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Taming the Three T's

Voice of ExperienceThe anonymous quote Hold a tight rein over the three T's -- thought, temper and tongue -- and you will have few regrets got Max Fischer thinking about what happens when teachers let go of their control of any of the three.

Max W. Fischer
A few years back, then NBA superstar Charles Barkley made media waves by denouncing the notion that he might be a role model for young people. After several brushes with the law, Barkley made no apology. He also refused to accept responsibility for his history of candid interviews laced with profanity, a lead many young fans might follow.

On the other hand, here I am. As a lifelong educator devoid of any hints of celebrity status, I cannot possibly cop such an apathetic plea. I am charged with exemplifying the noblest ideals.


I'm reminded of an anonymous quote: Hold a tight rein over the three Ts -- thought, temper and tongue -- and you will have few regrets. Although that quote might provide guidance to people in most realms of life -- even NBA basketball players -- it is especially critical in my chosen field. On a few occasions in my teaching career, I have endured hits to my professional credibility due to my inability to master one or another of those three Ts.

It has been well documented that students behave or produce in proportion to their teachers' expectations for them. Teacher thoughts or expectations based upon students' socio-economic or family background, physical appearance, past performance, use of English, or personality correlate heavily with students' abilities to succeed -- or fail -- in school.

Since the early 70s, the Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement (TESA) program has been training teachers in the subtle nuances that can impact student learning. Whether I am giving conscious thought to allowing an extra measure of "wait" time after posing a question, posing questions equitably among the demographic scope of my classroom, or offering positive verbal reinforcement for correct responses, TESA has made me -- and thousands of other teachers -- more sensitive to the value of each child in a classroom.

A recent study drives home the TESA message with the power of a 20-pound sledgehammer. Driven to Succeed, a study from the University of Texas, highlighted seven urban, high-poverty middle schools that spectacularly reversed deficient academic standards -- to the point where they now meet or exceed state averages in all academic areas. One of the study's findings was that successful schools have one thing in common: Schools that are driven to succeed hold high expectations for all students.

A similar study by the Council of Chief State School Officers reached the same conclusion about five high-poverty elementary schools.

When I taught at the elementary level, it was inevitable that some sixth-grader -- almost always a boy -- would test the boundaries of my discipline policies in the first few weeks of school. Invariably, I would come down hard on the violator. (If I was lucky, my purposefully bombastic verbal tirade would occur at a moment when the door of the classroom next door was open. Since the door led to a fifth-grade classroom, I hoped the display would discourage similar discipline problems the following year!) Being the first male teacher in the lives of students with stable, supportive family backgrounds made possible the rare use of temper.

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However, when I moved to a middle school that more accurately reflected the socio-economic melting pot of the district, I realized that temper would be more of liability than an asset. For some of those middle schoolers, displays of rage were a routine occurrence at home. Some of those students, I was convinced, actually lived to ignite instructors, considering it a bizarre form of entertainment -- one that constituted a form of mind control.

Teaching is an intensely interpersonal profession. Only a saint never displays a fit of temper. However, let's face it, when teachers lose their cool in the classroom, they have lost a semblance of control. A teacher risks much when inner rage boils over. Not only might they do permanent damage to the student/teacher relationship, they might also skew the dynamics of the entire classroom for some time to come. Repeated offenses of fury probably will place the instructor in a difficult position with parents and administrators.

Experience has taught me that the critical elements to gaining control over my temper lie in knowing myself and my students. On those days when I might be edgy or frustrated by things that have nothing to do with my students -- an unexpected car repair, an argument with my own offspring, one more unwanted meeting -- an internal warning signal goes off: Go easy on the intensity level today, Fischer. On those days, I must be keenly aware of controlling my mood.

Similarly, students carry baggage into the classroom. A personal consultation with a noticeably irritable student at the earliest convenient moment -- immediately, if possible --might be required to diffuse the turmoil that threatens to erupt. More importantly, knowledge of a student's life experiences and background helps any teacher better understand the individual pupil's point of reference.

If, despite my best efforts, my temper does get the best of me, I've found it best to discuss the issue with the student after emotions have cooled, but before the end of the day. With emotions on a more even keel, a meaningful discussion of the underlying issues for the flare-up can be undertaken.

"The next time anyone acts up, I'm getting two large men to hang each of you by your thumbs." From parental reports to the building principal, this off-hand comment by a substitute music teacher filled members of a second-grade class with absolute dread; they believed the substitute could fulfill his threat.

Whether it is an intimidating comment at the elementary level or sarcastic musings at the middle or high school level, a teacher always must be careful of his or her words. When respect is expected from students, any verbalization of disrespect toward them by a teacher confounds the ultimate relationship between them. It demeans the mutual trust among humans, a trust that is always of paramount importance for educators.

The use of profanity by a teacher is probably the most egregious error of the tongue. It denotes a lack of respect and a lack of self-control. It flies in the face of acceptable social behavior and can never be condoned. It can be grounds for disciplinary action.

My best defense against "foot-in-mouth" disease is my brain. I try to always consider my audience before making a peevish comment. What ramifications will reverberate after the words have left my mouth? I have found that it is better to take a few seconds to thoughtfully consider my next remarks than to spend days afterwards explaining them.

A teacher's comments and moods might not incur the same publicity as those of celebrities such as Charles Barkley but, be assured, after parents, no one holds more sway over children than a classroom teacher. We are role models for our students. For some children, we will be the best character models they will ever have. For no other reason than that, we owe it to them to avoid the perils of limited expectations and unregulated temper and tongue. Noted educator, Haim Ginott said it best:

"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized."

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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Updated 03/28/2006