I heard once in an old movie, starring Monty Woolley, that even on your deathbed you shouldn’t make any confessions until you feel the rigor mortis setting in, because you might otherwise just recover and then live with miserable regret for years to come. I’m going to take the chance though of making a confession that perhaps many other teachers wouldn’t. If school teachers are completely honest (and I’m not sure that anyone can be “completely” honest), they will admit that the challenge of inspiring and motivating their students can sometimes become more difficult due just to one or two in the class, whose neediness or orneriness become the prime source for disruption of whatever focus was planned for the day’s lesson. As a first-year teacher, you may on occasion find the placid surface of your yet persistent senior-year, college ideals churned up by the speedboat maneuvers of a student, who is hungry for attention, power, or just plain revenge for an educational system he has hated since kindergarten. In what I hope are only the rarest cases, you may encounter a kid for whom all of the above is applicable. In such an instance, if you can socialize the student by tapping his inner gifts, you should be eligible for a Nobel Prize; if not, the whole community should pitch in to purchase for his parents a gift certificate to the nearest exorcist.
I find it interesting (a courteous word for strange) that nothing in college methods classes seems even to address the possibility that one day there may actually be a socially or mentally disturbed student enrolled in your class. That bright, sun-shiny world of methods classes doesn’t really want to talk about such a contingency that might mess up any happy statistics on a teacher doing such and such a thing to produce such and such a result. Demonic behavior in a child is almost too disturbing to discuss in a society where shifting the blame to parents, teachers, or to society itself is so much more sanitary. That’s why addressing social difficulties while one is still young is so very important, not just to render society safer, but also to rehabilitate those who may not be able to function in “civilized” ways. Fortunately, it’s the rarest challenge we as educators have, but that doesn’t make it any less momentous a task and responsibility. I’m not sure the term “social misfit” is even used anymore, but if it is, it has to be only as a last resort. Education is designed, I hope, to help people function better in a world, where they can be productive without endangering or impeding the progress of others.
We sometimes forget that in a room with thirty students, twenty-nine are often, for practical purposes, brushed aside in favor of the teacher’s having to deal most of the time with the thirtieth child, who is disruptive, for whatever reason. I suppose that most of the worst and most dangerous sociopaths were ones who simply slipped through the cracks in public schools. In fact, there were over the years only a very few students from my classes, who ended up in juvenile hall and then prison, none being there for life or wanted for murder. Wonderful, isn’t it? In that respect, maybe I have nothing about which to complain. I did, however, have in my classes from time to time students who were just annoying in what appeared occasionally to have become a sacred mission on their parts. All public school teachers of middle or high school kids must deal with those.
Even from the beginning of my years as a teacher, I didn’t send students to the office or to sit in the hallway. Dumping the responsibility of discipline on somebody else never made sense to me. I figured if I couldn’t make a difference myself by re-channeling a kid’s anger or mischief, I wasn’t worth much as a teacher. Besides, I didn’t want misbehavior to become a ticket out of class, even if it meant a trip down to the Hades of Mr. Powers’s office, that horrible underworld, where there was often loud yelling, followed by weeping into a ply from that famous box of Heather Breeze Tissues with the ballerina on the box. No, handling problems myself made more sense. Classroom rules revolve always around mutual respect. The golden rule is of prime importance, and almost every behavior precept comes from it. I discovered over time that positive reinforcement and rewards, like writing a wonderful letter of praise home to surprised parents worked wonders, when a usually cantankerous kid did something positive in my class. Taking a student into the hall for a brief one-to-one talk (talking and listening) is so much more valuable than scolding and embarrassing him in front of peers, which often only increases the level of attention he craves anyway.
Education isn’t about control. I found more and more that treating students more like adults yielded from them more grown-up behavior. Listening to their concerns, when they were willing to share them, and tuning in to their angst and to why there were negative feelings almost always made a difference, even if not the first time. Your pupils know when you care and when you care enough not to give up on them. You will be tested sometimes over many weeks. It’s usually not even because of a teacher’s class, but rather because there are outside conflicts and circumstances that a student chooses to make the teacher his whipping post. Listening to students and reading what they write can help them believe in your concern, your belief in their abilities, and your sincere desire that they succeed. Most of classroom behavior goes back to those precepts. A good friend of mine, who was also in the English Department and a splendidly capable and dedicated teacher was distraught one day, because a mean -spirited boy had glued a Webster’s Dictionary to the floor in her classroom, necessitating a janitor’s removing the tiles in the area and replacing them. To anyone not in charge of a classroom, that incident may actually sound comical, but it wasn’t funny to my friend, who pondered painfully why anyone would have done such a thing.
I’m afraid I have a strong vein of sarcasm winding through me, which I have to work hard to keep under control. In attempting to cope with the rigors of teaching that tiny minority of ill-behaved students, I found it occasionally helpful to write what was really on my mind….after I sent the genuine letters to parents. I think teachers will appreciate the following example, which I ran across recently and wrote in December of 1995, and which was particularly satisfying. I recommend it as a way to release tension without having to kill any of the kids. I have, of course, changed the names.
December 8, 1995
Morton High School
6915 Grand Ave. Hammond, Indiana 46323
Dear Mrs. Patrick,
Having made every effort to instruct your son Leland Patrick for the past two years in the subject of English and having tried to teach him the rudiments of civilized behavior in a world that will undoubtedly reduce him to the status of a street person, I have come to the unalterable conclusion that your son will have to be put to sleep.
This may come as something of a shock to you and perhaps seem rather politically incorrect, but given the history of Leland’s behavior and prospects for his improvement, you will probably agree that this solution is the most humane for everyone concerned. It makes much more sense financially, as Leland’s chances of any kind of employment are somewhat slimmer than those of Ralph Nader being elected President of The United States or Jay Leno receiving the Nobel Prize for physics. The needle on the school Irritation Meter has flown off the machine several times when Leland was in the same room, and blood pressure for any living creature reaches dangerous levels in proximity to Leland’s annoying banter.
Let me assure you that the Morton faculty will make this as convenient for you as possible. The procedure will not even have to be done in your home but can be done in the counselor’s office downstairs (lethal injection). There is even a cremation facility in the school’s boiler room. Leland’s ashes can be mailed to you in a tastefully appointed little box, cunningly decorated with all of Leland’s old conduct grades in gilded letters. We want to be as accommodating as possible, which is why our original plans of tying your son to the railroad tracks between Kennedy Avenue and Indianapolis Boulevard have been abandoned due to the inevitable mess and bad publicity for your family.
In conclusion, let me encourage you to take advantage of this splendid offer while it lasts. Other unhappy parents are waiting in line to engage our services in this most discreet solution. In your case it is surely the answer to a question that has plagued us for all the years that your son has been a sophomore at Morton High School. My only other comment, though it comes too late, is that you should have danced all night. God bless you.
Morton teacher since 1969
This private manner of using a written steam valve to release tension was one that worked quite well for me. One drawer of my desk was for the letters I really sent to parents, and another drawer was for the letters I would never actually send. The result was that in my classroom the milk of human kindness flowed much more abundantly than it could have, had there been no safe way for me to get rid of my frustration. Thank God I never mailed letters from the wrong drawer!