Why do so many teacher candidates ace their education courses, read all the latest journals, carefully observe good teachers, shine like stars during their student teaching, and then crash and burn during their first year in the classroom?
Because education, desire, intelligence, passion, and talent do not automatically enable you to communicate complex ideas to other people.
Because in teacher training programs, the instructors are on your side, and they have a vested interest in your success; whereas your students (and sadly, even some fellow teachers) couldn't care less if you fail. In fact, some of them find it entertaining to watch you flounder.
Because unlike your college classmates, who admired your pretty lesson plans and praised the cleverness of your lectures and worksheets, your students may not be at all interested in learning.
Because effective teaching is more a matter of psychology than pedagogy. As one young man wisely explained to me, "You teachers can make me sit here and hold these stupid books all day long, but you can't make me read them."
Fortunately, psychology is interesting to read and think about, relatively simple to understand, and eminently applicable to teaching. Perhaps you have detailed instructions about what you are expected to teach, with curriculum guidelines that list specific reading selections and activities that your class must complete during a given time. Or perhaps you have the freedom and responsibility of creating your own curriculum. In either case, if you grab your students by their brains quickly, during the first days of class, they won't have the time or inclination to resist your instruction. In Chapter Four, "Make the First Week of Class a First-Class Week," I will suggest specific activities for grabbing your students during the first days of school; but right now I would like to focus on developing and articulating your own philosophy of teaching.
When I first began teaching, I could not have stated my philosophy in one simple sentence. I was too busy trying to organize paperwork, plan lessons, referee arguments, convince students to cooperate, find a disciplinary approach that worked, and extinguish those thousand little fires that threaten to burn down every teacher's classroom every day. A struggling student helped me focus my thinking. When I was assigned to teach a class of sophomores whose regular teacher suddenly decided to retire, I entered the classroom with high hopes and boundless energy and found myself facing a group of students with zero hope and subzero motivation.
"It don't matter what we do," one girl explained. "Before she left, our teacher done flunked us all. Wrote a red F in the grade book beside everybody's name."
At the mention of the grade book filled with Fs, I saw those students' shoulders slump and their heads droop. As they issued a giant group sigh, I could feel their hopelessness. So I hurried to assure them that I didn't have their previous teacher's grade book and that I intended to start everybody in my new grade book with an A—in red ink. It may sound melodramatic, but I swear I could hear the hope fluttering in those students' hearts. Every single face turned toward me, even the faces of students who insisted that they didn't care one fig about school.
From the back of the room, I heard a boy whisper, "She's lyin'."
A second later another boy whispered, "Shut up! What if she ain't lyin'? I ain't never had an A before."
In that moment my philosophy of teaching was born, and it has served me well. My teaching philosophy is based on one simple belief:
When students believe success is possible, they will try. If they don't believe they can succeed, it doesn't matter how easy the material or how smart the students, they will fail.
Therefore, my primary job is to convince my students that success is possible and to help them succeed. I communicate that philosophy to my students frequently, to remind them that whenever I ask them to do something, my goal is to help them be successful—not simply to issue orders. Once I solidified my philosophy, teaching became much simpler and more enjoyable, and my students stopped fighting with me and started learning.
During the following years, using student behavior and achievement as my guides, I developed secondary philosophies about discipline, grades, and exams, which I will share with you in the coming chapters. Right now, however, I would like to ask you to consider the ideas and issues in this chapter before you step into the classroom, so that you will be better able to articulate your own teaching philosophy. I believe this consideration will help you become a much more dynamic and effective teacher.
CHOOSE YOUR PERSONA
Your classroom is a miniature theater: it holds a small, captive audience and an even smaller cast—you. You are the star of the show, and when you first stand on that stage, your small audience can seem overwhelmingly large. The brighter your spotlight, the faster you'll capture your audience. Later on, you may choose to share the stage with your students, but until your students have learned their roles, you will need to take center stage. I don't mean that you should posture grandly and strut about your room. You do have a show to run, however, and specific goals to accomplish. Your responsibility is to lead your cast toward those goals; their role is to follow, although it is perfectly acceptable for them to politely suggest changes in the script.
Because your students will take their cues from you, it's very important that you decide before you step onstage how you will portray your character. What kind of image do you want to project to your students? How do you want them to see you: as the scientific expert, the hip dude who knows algebra inside out, the cool nerd, the toughest but best chemistry teacher on earth, the drill-sergeant grammarian, the stand-up comic who happens to know all about history, the serious student of literature or science, the hard-boiled journalist, the tough but tender coach?
Pretending to be somebody you are not is a terrible idea and one that is bound to fail because students are very adept at quickly assessing their teachers' characters. They will decide during the first few moments they see you what kind of person you are. They will look at your clothes, your hair, your skin color (not to judge you, but to assess how you may judge them). They will note your most subtle body language, your gestures, your posture, the length of your stride, the tone of your voice, your expression as you observe other students, and most especially they will notice the look in your eyes when you make eye contact with them. They will decide whether you seem crabby or nice or tough or easy or scared or confident or boring. All of this will happen within the first few minutes of your first class meeting—long before you begin to teach. And once your students decide who you are, you'll have a hard time convincing them to change their perceptions. You can change their minds, but it demands so much time and energy that if you goof and get started on the wrong foot (as I have done more than once), you may be inclined to simply cope with the status quo and hope things will improve over time. Coping and hoping, however, are poor substitutes for self-confidence and leadership.
Whatever persona you choose should be one that is natural for you, one that you can maintain for the entire school year. I am not advising you to put on a mask or try to change your personality but to consider how to make best use, as a teacher, of your unique characteristics, traits, and talents. Here's how I think of myself as a teacher: I am strict but flexible, inclined to use humor instead of threats, intolerant of rude or disrespectful behavior, passionate about my subject, and willing to meet students halfway.
