At a Loss

There are some times in my classroom that I am positively at a loss, that I am standing there, looking at what just happened, listening to what’s being said, watching what’s going on, and I find myself wondering, “What in the world do I do about this?” I’ve been in the classroom for almost twenty years now, and I’ve come to realize that I will always — always — have these moments.

Last week, for example, in order to load a document I wanted the students to view on the projector, I turned my back on my most challenging class — challenging in that they are, by and large, not motivated and therefore not inclined to behave in a manner that produces the most efficient use of our limited class time — and in the few seconds that I had my back turned, this happened.

This, in fact, is a photo after I kicked some of the papers into a more consolidated pile.

Apparently, in a matter of seconds, a boy who sits in the back of the room stood up, ran to the front of the room, grabbed a girl’s binder, ran back to the back of the room, and emptied its contents on the floor with the girl in heated pursuit. This girl is not very popular, and she has a habit of antagonizing everyone around her and then playing the victim. In this case, though, she was the victim, but that didn’t stop the kids from hooting in approval at the boy’s actions.

I called them down; they stopped after a few seconds; and I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do. I removed them both from the classroom, but that’s hardly a preventative measure for the next time the kid gets an impulse to do something like this. Truth be told, the boy can be more antagonistic and disruptive among his peers as the girl.

These are thirteen-year-old kids. They’re not two or three. Yet their behavior belies their age, because this sort of thing happens so frequently. If it was a one-time occurrence, it would just be a question of youthful hi-jinks, but something similar happens on a regular basis, and I never really know what to do to prevent it.

Body Language

Dear Terrence,

The fact today that you didn’t know your body language was so disrespectful — not to mention your tone — is only mildly surprising. What is more unexpected was the question you asked next, though it shouldn’t have been.

“You’re going to tell me that my body language is disrespectful even when it’s not my intention?”

To begin with, I’m impressed with that construction. That you would use the word “intention” like that — for some reason, it was surprising. Perhaps that’s because of the way you’ve spoken for the rest of the year.

But more surprising was the fact that you didn’t know that body language can be disrespectful without intention. I work hard to teach my own children just such things: there are things you can say and do that, even though you don’t mean disrespect, show disrespect. In the matter of disrespect, especially when dealing with people in positions of authority over you, it’s the question of interpretation that is often more important than the question of intention.

I don’t think you realized what your body was doing, though, because it’s hard to imagine someone sitting as you sat without realizing how much disrespect you were communicating as I spoke to you.

  • First of all, you were slouched down in your chair. This communicates a lack of effort, that you don’t even care to sit up and pay attention. It suggests you’re just enduring the current moment.
  • Next, you had your elbow on the table with your hand resting on a balled fist. A balled fist always suggests aggression. And having your head down like that communicates, “You are so exhausting me with this nonsense…”
  • Most tellingly, your facial expressions exuded disrespect. There was that scowl: eyebrows slanted downward, a frown. Your nostrils flared occasionally as well.
  • There was also your inability (or unwillingness) to make even cursory eye contact. Refusing to look at someone who is talking to you is about as disrespectful as you can get. It’s also a little immature.

I only mentioned your body language, but there were other non-verbal cues that suggested disrespect.

  • Your tone of voice when you mustered an occasional, monosyllabic response was edged with anger and contempt.
  • Your continual tooth sucking — don’t know what else to call it, so I’ll call it what you call it — suggests that you would say something to me but it’s not worth my time. You start to take the breath to speak, then realize I’m not worth it, and open your mouth to let the now-unneeded breath out.

To your credit, when I pointed all this out to you, you began slowly to change. You sat up, you made a bit of eye contact, and you stopped sucking your teeth.

