For three years, between 1992 and 1995, I wrote a monthly column for the TFA-Houston newsletter. I’ve been recently digging them up and posting them here. Parts of these essays have appeared in my two books, but the ‘director’s’ cut of these writings haven’t been seen in fifteen years. This particular essay is about how gimmicks don’t work when trying to win over a class. Back then TFA hadn’t even started promoting their ‘investment’ strategy, which to me is just another gimmick. I like the point of this essay, even all these years later.
Teachers fondly call the beginning of the school year ‘The Honeymoon Period’. As the name suggests, most teachers experience something that parallells the blissful days shared by a newlywed couple, still enthralled with the novelty of their new arrangement. It’s also the time they’re most likely to get screwed. A teacher’s Honeymoon begins the first minute of the school year, and officially ends the moment that teacher, attempting to silence the class, utters the phrase, “Come on guys.” My first Honeymoon could most accurately be described as a ‘Honeymoon Period’ since in middle school, a period is about how long it lasts.
Teachers have trouble accurately describing their first year. They remember that it was ‘bad’, but aside from fifteen minutes of specific horror stories, that’s all they can say. Fifteen minutes, however, are almost negligable considering that the school year consists of forty-nine thousand four hundred eighty-five other minutes. The true flavor of the first year misery can only be appreciated by examining one of those average minutes of chaos. A typical moment of my first year has been preserved on one sheet of loose leaf paper that I confiscated durring a lesson on decimal division.
Aracely was too busy to talk. Taking notes at a furious pace, it was as if she were writing down every word I said. She was. Here’s what she wrote
“O.K. well Amber pay attention then you don’t have to move it add zeros if needed wait let me get the eraser have you seen the eraser oh here it is quiet quiet Erica Jaime quiet Jaime quiet O.K. these are very very easy O.K. lets go over these examples Jaime you say that Jaime enough of that when we watch the T.V. youre going to be sent to Harper’s room that’s it that is the answer don’t write on this keep your mouth shut then Julio number three lets talk about Julio the guys quiet Jaime three”
Around the time of Aracely’s transcript, I re-evaluated my situation. To preserve my sanity, I knew, I would need to quiet my classes. My original theory was that if kids were learning, they would cooperate with their teacher. Unfortunately, they weren’t learning, so I never got to test that theory. My principal suggested that I watch some experienced teachers at a nearby school. Although I didn’t learn how to become a better teacher there, I did learn something just as practical in my quest for tranquility: A teacher doesn’t have to be good to get silence. Abandoning my ideals, I placed quiet as my only objective. Although I understood my decision was necessary, I was still embarrassed by such resignation. So shamed, I even had trouble looking in the mirror.
While observing, I realized that there are three things that will motivate kids to be quiet: Fear, admiration, and respect. If I could just learn to evoke fear or admiration in my students, without needing to earn their respect as a teacher, I could achieve my newly defined goal.
By developing my body, I could scare them into behaving. At five foot eleven and one hundred forty pounds (one thirty-two without my glasses), I was not very intimidating. So I joined a gym, where I spent my evenings pressing on the bench and curling free weights. Most helpful, however, were my sessions on the gym’s punching bag. Besides toning my muscles, this activity was a good stress reliever. This worked well until, after a particularly aggravating day, I brought some art supplies, and painted curly hair and braces on the bag. While pummeling it, I began screaming uncontrollably, “Now will you shut up, Alex? How about now?”
Banned from the gym, I decided to abandon fear, and work on admiration. By making myself more attractive, I could charm the girls into behaving. In response, the boys might begin to admire me as some kind of a stud-like role model. I spent my evenings pressing my clothes and curling my hair. It would be a lie to say that my clothes were out of style, for that would imply that they had once been in style. Unable to afford a new wardrobe, I utilized what I had, making special efforts to color coordinate my socks with my underarm stains.
With no option left, I reluctantly decided to win their respect by improving my teaching skills. This, I knew, would require an intensive program of classical Pavlovian conditioning. The proper use of behavioral tools like positive reinforcement and punishment were crucial to my success. Our roles would be reversed, however, as it was my class that would be training me. By rewarding me with silence when I was teaching well, and by punishing me with noise when I wasn’t, my class systematically molded me into a better teacher.
Since I started teaching, three years ago, there has been little change in my appearance. Sure, there were a few hairs that sensed trouble early that first semester and decided to abandon the ship rather than go down with it. But other than that, I look exactly the same. The respect and responsiveness that my classes exhibit each day must, then, indicate that I’ve improved as a teacher. And although I still have trouble looking in the mirror, it’s no longer because I’ve abandoned my ideals.