Discipline Lessons II

It’s been years since I sent a student from my classroom to the office. This realization came upon me today when I witnessed an altercation between a frustrated teacher and a huffy young man. When I was first teaching, I was afraid to send anyone to the office; I thought such a move would signal my incompetence. It might have, but principals form impressions of their teachers through all kinds of informal observations. They don’t need direct evidence like a string of miscreants in their office to get the picture—although a run of kids like that can’t help but influence them.

No, it’s the other students’ opinions a teacher needs to worry about. Sending someone to the office, if it occurs repeatedly, signals to students that you can’t handle the class. That gives them the upper hand. But sometimes, turning a ruffian over to the authorities is a good idea.

My first teaching position was English 7 and English 8 in a small junior high school in Wisconsin. I was newly married and so young looking that every year I was there, the company that took our school pictures mixed mine in with the students’. I lived about two blocks from the school and walked to and from every day.

My assignment began in January; I was the replacement for a veteran of twenty-five years who left for medical reasons. She was to undergo open-heart surgery and doubted she could return to work afterward. The English department in this school was small—only four teachers—and every one of us was a rookie. That fall, in a gesture of collegiality, the veteran teacher had swapped all of her ace students for the “bad boys” that the new teachers were contending with, so when I came in January, I inherited them all.

They followed me home from school, interrupted during class, threw things, dropped their books on the floor so they thudded loudly, and generally made me feel—and look—inadequate. I caught one boy, who supposedly couldn’t read, avidly studying something he had hidden behind his English book. He was clearly enthralled by whatever was there; I suspected it was not the text. What I removed from his grasp was a dime novel called Nympho Nurse.

I wanted to shrivel up and die right then and there. I am not sure what I actually did, but I know I didn’t have the presence of mind to turn the tables on my young “reader”—to make him the one who was embarrassed. Lacking such finesse, I probably should have sent him to the office so the others could see that I wasn’t putting up with such stuff. But I didn’t.

Instead, my husband chased after the boys who were trailing me home and scared them out of their minds when he caught up with them. That ended the nonsense from those boys; a colleague, a brawny math teacher, silenced the rest when he backed another boy up against a locker one day and read him the riot act. So I was rescued. But I knew I’d have to learn how to control boys like this on my own. I wouldn’t always have the luxury of strongmen on my side and in proximity.

I taught in Wisconsin for another four years, and during that time I took advice from more experienced teachers and put into play techniques I picked up on my own. I discovered that real control came from the expectations I set and from the work of the classroom, not from rules and regulations. I slowly gained the confidence I needed and grew into the authority I wanted.

After a hiatus of several years as a stay-at-home mom, I began a second teaching career in a junior high school in rural Indiana. I remembered my earlier encounters with adolescent boys and hoped being older would ease my reentry into the world of schooling. I hoped I wouldn’t have to send anyone to the office.

I needn’t have worried. The principal at my new school was so physically intimidating that few students ever even risked a trip to his office. He helped me establish myself not because he handled the discipline problems, but because his mere presence in the hallways set a tone that discouraged them.

Mr. Christopher had a linebacker’s build. He stood at the entrance to the school every morning, arms crossed tightly over his chest, scrutinizing every student as each one climbed down from the school bus and entered the building. He always faced straight ahead—if he wanted to inspect you further, his eyes followed you, but his head stayed put: like the Mona Lisa. To be honest, it was kind of scary, even for teachers. It seemed like Mr. Christopher could see into your soul.

The fact is, Mr. Christopher is a kind man with a wry sense of humor. He understood kids well, and usually, a conversation with him had a marvelously reforming effect on those who did end up in his office. He believed, rightly, that kids need structure. If right and wrong are clear, if expectations are spelled out, a child will be supported as a seedling is by a stake in the ground. Under those conditions, a child will stand a good chance of growing tall and strong.

I sent a student to Mr. Christopher exactly once. It was a 9th grade speech class in the early 1980s, and I was videotaping commercials the students had written. (An historical aside here: In those days, kids weren’t allowed to touch the expensive, new A-V equipment. Today, I would gladly turn the filming over to them!) Anyway, the boy whose turn it was to have his commercial recorded held up his “prop”—a book—and began his pitch. The book was entitled The Yellow River by I. P. Daily.

Click.

I stopped the tape, snapped the lens shut, and emerged from behind the camera. Though I said nothing, my “look” was enough. The boy left the room, headed straight down the hall to Mr. Christopher.

It makes me laugh to think about this now. Today, kids who are sent to the office usually aren’t so intimated, and what they are sent for is far, far removed from The Yellow River. However, that was the worst offense in those four years at Southwestern. I must have learned my discipline lessons well—or maybe—no, most certainly—Mr. Christopher was the stake in the ground supporting me. I established a reputation, and after that, I was much less frequently tested.

Young teachers struggling with discipline need to know that with time and experience, things do get better. But that day comes faster if there’s a Mr. Christopher beside them while they grow into the job.

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