It took me a while to perfect my drill-sergeant–stand-up comic–counselor persona, and I made many changes along the way. My first year I tried too hard to be cool, and it caused discipline problems. I joked around a lot because I wanted the kids to like me, to think of me as an older friend. What I didn't realize at that time was that they didn't need more friends. They have plenty of friends—friends who offer them dope and cigarettes and plagiarized research papers; friends who think that heavy metal is great music and that Ripple is fine wine. What my students needed was for me to be a teacher, an adult who would accept my responsibility as their guide and a leader who sometimes had to be the bad guy in order to help them. During my second teaching year, I took the advice of a veteran teacher who said, "Don't smile until after Christmas." I decided to be the drill sergeant who could stare a student to death. I couldn't do it. I'm a smiling kind of woman, so my message was inconsistent; my students responded by misbehaving half the time.
Finally, I sat down and figured out what my biggest strengths and weaknesses were. Then I combined my three strongest assets and came up with a combination that worked for me. Now I make a few important rules that cannot be broken under any circumstances; I take the time to know each student personally; and I use humor whenever possible to make my point without making students lose face.
DRESS THE PART
In the search for my most effective persona, I discovered an interesting student response to my clothing: they perceive some outfits as more serious than others, and they behave accordingly. If the lesson for the day requires creativity, spontaneity, and lots of student input, I wear more informal clothing: corduroy jeans and a sweater, perhaps. On days when I want to limit the amount of spontaneity, during an important exam or a lesson that will serve as an important building block for future lessons, I wear a suit.
Using clothes to project an image is basic psychology, and we see it all around us. The makers of TV commercials, especially commercials for pharmaceuticals or health products, often dress their announcers in white lab coats that give the impression of medical authority, so that viewers will be more inclined to believe them when they tell us that we'll have fewer gastrointestinal disturbances or sinus headaches. "Difficult" students often use clothing—leather jackets and ripped jeans, for instance, or turquoise hair—to advertise their contempt for authority and send a clear challenge to adults, a warning to keep our distance. Corporate executives are often very adept at power dressing. Young teachers or people who tend to be shy and introverted may take some tips from the fashion experts who advise young executives how to give the impression of authority: wear black pants and a white shirt, for example.
When you select your teaching wardrobe, keep in mind the persona you wish to convey. Make sure that your clothes don't send a conflicting message. If your goal is to create a very authoritative persona, for example, you may not be as successful if you dress very informally, especially if you wear the same clothes your students wear. They may tend to treat you as a peer instead of a teacher, in spite of your verbal instructions.
While we're on the subject of clothing, I'd like to suggest that you pay special attention to your feet. Many new teachers, myself included, are sorely surprised to find out how much their feet can hurt after just one day of teaching. Even if you are in good physical condition and are used to spending long periods of time on your feet, teaching will still take its toll on your soles. I most strongly recommend investing in a pair of well-made, comfortable shoes such as those made specifically for comfort by companies such as Born, Birkenstock, Clarks, Dansko, Mephisto, and Naot.
TRAIN THOSE LITTLE PUPPIES
How do you want students to feel and act in your classroom? Do you want them to sit quietly and raise their hands before responding to your questions, or do you want them to speak freely, even if it means interrupting each other or you? Do you want them to feel free to come into your classroom early and chat with you or with other students, or do you want them to keep their socializing outside the classroom and focus solely on academic activities inside your room? Do you want students to engage in enthusiastic discussions in which they freely voice their personal opinions (which may lead to interesting arguments), or do you prefer to control any discussion to avoid conflict and keep the conversation on topic?
Consider your students' age, the difficulty of your subject matter, and the number of students in each group you teach. How do you envision them behaving during a given class period? Perhaps you picture them sitting at their desks,
politely raising their hands for you to call on them. Or perhaps your vision involves a more energetic, less controlled environment, where students wave their hands wildly or feel inspired to shout out their ideas. After you have developed a good rapport with your students, you will be able to change the pace and procedures to fit different kinds of lessons, but you are likely to develop a better rapport and experience fewer discipline problems if you stick to one method for at least the first few weeks of classes.
Here's just one example. If you want students to raise their hands before speaking, you need to state your expectations and act accordingly. If you have stated a preference for hand raising and then acknowledge students who speak out of turn during your lessons, you will have just demonstrated that you don't mean what you say. If you persist in acknowledging your shout-out talkers, you may soon find that you have a lot of talkers and a lot of other students who have lost respect for your authority. On the other hand, if you don't mind the movement and noise that accompany student spontaneity, and you allow students to speak out during lessons, you may find it very difficult to get those students to sit quietly and raise their hands during a given activity if you decide later on that you need a more orderly classroom in order to teach a specific skill. Until you are sure that your students will follow your direction, it's best to stick to the one method that you would prefer them to use most of the time. I think of it as setting my students' default behavior. Unless I give specific instructions, how do I want them to behave?
If you aren't certain what kind of classroom environment you want to create, think about your own school days. Which classes did you enjoy most? Which did you dread attending? What kind of environment did those teachers create? How did they communicate their attitudes to you? Chances are good that you will teach the way your favorite teachers taught you—or the way your worst teachers taught you. Far too often, teachers whose own teachers humiliated them will turn around and use those same techniques on their students, without even realizing what they are doing. In my opinion, humiliating children is cowardly, and I believe that persistently embarrassing or humiliating children is psychologically and emotionally abusive. You can be strict without being cruel, and students will accept a strict but fair teacher as well as they will accept a laid-back, tolerant teacher. But if you start the year using one approach and then try to change midterm, you may confuse some students; and they may not cooperate when you try to retrain them. Many people are resistant to change, especially children who may feel insecure about many aspects of their personal lives.
Of course, you may choose to change your approach to one that you believe will improve your teaching, but be wary of changing your teaching style as a reaction to student behavior. If you begin the year as a soft-spoken, even-tempered teacher and then become a shouter or develop a short fuse that ignites at the smallest disruption, students will realize that they can control your behavior. Some students will then do their best to push your buttons because watching a teacher fume can be highly entertaining.
