Killing My Own Snakes

When I was hired to teach at Southeastern in May, 1979, the Academic Dean at the time gave me only two pieces of advice: “Make your own way,” and “Kill your own snakes.”-Steven Fettke

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I received, from two different teachers in two different years (student teaching, first year), was that a new teacher had to know what “quiet” is.  If kids wouldn’t shut up, then kick them out until finally, the teacher experiences….silence. Without that baseline, a new teacher has no gauge to assess the ambient classroom noise.

I began teaching as a better than average classroom manager, and somewhat shrugged this wisdom off until I got the advice the second time after five particularly troublesome geometry students wouldn’t shut up during an entire lesson. So the next day, I warned them once and then tossed one then another off to the office. After two were gone, the other three realized I was serious and shut up, after growling a bit about unfairness. Turning back to the board, I suddenly heard…..silence. Utter, attentive, silence. And from that point on, I knew what silence was, and what to expect when I demanded it.

As a mentor, I always advise new teachers to err on the side of excess with disruptive students. If they have an entire class out of control, ask for help. If they have a few students misbehaving, toss them out after a warning. Screw fair. Get silence. Know what it sounds like.

New teachers are often fearful of  sending students out. They worry that administrators will judge them. They’re right to worry. Administrators often notice. At my last job, the volume of my referrals was  a constant source of tension.  In really poorly managed schools, the admins refuse to accept students and send them back. (Note: leave that school.)

This is where mentors come in. Mentors can, and should, give balance to new teachers. My induction mentor’s support and acknowledgement of my unimaginably disruptive students finally forced administrators to take action. If the teacher is weak, by all means help shore up the crumbles. But in the meantime, encourage the teacher to boot students who disrupt teaching time. I get impatient with people who bleat that removing kids from the class is depriving them of education. All students deserve an education. Students who are determined to prevent that can step outside.

In my experience, novice teachers stuck with unusually unruly students will improve their management skills if given the opportunity to remove the disruptors. As time goes on, these teachers will improve their handling of rambunctious students. Part of that improvement involves knowing what silence sounds like.

So new teachers should not try to kill all their snakes, particularly given the likelihood that they’ll have the toughest students.

I assume most teachers kill their own snakes after the first few years. But I’m often amazed at what senior teachers will tolerate. Sample statements, followed by my (usually unspoken) response.

“I’m teaching an Algebra 10-12 class, and the kids start packing up their stuff with fifteen minutes to the bell. Does that ever happen to you? What do you do to prevent that?”

I tell them to unpack their damn books and get back to work. Right now. And if they don’t start moving right away, oh my goodness, pop quiz.

“I’ve been having so much trouble with kids using cell phones constantly in class, not paying attention at all. What do you do?”

I take their damn cellphones away, giving myself extra points if I can swipe it from under their nose without signaling intent. Students who can’t keep off their phones lose them until the end of the day instead of the end of class. And they don’t dare complain, because I can always hand it over to the administrators, whose penalties are far more stringent.

“I have these two kids who constantly talk to each other, but when I try to separate them, they insist on sitting together. It’s so frustrating.”

Why the hell do you give them a choice? Tell them where to sit. In fact, tell everyone where to sit.

“I tell the kids not to bring food to the class, but what do you do when they’ve just bought lunch?”

You take the lunch away and tell them they can enjoy it cold later.

“I’ve tried taking away phones/telling them where to sit/taking their lunch but they refuse to give it over, and I don’t know what to do.”

You call and have them removed from the class.

“What? For something so minor?”

Listen well, little teachlings. Defiance of a teacher is not minor. It’s one of the few snakes that even experienced teachers should hand off to an administrator if they can’t convince the student to comply. Give the kid a chance to walk back. Offer alternatives. Draw a line, though, and if the line gets crossed, have the kid removed for the day.

And of course, logistics get in the way sometimes. More than once, I’ve picked up the phone to call for a supervisor to come take a defiant kid away–and no one answers the damn phone. So I have to call another number. Sometimes no one answers. All that drama and then….man, turning back around to face the class really sucks.

