Saturday, August 11, 2012

"Welcome! Now start learning."

Here it is the first day, and the bus ramp and the grounds and the halls are alive again with the roar of teenagers. Just walking through that mob is a surreal experience. In these confined quarters, beginning, for many of us, in predawn darkness, the American Salad is tossed, the Melting Pot stews and simmers, assaulting the nostrils with a cocktail redolent of body spray, perfume, aftershave, bubblegum, with the occasional trace of cigarette (?) smoke; add to that the cacophony of croaking male adolescent voices in various dialects, the delightful squeals of young girls racing to hug someone else they’re happy to see, the squeals modulating into hushed sibilance as they share some sacred secret with a sophomore, the casual and constant airing out of four-lettered obscenities so foul they would bring a blush to a drill sergeant’s face.

They pour through the gates and flood through the halls, some of them quickly transforming their lockers into makeshift make-up counters and make-out stations. Then a bell or a horn or a chirp or a tone will sound, and a cluster of them will break off from the larger pack and make their way to, of all places, your room.

So Happy New Year, everyone! They’re here! What to do now?

You need to be welcoming and not openly territorial, even though they are certainly invading your space. These young humans are giving you a chance to do what you love, so thank God they’re here (at the end of class, I always try to remember to thank them for coming to high school, and I think I’ve found just the right blend of sincerity and corniness to express such a sentiment). At the same time, they’re entering your home away from home, so it’s right that you should have guidelines about their behavior there: They’re transients; you’ll be there all day. “It’s great to have you here today. This is where I work, so don’t spit on the floor.”

Hospitality is vital. The kids are shuffled around all day and most of them are filled with fears and insecurities. In your class, they should feel at home, accepted, appreciated. It should be a little refuge from the rest of the day. Don’t add to their anxiety. For the 50+ minutes you have them, they’ll be liked and listened to. They still have to work and learn, but it will be with someone who cares about them and cares enough about their learning that she’s willing to expend the energy to make it lively and interactive.

But, especially if you look about their age, your hospitality needs to be tempered with authority. Because you’re young, students will want to like you AND take advantage of you. This requires a precarious balancing act. You can’t not be young until you get older and you certainly shouldn’t stifle your youthful enthusiasm, a little death that will happen in its own time.

It will be your job to show them that you can be cheerful, energetic, cool, humorous – all of that – and still be drop-dead serious about teaching them. It may help to think of it this way: You really like your students (this is an assumption on my part, but if I’m wrong, and you don’t, pick another profession now) and you want to help them become better educated, to have all the options that come with a better education. If even one of them thinks you’re his buddy and he can joke around with you in class and say things he wouldn’t dare say in his other classes, the rest of the class will be distracted and not become better educated.

This is where you have to step up and say something to the effect that while it’s okay to have a good time while we learn, we must all respect the process. You’re coming to the defense of all the kids in your class who are looking to you to teach them. You cannot let them down at the expense of those who think your class is the perfect time to take an hour off and goof around. With this approach, you’re not being mean to the smart aleck, you’re being protective of the other 24 young humans in the class.

Let’s face it: This balancing act may take a little time to work out. Don’t give up and quit during the first week. Let the process run its course. Give the sap time to rise up the tree (if, in fact, that’s what sap does).

During my first year of high-school teaching (after 15 years at a private liberal-arts college), I had plenty of trouble in this area, and it wasn’t because I looked young. As a professor, I seldom had to restore order in the classroom. In fact, if students ever really pissed me off, I could (and did) say something blunt and profane and just walk out on them. They’d be much better the next day. The Dramatic Walkout, however, is not an option for a high-school teacher. So sometimes, especially by sixth period, my high-school kids would just really get out of hand. I’d put out a fire on one side of the room only to notice another one had ignited on the other side – and you can guess what would happen while I was putting that one out.

By the last few minutes of class, I’d pretty much give up and go stand in front of the door to prevent early escapeage and, oddly, chat with the rambunctious little bastages, because, after all, they really did like me. One of them, Jessica, a quiet little mother hen who liked to help all her friends solve their problems, said, “Your problem is that you try to be a nice guy, and that’s not going to work here.” That stung. But a whole bunch of 17-year-olds were crowded around us near the door and they all shut up long enough to wait for my answer. I tried this one: “I’m not trying to be a nice guy, I am a nice guy. And if I can’t teach here while being a nice guy, I’ll go find something else to do.” Okay, that was the voice of desperation and stubbornness speaking, but we all heard me say it and somehow things began to change. They had to learn to adapt to my niceness; I had to learn when to explode long enough to protect the Jessicas in my class.

I’ll be back very shortly with more reflections on and advice for the first days of class.

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