Training students is very similar to training puppies. If you let a puppy sleep on the bed every night for a week, she won't understand why you are punishing her by making her sleep on the floor the next week. She will wait until you are asleep and hop up onto the bed. And if you wake up and boot her off, her tender feelings will be hurt, and you will feel like a big bully. Likewise, if you train your little canine companion to sleep on the floor, and then one night you decide you'd like a foot warmer, she may be hesitant to jump up onto the bed. She may agree to warm your feet for a while before jumping back down to her proper place on the floor. Or she may enjoy the change of pace so much that she refuses to sleep on the floor the following night. Either way, you have one confused puppy on your hands.
CONTROL YOUR CLASSROOM, NOT YOUR STUDENTS
In Chapter Five I will discuss discipline plans in detail, but right now I'd like to share with you one of the most important lessons I have ever learned about teaching. When I began teaching, after nine years on active military duty and seven in the corporate sector, I thought I had a good grasp of the basics of discipline. When my master teacher left me in charge of his sophomore honors English class, I was determined not to take any flak from my students. Unfortunately, my students didn't care one whit about my determination. The harder I tried to control them, the harder they resisted. They all threw their books on the floor at the same time when my back was turned, so I made a seating chart that separated friends from each other. They coughed loudly if anybody tried to answer a question that I had asked, so I gave them harder assignments. They crossed their arms and refused to look at me when I talked to them, so I sent the ringleaders to the office, where they sat for a while before returning to my classroom with a note asking me to be more specific about what infractions they had committed, because refusing to look at the teacher wasn't a punishable offense under the student code of conduct. So I sent them to lunch detention or after-school detention or in-school suspension. And when they returned, they acted exactly as they had before they left my room—except now they were determined to exact revenge.
One day I lost my temper and started screaming. I threw books and papers on the floor and pitched a proper childish tantrum. Those college-bound students looked at me, but they were more amused than impressed. Finally, I realized what they had been trying to teach me: I cannot control my students' behavior, but I can control myself and my classroom. As soon as I understood that simple concept, I stopped responding to their behavior and started making them respond to mine. Once that became my standard practice, I had few discipline problems in any class, even when I taught at-risk and remedial students.
This may seem like a simple concept, but it makes a tremendous difference in the way teachers and students relate to each other. Let's take a disruptive talker as an example. You are in the midst of giving instruction, and a student intentionally interrupts by talking out of turn, ignoring your attempts to make her be quiet. You now have the choice of trying to control the student or controlling your classroom. You may say, "Tiffany, I want you to be quiet this instant, or you are going to get demerits (or detention, parent phone call, referral to the office, or what have you)." Tiffany already knows the consequences of talking out. She is just curious about what happens when she breaks one of your rules. The rest of the students are also very interested in learning this important information. If she is a considerate child, Tiffany may settle down and be quiet—for a while. Or she may choose to step the argument up another level by counterchallenging your challenge to her. She now is in control of the situation. She knows that you are going to react to whatever she does. Even if you end up sending her to the office or suspending her, the other students all know that they can control your behavior. You may win the battles, but they can make you fight whenever they are bored or uninterested in doing whatever activity you intend to assign. They already know that you can't control them, and they will amuse themselves by putting you through your paces—irritation, frustration, anger, threats, punishments. If they can make your face turn red, they earn extra points. And if they can make you cry, they score a touchdown.
Let's back up to the point at which Tiffany disrupts your instruction. If you stop immediately and glare at Tiffany silently for a few seconds, she may decide to back down without entering into a confrontation that she knows she will lose. She is very likely to choose this option if you not only glare but take a few slow, deliberate steps in her direction without taking your eyes from her face. If she is determined to find out what happens if she pushes a little harder, Tiffany may continue talking. Now you say, "Tiffany, I would like you to step outside for a moment, please." Don't wait for her to move. Walk to the door and open it. Turn and look at her with full expectation that she will join you. (We'll discuss students who refuse to step outside in Chapter Five, but for now let's focus on the majority who will agree.)
When Tiffany joins you in the hall, you can explain that disrespectful behavior is not acceptable in your classroom and that she may remain in the hallway for a few seconds to decide whether or not she chooses to cooperate with you. Explain that if she chooses to cooperate, she may return to her seat. If she chooses not to cooperate, you will have no choice but to send her to the office. Tell her you hope she chooses to return but that the choice is hers because she is responsible for her own behavior. Leave Tiffany there in the hallway for a short while to consider her options. Return to your room and resume teaching.
Either Tiffany will decide to behave and will return to her seat, or she will decide she wants to go to the office. You have made her responsible for her behavior, and you have taught her—and all of your students—that they may not disrupt your teaching. If you have a very difficult class, you may have to repeat the step outside and choose your behavior process three, four, even a dozen times; but each time you step outside with a student, those students still in the room will be thinking about what they will do if you call them outside. Thinking is exactly what you want them to do. Eventually they will realize that they can't make you dance and that you aren't going to cooperate with their efforts to manipulate you.
Oh, yes, one more important suggestion. When you reach the end of your list of disruptive students, thank your entire class for their cooperation. Tell them you appreciate their mature behavior and are impressed with the amount of self-
respect they have demonstrated. Some of them will smile immediately. Others will try to act like they don't care, but even the ones who believe they are too cool for school will secretly appreciate being appreciated.
YOUR OPTIONAL AGENDA
What are you really teaching in your classroom? During my first year in the classroom, I confessed to my master teacher, Al Black, that I was afraid I wasn't teaching my students enough. I explained that I believed students should reach a minimum standard to achieve a passing grade, but I wasn't sure where to set the minimum standard for my different English classes.