But well over half the time, simply picking up the phone has results, and the defiant one says something like “Well, you want me to give up my lunch AND my drink! No way!” and I say quickly, “No. Just the lunch. I insist on the lunch!” which leads to “Oh, I thought you wanted my drink, too. OK, have my lunch. BUT I KEEP MY DRINK!”

Other times,  the troublesome kid smirks. “Ha, ha, you can’t catch me, copper!” Shrug. Just shrug. And then later, call again, after the smirker has forgotten all about it, and have him pulled from the room, protesting. Don’t gloat. Just go on with the lesson like this is no big deal.

 

So you might be reading all this saying, wow, Ed’s a tyrant. Which is hysterical, because I’m one of the loosest teachers you’ll ever run into. Remember, I don’t assign homework. My kids sit in groups. I have a non-existent detention rate, the lowest in the school. I rarely give an F grade.  To my considerable pride, I’ve gotten the coolest of the Student Nominations three years running (best story teller, most unpredictable, most dramatic).  My classes are noisy and boisterous affairs. In many ways, my classroom environment is a progressive’s dream, the kind of place that Ed Boland dreamed of having before he realized he hated students.

I have five rules, handwritten seven years ago on still bright yellow poster paper. Students should avoid:

  1. arguing with the ref (me)
  2. eating, drinking, or grooming
  3. setting objects airborne
  4. travelling without consent
  5. incessant yammering

But bottom line, do what I tell you.  My lines are very clearly marked, albeit occasionally negotiable. Just pay close attention to when I say “when”. As  I tell my kids every year at syllabus time: in order for “all this”–school, teaching, classroom environment–to work, I have to be in charge. Students have to obey my direct orders.

I realize that many teachers feel that schools already exert a great deal of control over student lives. They feel that rules about eating, phones, and seating are an unfair imposition. These same teachers often feel that “consequences” must be “deserved”, that their restrictions on those who have made bad choices, are somehow more reasonable.

Shrug. I’m not saying there’s only one way. Other teachers can make their own choices. Me, I avoid morality plays. I don’t talk about what students deserve or earn, simply about what helps me teach and others learn.  I handle even cheating as a pragmatic issue, not a value judgment.

From students’ perspective, their least  favorite of my management techniques is  my yelling, specifically  calling out or putting a student on blast.  They prefer teachers who rebuke quietly and in private. But they also agree that when you aren’t being the one called out, it’s fun to watch me rant.

As I invariably mention when going through the syllabus, the only action a student can take to earn a permanent black mark is deliberate cruelty to another student. I will punish that and I’m much better at being mean.

Note that I prohibit being mean to other students.  Nowhere in my rules is it verboten to be mean to me, the teacher.

At least once a year, I (usually inadvertently) get a student furious, and the exchange goes something like this:

Student: “F*** YOU!!!!”

Me, unfussed and occasionally confused: “Sit down.”

Student: “NO!!! You F******* *****! F*** YOU!! F*** OFF”

Me: “Sit down.”

Student, walking to the door: “NO WAY. EAT SH**. I’m OUT! YOU #*@#W%@#W%!”

Me: “DO NOT WALK OUT THAT DOOR!”

Student: “WHY NOT?”

Me: “BECAUSE UP TO NOW, YOU HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING WRONG!”

This usually stops the student for a minute or so, giving me a chance to calm things down. In every case, after a brief talk with a fascinated class watching on, the student sits back down and everyone gets back to work. Show’s over.

Which is not to say I let students take nasty potshots at me. Like I said, I’m much better at being mean than your average adolescent. But I don’t demand respectful behavior, and don’t get upset at rudeness.  This will not come as a shock to people who know me online.

Look. Teaching is very much an expression of personality.  Mine is a teacher-centered classroom. But nowhere is it written that teacher-centered classrooms must be ruthlessly controlled environments of churchlike stillness.  My classroom is, like me, loud and often disorderly, friendly, sarcastic. It sometimes changes on a dime. But its purpose is always there, driving things along, moving everyone forward.

New teachers: does your classroom environment reflect your personality, your values? Experienced teachers: are you setting rules that matter? Are you sure?

 

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6 responses to “Killing My Own Snakes

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