But here’s the big problem: when you do this with me, I take this to be another teaching moment. It’s tiring, that’s for sure: “Here I go again, having to teach kids things they should already know by this age, things that have nothing to do with my subject matter.” But still, though I feel overworked with such issues, I see it as my job. I teach in order to prepare you for the future, and sometimes, interpreting figurative language seems the least significant subject matter for your success. However, you will soon encounter people who are not interested in teaching you these things, not interested in even dealing with it. These people will probably have the ability to make your life very miserable very quickly. I’m talking about bosses, and they’ll fire you in such a situation.

I know that’s meaningless to you. You say things like, “I’ll just get another job.” Unfortunately, getting other job when you’ve lost one is not like getting another pencil from you next teacher when you’ve lost it in the previous class.

I hope we can get this habit of yours under control before you head off to high school (there are teachers there who will treat you like the aforementioned boss), but even if we can’t, I hope we’ll continue making progress.

Your Teacher

My Percentage

Dear Terrence,

classdojo-iconToday you asked me a question that I’ve never heard you ask before: “Mr. S, what’s my Dojo percentage.” You’ve always insisted that Class Dojo is a waste of time and a generally stupid idea, and although I’ve never given up trying to convince you of its value, I never really thought you’d come around and see it for what it is: a powerful tool for monitoring and controlling your behavior. After all, everyone is keeping points on us in their heads for all the good and bad things we do. It’s called a reputation. But at least with Dojo, you get an idea of where your strengths and weaknesses are. Anyway, your question caught me off guard, because I really didn’t know. I had to check. And that was a good thing, because in the past, I could have likely guessed it without looking: “No more than 30%, I’d say.”

You and I have had our issues this year, and at least once you’ve stormed out of class insisting that you have to get your schedule changed because you’re sure I’m out to get you. I assure you, I’m not: your behavior, though, sometimes seems like it is, which is why I think Class Dojo could be such a powerful tool for you. It could help you see your weaknesses (talking out of turn) and help you build on your strengths (helping others).

But you’ve made a turn around — at least your behavior of the last few days indicates that. So I was particularly pleased when I looked down at my phone and saw you were at 83% for the week.

Keep up the good work,
Your Teacher


Dear Terrence,

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it a million times more: nine times out of ten, when you get in trouble, it’s not what you originally did that gets you in trouble but how you react to teacher redirection that causes the issues. Today was no different: had you simply moved when I directed you to, things would have ended right there. Instead, you decided to turn it into a battle of wills. By insisting that I tell you why I wanted you to move, you put yourself on the same level as I, or at least tried, suggesting that my authority depends upon the legitimacy of the instructions I give you. By asking “Why” — and not just asking it, but asking it time after time after every calm repetition of the direction I provided — you suggested to everyone that you might move if you think the instructions were justified, and if you didn’t think they were justified, you would simply refuse. In other words, it was a direct challenge to my authority as a teacher.

After your week of excessive talking, if you didn’t know why I wanted you to move, I would be surprised if you didn’t know why I wanted you to move. The fact that you continually asked “Why?” — and in an increasingly disrespectful tone — suggested to me that you were never going to move anyway. It was a losing battle, and it was sucking time from the class and doing serious damage to the classroom atmosphere, and that’s why I decided to end it then and there by requiring that you get out your school-provided discipline card for me to notate the incident.

“Oh, the card!” you replied sarcastically. “I’m scared! I’m terrified! The card!

And at that moment, young man, you sealed your fate. Previously, you’d simply been disrespecting me and my authority. But mocking the school-wide discipline program, you disrespected the entire school, the entire administration, and the entire teaching staff that came up with a school-wide plan to help you and students like you change some of the damaging behaviors you and students like you so clearly and brazenly exhibit. These are behaviors that will destroy your future if you do not make a serious attempt to change them, and our school discipline plan is intended to help prevent that, to help you see in an on-going basis the negative (and positive) behaviors you’re showing. And so it is not intended to scare or frighten or even punish: it’s intended to help. But you showed that you don’t want help, that you’re set the way you are, that you see a bright future with your behaviors. Ironically, it was that very short-sightedness that we’re trying to help you correct.