"Minimum standard of what?" Al asked me. "Commas, spelling, vocabulary? Should a kid know four ways to use a comma and the correct spelling of four hundred words? Should he know what defenestrating means? What if he doesn't know that particular word, but he knows a thousand other ones? What is the standard? I'm not talking about the district's objectives. I'm talking about your own standards. What is it you expect those kids to know when they leave your class?"
"I don't know," I admitted, "but I worry about whether I'm really teaching them anything."
"All teachers wonder whether they're really teaching anything," Al told me. He continued:
I used to wonder it myself, hundreds of years ago when I was your age. But then I learned something important. You aren't teaching English. "What are you teaching?" you may ask. You're teaching kids how to analyze information, relate it to other information they know, put it
together, take it apart, and give it back to you in the form that you request it. It doesn't matter what the class is; we all teach the same things. We just use different terms. You use commas and adjectives; biology teachers use chromosomes and chlorophyll; math teachers use imaginary numbers and triangles. And you're also teaching an optional agenda: you're teaching your kids to believe in themselves. So don't worry about whether you're teaching them grammar. You're teaching those kids. Trust me, you're teaching them.
After I had a chance to think about Al's comments, I realized that what he called the "optional agenda" is the most important factor in teaching, more important than school district objectives, because it is your optional agenda that answers the all-important question: What do you want your students to know when they leave your class?
What do you want your students to know? Naturally, as an English teacher, I want my students to have improved reading and writing skills, bigger vocabularies, increased comprehension of abstract ideas, better thinking skills, and an appreciation for literature. So I design specific lessons for vocabulary building and literary analysis and composing logical arguments—hundreds of different lessons over the years, tailored for different levels of ability. After my discussion with Al, when I spread out my various lesson plans and looked for common areas among them, my own optional agenda became very clear. Time and again I'd framed my lessons within larger lessons. One composition assignment, for example, urged students to write about a time they had faced and overcome a problem. A supplementary short story unit that I put together from a variety of sources included fictional accounts of people dealing with challenges such as divorce, the death of a loved one, peer pressure, and prejudice. The poetry I selected for special attention involved pursuing your dreams, standing up for your principles, admitting your errors.
My answer to Al's question is the same today as it was then: I want my students to have better academic skills, but I also want them to have a strong sense of their own ethical standards, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a desire to succeed according to their own definitions of success, and the strength of character to treat all people with basic human dignity and respect.
What is your optional agenda?
Your values and ethics will shape your agenda. Even if you don't intentionally try to include your beliefs and attitudes in your lessons, they will be there, hidden within the context of the reading assignments you select, in the methods you use to determine who passes and who fails, in the tone of your voice when you address certain students, and in a thousand other subtle clues. Every day you will be teaching your students what you believe is important. You will be conveying your own ethics, attitudes, beliefs, and moral values to your students. If you can articulate your optional agenda, you can use that knowledge to enhance your teaching. Knowing your optional agenda will also help you avoid unintentionally teach-
ing your students things you don't want to teach them—which brings us to the next area of consideration.
FACE YOUR OWN PREJUDICES
Although most of us try very hard to rid ourselves of prejudices, I have yet to meet a person who is completely free of prejudice. Our cultural and religious backgrounds, our families and friends, and our experiences combine to make us prejudge people who are blond or brunette, tall or short, fat or thin, ugly or beautiful, extroverted or introverted, brilliant or dim, nerdy or popular, Catholic or Jewish or Protestant or Muslim, black or brown or white or yellow or red.
I believe it is important that we, as teachers, try harder than most people to eliminate our prejudices and minimize the effects of the ones we just can't seem to defeat, because so many of our students will remember the things we say and do for the rest of their lives. We spend more waking hours with most children,
especially the youngest and most tender children, than their own parents do. Unless they have reason not to, most children love and respect their teachers (yes, even many of those defiant adolescents who claim that they hate school and everything associated with it). Many, many students learn to love and respect themselves—or despise and disrespect themselves—based on the way their teachers treat them. Think about your own childhood. If any teacher ever called you lazy, stupid, hopeless, ugly, clumsy, or worthless, I'm sure you remember the moment quite clearly. Just as I am sure you remember if a teacher ever called you intelligent, special, sharp, brilliant, charming, talented, or wonderful.
Skin color and ethnic origin are still the primary sources of prejudice in our nation. Many people believe that because of our civil rights laws, affirmative action programs, and the many organizations devoted to promoting equality and justice, skin-color prejudice no longer exists in our country. We have made remarkable progress toward eradicating that prejudice, but we still have a long way to go. During the past decade, I have visited more than half of the states in our nation; in every state I met teachers who were dismayed and appalled at the racial and ethnic prejudices they witness on a recurring basis in their schools and communities. In fact, the only people I have met who truly believe racial prejudice is not a problem in our schools are white people. Brown people maintain that prejudice is still a big problem, and I believe they are in a position to assess the situation most accurately.
Here's why I continue to harp on the subject of racial prejudice: some years ago my sophomore class included a young man who happened to have extremely dark skin. He also had an extremely gentle and loving personality, an enthusiastic attitude toward school, and an extraordinary talent for football. The teachers on our team all liked Dante, and we agreed that his was the shiniest of stars in our class. One afternoon near the end of that school year, Dante stayed after school to talk to me.
"I just wanted to thank you," he said, "because you were the only teacher who wasn't afraid to make me do my homework. All the other teachers are afraid of me because I'm a big black man. They act like they think if they make me mad, I'll hurt them." As he spoke, Dante's eyes filled with tears, and his voice was choked with emotion. Watching him, I felt my own tears rising.
"So what do you do when those teachers act like that?" I asked.
"I act like I'm going to hurt them." Dante tried to laugh, but his chuckle turned into a cough that stopped just short of a sob.
