan from 1972 and then re-upped in 1983.

The nice thing about getting into a magnet school was that I had gone to Hume-Fogg for high school, another academic magnet, so I knew the mindset of a lot of these kids. Pretty high test scores, a lot of things academically had come easy to them and this was going to be some of the first real challenges that some of them had faced and they would react in different ways. Some would rise to the challenge, some would continue their "class clown" ways to avoid dealing with the idea that they might not be the smartest kid in class now, and some were really good testers but not great students.

So, in my second year (I'll talk about the first year one of these days; therapy is really helping ;-)), I got two classes of 8th grade history, in addition to my 1 class of Senior English and two Creative Writing rotations. The second History class was the final period of the day and so kids (and teachers) were punchy any way. Add to this that the class was 14 kids: 12 boys and two girls. And one of the girls was, shall we say, an early developer. And all the boys were fascinated with her. Now, 8th grade boys are hormones who happen to have legs. So they would do crazy stuff to get her attention. Straws up their noses, pencils in the ceiling, yelling out random cuss words in class, crazy stuff.

Well, I would rant and rave to get their attention and keep it in class, but I could usually only hold it for 10 minutes or so, or if we were talking about a war, sometimes the whole class. Finally I had had enough and I decided to use a strategy I had heard about from another teacher. One kid in particular had been giving me a lot of trouble and on this day it was the last straw. I actually forget what he did, but I'm sure I'd told him not to do it before. Nothing had worked before. However, I knew there was one thing that 13 year old boys hate more than anything else: embarassment in front of their friends.

So, I went to my desk and got out his personal information sheet. I got out my cell phone and in front of the class, I called his mom at work. I told her who I was and said that her son wanted to tell her something. I handed him the phone and he told her what he'd done. She talked for a couple of minutesthen he handed the phone back to me with tears in his eyes, apologized, and went back to his seat. His mom told me he shouldn't be a problem anymore and that if he was, to please call her back.

He, in fact, wasn't a problem anymore and that class got much, much better from then on. And while my relationship with him was strained for a couple of days, he got much better behaved and became a pretty good kid.

This is also the class where I developed my "fake test key on the ground next to my desk" gambit, but I'll tell that story another day.


Malia said...

That's so cruel!

Tony Arnold said...

That was awesome Phil! I have always thought it would be very difficult to direct teenagers who do not want to be directed, especially when you are outnumbered. How would you do it?

Now I know a method. The fact that it was a last resort I think made it more effective. That is, it would be difficult to say that you embarassed the student for the sake of embarassment or only to be mean.

I would imagine the parent respected the fact that you did not pawn the problem off onto the principle or other admin.


Phil said...

You know, my philosophy of sending a child to principal's office was in one case only: violence. I felt like if I sent a kid to a principal's office, I was showing that I had to rely on a higher authority figure than myself to control my kids and the learning environment and that showed weakness in the class and the kids would never think I'm serious unless I did that.

I never tried to embarrass a kid just to embarrass him or her. Although I would occasionally use a trick (particularly on 7th and 8th graders when the opposite sex is both repulsive and attractive) that if a boy and girl were picking at each other, I would say, "[Boy], why don't you just go ahead and ask her out?" And that would usually stop it.

Suzie said...

Memory lane!!! Makes me miss my days at East Middle. You're right about the principal's office.

Do you think you'll ever go back?

Phil said...

Suzie, I honestly don't think about it that much. I really enjoyed a lot about my years of teaching, mainly the actual teaching and the relationships with the kids; grading essays and journals and research papers and dealing with parents who just can't understand why perfect Johnny or Jenny got a C in your class.

I didn't quit teaching because I got tired of it though. I quit because Sheryl wanted to come home to raise our family and we couldn't maintain our modest lifestyle on a single teacher's salary. I can honestly say that if teaching paid more I'd probably still be doing it.

Do I think I'll go back? Maybe if I win the lottery or when I retire or something. Or maybe not.

Katey said...

Phil that story is priceless! I grew up the child and grandchild of well known educators in Abilene and I was threatened with that scenario a number of times. One time it did in fact happen, and both of my grandfathers were made aware of a situation before the school day was over. Both of them left their respective schools (both were principals) to come over and give me a talking to. One of the most embarassing moments of my life!

But turn about is fair play and I definitely did that a couple of times to my students a couple of years ago. It usually works, but when you catch a parent who is even harder to deal with than the child, it kind of backfires. But thanks for making me laugh this morning- I can't wait for the story about the test key by your desk!

TCS said...

class clown here, glad I didn't have you!

Phil said...

I didn't mind the class clowns as much. As long as they were actually funny and knew when to tone it down. I was one myself, even as a teacher (although some people might say I still am).

Justin said...

after reading this, i couldn't help thinking what a disaster it would have been if the mother were one of those "my child never does anything wrong, it must be you you stupid teacher" parents.

I work at extended care at ezell harding, and our director has really handcuffed us on discipline. No more write offs, no more sitting people out of playtime. we have very little ammunition, so threatening to take themto the principal the next day is about all we have.

i've tried talking to parents before when their kids are being disrespectful, and its amazing how the parents believe their child can do no wrong. we had a girl who had been chekced out of extended to go see her brother's baseball game. We take the kids out to the game sometimes, and did that day, but we stand at the outfield fence rather than in the bleachers. Anyway, this girl comes over to the extended group and starts bothering one of the kids who is still checked in. We asked the checked out girl to leave, to which she retorted "idon't have to do what you say" Cory, my friend and co worker, decided to take her over to her parents and let them know that she can't be with us cause if something were to happen to her with the group, we arne't responsible, and its a liability for us. They said why why... and cory told them she washarrassing a student and then she was being disrespectful to cory when he asked her to leave. Her parents started ranting about hwo their little girl never behaves like that (we know better. she's one of the most disrespectful kids i've ever seen) and the mother went to the director of extended and was in a huff becuase "cory embarrased her in front of all those people'

Now, maybe this is just my family, but if I had been acting up and someone had to tell my parents, and they were embarassed, I can tell you who would have born the brunt of the punishment, and it sure wouldn't be the person who told on me. It would have been me. I would have gotten paddled for disrespect and paddled again for my parents being embarrassed.

anyway, to all who are reading... don't be that parent.

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