Sad because of the disciplinary referral I now have to write,
Your Teacher.

On the Right Foot

Dear Teresa,

I didn’t really know what to do, and so, as all too often happens in such situations, I did nothing. You opened your car door this morning, and I heard an immediate flood of profanity-laden (there was no “profanity-laced” about it — nothing so delicate) screaming from the female driver, presumably your mother. The f-word tumbled out of the car a few times, and the aggression in the woman’s voice was simply amazing. I was about to walk over to the car when the driver must have seen me looking that direction in her rear view mirror, for she suddenly screamed, “Close my God-damned door!” “Thump” went the door, but the screaming was only muffled, not silenced. Finally, the door opened again, you pulled yourself out of the car, and the driver roared off.

I stood there watching you as you knelt down behind a garbage can ostensibly to tie your shoe but clearly an effort to calm yourself. I thought I could see your fingers shaking a little. And I thought of how awful it must be to begin your day like that. And I thought of what might happen if you take all that fear and anger into the school, that you might snap at the nearest teacher and wind up in trouble yourself. No, the abuse you received certainly wouldn’t excuse any such response to an authority figure, but knowing what happened just minutes before would certainly put it in a different perspective for the teacher.

I wonder how many of your days begin like that. I wonder how often you get out of the car hearing someone say, “I love you” instead of “F- you.” I wonder how I would fare if I began each day like that. I try to keep these things in mind when students fly off the handle at me for no apparent reason in the morning. It happens occasionally, but thankfully not often.

When you walked by me this morning, I offered some half-hearted words of sympathy: “Are you alright?” You nodded. “You sure?” More nodding, head down. I wish I’d ask you your name. I wish I’d have followed up with your guidance counselor. I wish I had another chance to make some positive impact on your life.

I’ll keep an eye out for you tomorrow, though, and be sure to give you a smile and introduce myself.

Your Future Teacher (Possibly)

#17 — Evil and Duty

Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.

He stood in the hallway, thinking I don’t really know what. Was he not aware that I’d heard the profanity coming from his mouth? Was he not aware that the profanity, misogynistic and vile. had indeed come from him mouth? Was he bluffing, hoping for some — what?

If I had asked him what possessed him to say those things, to call the female student a b—-, to become enraged, he would probably (indeed, likely, even predictably) justify it.

“She started it.”

“Did you see what she did to me?”

“Nobody’s going to do that to me and get away with it.”

A thousand and one excuses. A million and one reasons why the evil was not evil, but a necessity. A duty.

Adolescent Dhammapada

In “The Childish Person” from the Dhammapada we read:

Childish, unthinking people
go through life as enemies of themselves,
committing detrimental actions
that bear bitter fruit.

Glenn Wallis, in his notes about his translation of the Dhammapada, explains that “childish” in this context as several meanings: “childlike” is certainly relevant, but the Buddha also meant a “person who ambitiously pursues material fortune, being pushed along by an ever-strengthening current of “I, me, mine.” (125) (Other translations render “Bāla-vaggo” simply as “the fool”, but I prefer Wallis’ less vitriolic “the childish person.”)

Later, in “The Practitioner”, we find a similar notion:

Do not carelessly swallow a copper ball and,
burning, cry out, “This is pain!”

All too often, we cause ourselves the pain we’re certain has exterior source. And nowhere is this more evident than the middle school. In that setting, it might sound like this:

Teacher You display your buttons for anyone to see. You don’t hide anything, and so if teachers wanted to pick on you, you make it easy for them. I know exactly what I could say to get you upset, and so I virtually control you.
Student (in a very disrespectful tone) Oh no! No! Let me just tell one thing. You don’t control me. You don’t. Ain’t nobody in the world controls me. I control me.
Teacher I just did it. I got you angry. I just got you to mouth off. A teacher would be justified for writing you up for the tone you used with me. If you were really in complete control of yourself, you would have sat quietly, thinking, “Right. Let me show this joker who’s in charge of me.”