For a split second, I nearly laughed myself, because it sounded funny. But I quickly realized that Dante's remark was not funny at all. Those teachers were prompting Dante to act as though he intended to hurt them. Whether intentionally or not, they were manipulating him into fulfilling their stereotype of black men as angry and violent. To fear a child simply because of his or her skin color is the same as saying, "I know that you are inherently violent simply because of who you are. It is only a matter of time before your true nature is revealed."
We all know how indignant we feel when someone accuses us of lying even though we are telling the truth and how outraged we feel when someone accuses us of doing something we haven't done. Adults are sometimes capable of rationalizing, justifying, or ignoring false accusations and insinuations. But children and adolescents are not experienced enough in human nature to justify or ignore adult behavior, and they don't know how to avoid being manipulated by adults. Most certainly, they are unequipped to cope with the overwhelming feelings of frustration, disbelief, indignation, and anger that arise when adults insinuate that they are violent (or stupid or worthless) because of their skin color or ethnic background. I believe that repeatedly exposing children to such subtle but serious prejudice is psychologically abusive and surely will have long-term effects on their self-esteem, their attitudes toward school, and their outlook on humanity.
I said earlier that I have yet to meet a person who is free from prejudice, and I include myself in that sweeping statement. After talking to Dante, I sat down and forced myself to face my own prejudices. I had read the journal articles and the psychology textbooks. I knew that studies have proved that most white (and many black) Americans' anxiety levels rise when they see brown or black men approaching them in public. And I had to admit that my own anxiety level would rise higher if a black or brown man approached me than if a white man did. Yet I had never in my life been attacked by a brown or black male. I had, on more than one occasion, had an unpleasant social encounter with a white male. Therefore, it made no sense for me to fear black and brown men more than white. Because I had been raised in an all-white town in the North where I had no contact with anybody of any color other than white, I had no experiences to shape my attitudes. Other than Bill Cosby and Muhammad Ali, I don't remember another positive black male role model from my childhood through my thirties, at which point I stopped watching TV completely. During nine years of active military service before I became a teacher, I had had only one slightly antagonistic experience with a black man but dozens of severely antagonistic episodes involving male Caucasian soldiers and sailors who didn't welcome women in their ranks. I could only conclude that I had formed my prejudice from hearing news reports of young black and Hispanic males waging wars on big-city streets and from watching movies and TV programs that consistently portrayed minority males as pimps, drug dealers, shiftless alcoholics, crack addicts, gangbangers, wife beaters, cop killers, and convicts.
My solution to purging my prejudice was to meet and talk to as many successful and educated black and brown men as I could. I sought them as mentors for my students. I befriended them in the school lunchroom and during community activities—not simply as research subjects but as human beings. After several weeks I knew I had made some significant progress in minimizing my racial prejudices when I met a black man I didn't like at all. Disliking that man was pivotal in my rehabilitation. Prior to that meeting, I would have felt compelled to like him or to act as though I did, in order not to appear to be prejudiced.
After nearly twenty years of ongoing self-treatment, I feel free to like or dislike anybody I meet, of any skin color or ethnic background, based on the way that person treats me—and especially the way that person treats children and dogs. I don't pretend there is no violence in the world. I try to keep my distance from anybody of any color who appears to be drunk, stoned, sociopathic, or potentially dangerous. But I don't expect any particular person to be violent simply because of his or her ethnic origin. And I have learned to cope with students who have prejudices toward me, such as the young man who strutted into my sophomore English class one day and announced as he passed by, without making eye contact, that he didn't like white people.
"I can't help it if I glow in the dark," I told him. "I was born that way, and I can't do anything about it. If you're going to dislike me for something, please dislike me for something that I am directly responsible for, something I can control, such as my attitude, my politics, or my behavior. Why don't you cut me some slack until you get to know me? And I will do the same for you. I will decide whether or not I like you based on the way you act, not on your skin color."
My prejudiced pal just shrugged and pretended to ignore me, but he must have listened—although he rarely spoke to me and clearly did not feel any affection toward me. At the end of his second year as my student, he wrote in his journal that the most important thing he had learned in school that year was that "not all white people are bad." I considered that a high compliment from him. But even more important, I knew that he could no longer be 100 percent prejudiced because he had met at least one exception to his rule. He inspired me to try to introduce other students to their own exceptions.
We all know that students tend to meet their teachers' expectations—high or low. So unless we have good reason to believe that a particular student is prone to violent behavior, we must expect the best from all of our students. And we must eradicate our irrational fears because we can't successfully teach children when we are afraid of them.
One final note: after my talk with Dante, I suggested that he read an essay by Brent Staples called "Night Walker," in which Staples describes how he has learned to control the rage he feels when people obviously fear him simply for his skin color alone. To defuse potential confrontations, Staples whistles well-known classical tunes to let people know he isn't a mugger—his "equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they are in bear country." (This essay was originally published in Ms. magazine as "Just Walk on By," and was reprinted elsewhere under different titles. It can be found in a number of essay anthologies.) Although reading an essay doesn't solve the problem, it does provide an articulate, intelligent response that may help young minority males (and females) cope with a diffi-
New teachers often ask, "How do I make students respect me, when they walk into the room determined to disrespect me before they even meet me?" Clearly, you cannot make anybody respect you. You can demand respect all you want, but you can't force it. Children already understand this concept, so they aren't simply being stubborn when they resist your demands for respect. They are insulted by your demands because you clearly don't think they are intelligent enough to understand the dynamics of your interactions with them. Thus, the harder you try to force them to respect you, the more insulted they will be, and the more they will disrespect you.
Sometimes we find ourselves with an entire room full of disrespectful students. And some teachers draw the battle lines. They become more strict, establishing rigid rules and inflexible procedures. They allow students to draw them into the teacher-versus-student battle that so many young people enjoy because it is entertaining, easier than doing lessons, and most important, because they already know how to act disrespectful. They are very good at it, and they will get even better if you disrespect them in return. I know from experience how frustrating it is to try to continue modeling respectful behavior when students greet your efforts with disdain, defiance, disrespect, or complete disregard. And I know how tempting it is to let the children manipulate you into responding as they expect you to. But if you can resist, if you can continue to respect them as human beings, separating the child from the childish behavior, eventually most of them will realize that you are sincere, that you do respect them as people—and it is extremely difficult to go on hating somebody who truly respects and cares for you.
Here's how I approach the issue of respect. I explain to my students on the first day in class that the one thing I value more than any other behavior is self-respect. I explain that I believe lack of respect for others stems from a lack of self-respect, so I will be working to help them develop self-respect, self-discipline, self-esteem, and self-confidence. Then I do my utmost to live up to my own high expectations. When a student disrespects me, I call the student out in the hallway to talk to me, but I still speak respectfully to that student. (On those infrequent occasions when the student has managed to push enough buttons to make me so angry that I can't speak respectfully, I either leave the student standing outside the room until I can gain control, call for security to escort the student to the office, or ask a fellow teacher or counselor to take my class for a few minutes while I take a walk to calm down.)
Some students may not know how to respond to genuine respect because they have never encountered it before. You may have to continue being respectful for a very long time (sometimes an entire year) until they realize that you aren't pretending. They may be suspicious of your good intentions. One boy told me that when he acted belligerent and I continued to address him respectfully, he assumed my plan was to trick him somehow.
"I figured something was up, you know," he told me later. "I'm like, she's slick, but what's she got up her sleeve? Ain't nobody gonna be that nice unless they want something from you. I finally figured out you was trying to show me how to act right. Do the right thing, man."
You don't have to like a student in order to treat him or her with respect. I'm sure you work with adults you don't particularly like, but you don't actively disrespect them, especially in front of your peers. Also, I think it's important to accept that not all students may like you. That is fine. Students don't have to like you, just as they don't have to like each other. They can still learn the information you teach. And they need to learn to conduct themselves with self-respect so that they can learn to be successful students who enjoy positive relationships with other people in their personal and professional lives.
After observing both successful and struggling teachers, I have a theory about why some adults have trouble eliciting respect from students, even when those adults honestly believe they respect their students. When a teacher approaches from a standpoint of wanting to reform, shape up, or save students, those students sense that the teacher is condescending. They know that the teacher feels superior to them, and they resent the teacher's attitude, even though the teacher truly wants to help them. Imagine that another adult approached you and said, "You are such a mess. You make stupid choices; you waste your time and talents; and your values and ethics are inferior to mine. But I can show you how to be more like me so that you can be a better person. I can help you, if you will only listen to me."
How would you feel if somebody said those things to you, even if the person were more accomplished and successful than you are? I don't think you would be receptive, because you would be thinking, What right does this person have to speak to me this way? Your emotions would block your intellect, and no real communication of information could occur. Instead, your attention would be focused on trying to assert your own strength, control your anger, express your anger, or return the insult.
If we want students to respect us, we must respect them as human beings deserving of basic human dignity. We must accept that they may have different values and lifestyles and that they may have made choices that we would never have made. But they are young, uneducated, and inexperienced (even if they are streetwise). We can't expect them to make logical, mature, and intelligent decisions unless adults have taught them how to think and provided them with role models who exhibit mature and intelligent behavior. Here's your chance to provide that role model. Instead of wasting their time by criticizing and belittling students for joining gangs, taking drugs, having rampant unsafe sex, and cheating on assignments, you will be much more likely to earn their respect if you ask them why they have made the choices they have made—and listen to their answers. If they ask for your advice, feel free to give it. Otherwise, keep asking questions until they learn to question their own choices and behaviors. You can't save your students from themselves. But teach them to think, to solve problems, to analyze choices, to be successful people, and they will save themselves.
As you consider how you are going to demonstrate your respect for your students as human beings, please take a moment to recall your own childhood teachers. I would bet my gigantic teacher's salary that you are not thinking of algebraic formulas or prepositional phrases. More likely, you remember a compliment that sent your spirits soaring or a humiliation that still makes your cheeks burn. I remember my own second-grade teacher using masking tape to attach my glasses to my face because I kept taking them off when other kids teased me about wearing them. The teacher said she meant to teach me to keep my glasses on my face and stop acting silly, but what she taught me was how embarrassing and infuriating it is to be helpless under the control of an authority figure who misuses her power. After that day I left my glasses at home and refused to wear them to school ever again. I squinted in school every year until my high school graduation. I still remember that second-grade teacher, but I also remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hodak, who encouraged me to write and appointed me to the glorious position of class newspaper editor. When I acted silly, Mrs. Hodak would look at me over the top of her glasses and wait for me to come to my senses and settle down. Then she would hug me. Mrs. Hodak taught me to think about my behavior. She taught me to challenge myself and follow my dreams. She taught me the true meaning of respect, and I will love her until the day I die.
GRADES: PERCENTAGE? CURVE? COIN TOSS?
How will you use grades in your classroom: to provide incentives, to record progress, to evaluate your teaching, to punish daydreamers and procrastinators—or all four? I opt to use only the first three because when teachers use bad grades or deduct points as punishment, they contribute to the cycle of misbehavior and failure that undermines our school system. I believe grades should measure how well students have learned the material and skills, and their grades indicate how well I have presented the lessons and motivated my students. A grade book filled with Ds and Fs is a warning flag that I am not doing my job well.
Every teacher must create a grading policy that reflects his or her own standards and ethics, but the most effective teachers maintain high standards, a flexible attitude, and a constant focus on fairness. Effective teachers keep students informed of their progress at frequent intervals, to avoid surprises and complaints. Your school may use a pass/fail option, straight percentages, or a letter-grade system. Your department may add its own criteria, 95 percent required for an A, for example. But it will be up to you to assign the grades. Even a subject such as math, which is more objective than most, leaves room for subjectivity in grading. Will you give credit only for correct answers on homework, or will you allow credit for student papers that have incorrect answers but indicate considerable effort or basic understanding of important concepts? If a student has perfect attendance, completes her homework faithfully, cooperates during class but suffers from test anxiety that makes her fail every major exam, what grade will you assign her? Will you go strictly by percentage, even though it doesn't accurately represent her ability? Will you assign less weight to her exam scores? Perhaps you'll arrange an
alternative testing program for her, allowing her to take her exams after school or with a trusted counselor in attendance.
What about your underachiever? If a student is clearly capable of earning an A without studying, but he decides to read comic books in the back of your classroom whenever he can and rarely bothers to complete a homework assignment, will you give him an A when he aces the midterm and final exams? Will your grade reflect his academic ability and natural intelligence, or will you consider his poor work ethic and laziness?
Will you grade every single assignment, or will you give full credit on some assignments for students who make a sincere effort to learn a new skill, even if they make a lot of mistakes? Will you allow students who work diligently on every task to earn extra credit that may raise their grade a notch to reflect their hard work, enthusiasm, and persistence? Will you start all students at ground zero and then make it as difficult as you can for them to work their way up to an A? Will you just start assigning work and figure out how to grade students after you see what they can do? Will you start all students with an A and work hard to help them keep it?
Because they believe we need to raise the bar, some teachers blast their classes with impossible workloads from the second the school year begins. And some teachers boast that "Nobody earns an A in my class because I'm too darned tough." My question to such teachers is: What would motivate a student to try hard if he or she knows in advance that an A is impossible to achieve in your class?
The real question every teacher must answer is not so much "What grade does a student deserve?" as it is "What do you want your students to learn?" Of course, you must grade major exams according to your district policy. But although grading every assignment strictly by percentage teaches students that they must achieve whatever standards are set for them in a particular situation, it also may teach them that academic ability is more important than social skills, respect for other people, enthusiasm, a willingness to tackle challenges, and the ability to learn from mistakes.
At the end of the school year, you may wonder whether your grades accurately reflect and reward your students' efforts. You won't be the only teacher wondering. That's why so many teachers ask students to grade themselves or to write a paragraph or an essay arguing for their grades. I've used a variation of that assignment with great success. My students enjoy it, and I learn as much about my teaching as I do about their learning. I call my self-grading assignment "A Different Perspective."
I first read aloud to my students from the book, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf (as told to Jon Scieszka). The illustrated book, which takes about five minutes to read, tells the story from the wolf's point of view: suffering from a bad cold, he accidentally sneezed down the pigs' houses while trying to borrow a cup of sugar so that he could bake a birthday cake for his grandmother.
Next I assign the students the task of writing letters to themselves—from me. In their letters they must imagine that they are seeing themselves from my perspective as they describe their behavior and evaluate their performance in my classroom. They must assign themselves the grade that they believe I would assign, and they must justify that grade.
Sometimes students find the assignment confusing and need help getting started. I write a few example beginnings on the board: "Dear Joey, It's been a distinct pleasure having you as a student. You are too wonderful for words"; "Dear Patrice: Wake up and smell your tennis shoes before it's too late!" and so on.
One or two jokers usually write silly letters, but most students take the assignment to heart. They are honest and more critical than I would be. Sometimes a student who has an A in my book assigns himself a lower grade because he really didn't try his hardest. Other times I realize that a student spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort at home as well as in my classroom. I rarely lower a grade after reading the letters, but I sometimes raise one. In addition to letting me see whether my grades are on target, the letters give me insight into my own performance in the classroom. They let me know that I spend too much time on one area and not enough on another or that I divided my attention unfairly between boys and girls. Those student letters remind me that I must work to earn my own A.
One final note about grading. If you teach subjects that involve abstract principles or concepts, such as ethics, economics, or algebra (especially algebra), be aware that some students may have problems because of their individual rates of development. There is a point in every child's development when the brain makes the switch from concrete to abstract thinking. This switch has nothing to do with intelligence. Conscientious, industrious students who are used to succeeding in school often become frustrated when they cannot grasp new concepts; and you may think they aren't trying, because they usually earn high grades. For example, when we study symbolism in literature, many bright students understand the definition of symbolism and the examples I give them to illustrate the technique, but they cannot create their own examples for an exam. Instead of deducting points from those students' papers, I give them credit if they can define the concept and remember some of my examples. My hope is that later on, when they are able to understand, they will recall those examples and use them as a model for creating their own.
COVERING CURRICULUM IS NOT TEACHING
If you are a master organizer with a creative flair and the ability to teach advanced, regular, and remedial students, undeterred by myriad distractions and interruptions, then you probably have no trouble covering all of the curriculum required for your subject or course. If you don't spend a minute worrying about how you're going to fit everything you want to teach into one school year, then you're an uncommonly talented teacher who should skip this section. The rest of us worry,
because it's common for teachers, especially new teachers, to fear that they can't teach everything they need to teach because there is too much material, too much paper shuffling, too many energy-consuming administrative tasks, and not enough time. Instead of sharing this fear and discussing ways to become more effective teachers, most of us worry privately and fear that our colleagues will think we're ineffective or unqualified if we admit that we sometimes feel inadequate to the task of teaching all the required skills and information for our courses.
The question every teacher must face is this: Given a conflict, where does my priority lie—in covering the curriculum material and preparing for tests or in meeting my students' needs? It's easy to err in either direction. Some teachers take the district guidelines to heart and race their way through the required textbooks and activities, leaving those students who can't learn fast enough trailing behind the pack. Unfortunately, sometimes an entire class ends up falling behind, and the teacher is the only one who really understands the material when it's time for final exams. Other teachers bend to the pressure from above and spend all their class time teaching a specific test. Their students may learn how to take that specific test, and the school district may look good on paper; but I believe those students could be better served if they learned how to think and read and write well, which would prepare them to succeed in college or at work, in addition to preparing them to pass any exam. Still other teachers turn giddy from the pressure to perform or pay the price (not being offered a contract or granted tenure, for example), so they toss aside the textbooks and spend their entire class periods chatting with students about current events or designing fun projects that take weeks to complete, leaving their students unprepared for the following year's requirements.
It is possible, although not easy, to find a middle ground. My district supervisor gave me a big boost in the right direction when she explained her viewpoint at a meeting of our teaching team. Working together, we four teachers had the task of teaching fifty at-risk teens, students who had severe attendance problems, substandard reading ability, and apathetic attitudes toward education.
"Covering curriculum is not teaching," our supervisor explained. "Nobody expects you to address the problems these kids have, bring them up to grade level, and cover your entire textbooks in one year. I advise you to select the key elements in your texts and teach those elements well. Don't worry about covering every single thing; just teach the most important concepts and skills, and teach your students how to learn so they can pick up the slack." We took her advice and were amazed at how well it worked. Instead of dividing our textbooks into segments and arbitrarily deciding how long each new skill should take to master, we made a list of what we wanted to teach and started with the most important and basic skills. For example, our math teacher had to back up and reteach the number line and negative and positive numbers. We were a little nervous at first, but when our students realized that we would slow down as they needed in order to spend time on areas of special interest, they repaid us by working harder at the mundane tasks in between. Our students performed as well as the "regular" students in English, history, and computer courses; and our math students zoomed right past the regular geometry classes, earning higher grades and completing more of the same textbook!
Those students reminded us of a lesson we sometimes forget: children are capable of learning much more than we require during a given school year. If we slow down or back up to fill in the gaps in their knowledge base and if they are confident that we have their best interests at heart, they will accelerate their learning and accomplish goals far beyond any we set for them.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A CASUAL REMARK TO A CHILD
Sometimes I think we forget how impressionable children are (even older children). We forget how excruciating the smallest pain can be, how exhilarating the tiniest victory, and how lasting the effect of a comment from an adult they admire. One day before class started, a group of football players were boasting about their latest gridiron glories. I noticed another boy, Sean Campbell, blush and fidget as he watched the athletes trade playful insults in front of a group of admiring girls and boys. A skinny youngster, all elbows and knees, Sean often dropped things or tripped over his shoelaces. When one of the ball players complimented himself on a sixty-five yard touchdown, Sean sighed and looked out the window. I walked around the room until I stood near Sean's desk.
"I'm very proud of you, Paul," I told the touchdown scorer. "But I hope you go on to achieve great things after school too. I'd hate for you to be one of those people who peak at age sixteen, whose lives are all downhill after high school."
"I'm cool," Paul responded with a grin. "You know the scouts are already looking at me."
I was looking at Sean, who was looking at Paul.
"You're going to be one of those men who peak much later in life," I said softly to Sean.
"Yeah, I was thinking that," Sean said. His cheeks flushed bright red, but he sat up straighter and stopped staring wistfully at Paul and his entourage. Pleased that I had boosted Sean's self-esteem, I took the scenic route as I strolled back to my desk.
In the far corner of the room, as I passed by the desk of an extremely shy girl named Marcy Bryant, I stopped and smiled at her. "You too," I said. "I think you're going to be a late bloomer, but you're going to be a big, beautiful flower."
Marcy folded into herself and hid her face as she did whenever anybody looked at her. Not wanting to embarrass her further, I quickly made some chitchat with other students and returned to the front of the room.
I forgot all about the incident until a few months later, at open house. Toward the end of the event, Sean's mother walked into my room and introduced herself. As I reached out to shake hands with her, she took my right hand with both her hands. She squeezed my hand and held on.
"I wanted to thank you for what you said to Sean," she said. "He said you told him you knew he was going to peak late in life and he shouldn't worry about not being the best athlete or the most popular right now. You should have seen him smile when he told me. And he has been a different person ever since. You changed his life. I can't thank you enough."
I was so stunned at Mrs. Campbell's remarks that I just stood there, grinning stupidly at her until she left the room. I had completely forgotten about that day, but Sean had remembered. I floated through the rest of the evening on a little cloud of happiness. One incident like that can keep a teacher motivated for months. But just as I was ready to turn out the lights and lock the door, Marcy's mother peeked around the door frame.
"Am I too late to say hello?" she asked. Some children work hard to be different from their parents, but Marcy was definitely her mother's daughter. I welcomed Mrs. Bryant into my room and motioned for her to sit down in one of the student desks for a chat.
"Oh, I don't want to take up your time," Mrs. Bryant said. She held her purse tightly with both hands, and I had the impression that she was resisting the temptation to hold the purse up in front of her face to hide behind it.
"I just wanted to thank you," she said. "Marcy told me you said she was a late bloomer but that she is going to be a beautiful flower someday. She cried when she told me. We both did. She used to be worried about what would happen to her when she grew up, but she doesn't worry any more. Now she's a happy child."
I didn't say anything because I knew I would cry if I opened my mouth. I
just nodded and smiled at Mrs. Bryant as she ducked her head and slipped out the door.
After Sean's mother had talked to me, I admit I was feeling a little proud of myself. But after Marcy's mother left, I felt a little frightened. Two students believed that one ten-second forgotten conversation had changed their lives. If that was true, then what about all the other conversations I couldn't remember? Had I said anything that negatively affected children as strongly as those positive comments had? I tried to remember whether I had said anything harsh the last time I had run out of patience or had been frustrated by too much talking or pencil sharpening or giggling or note writing during class. I couldn't think of any negative comments I may have made, but then I had forgotten the late-bloomer comments too.
Before I turned off the lights and locked the door to my classroom that night, I wrote a note on an index card and taped it to the top of my desk as a reminder. My note read:
Be careful. Everything you say, every single day, may be recorded in your students' hearts forever.