Saturday, January 24, 2009

Teacher Control--you gotta have it.

[I deleted the last post.  After repeatedly reading it I felt it was too much like the beginning of a lecture.  Too wordy.  I think I have a better idea and hope you will agree with me]

In a day or so I am going to write about the nine functions that a teacher does when teaching but before we review them, I want to talk about "control."  Perhaps one reason I like teachers is their presence.  They garner respect and of course they do--everyday they have to stand in front of a group of students, explain what is to be accomplished and learned and how to do effectively.  Beside being a chore, it is a gift.  

I've watched teachers get up in front of sixty fourth graders who were at their best in talking and wiggling and within minutes have them quiet and paying attention.  I am always in awe when they do this.  Some teachers do it with a quiet voice, others raise their voice and a few just stand there.  In all cases, a class comes to paying attention.  Every teacher has this control.

I once had a student teacher in a second grade in a somewhat remote country school.  The district was conservative in nature and maybe that is why folks lived here.  "Leave me along and I'll do it myself, thank you."  They were good folks who would help you if you needed help but would leave you alone if that was what you wanted.

The school was one of those post WWII brick buildings, one level with the primary grades down one end of the hall and the upper grades at the other end with the office in the middle.  The classes were disciplined with rows of desks in a straight line.  There was learning taking place.

An aside: one of the things that I noticed was if a student was having trouble with a problem they were apt to lean across the aisle and ask his/her neighbor how to do the problem instead of raising their hand and asking the teacher for help.  They did this far more then the city kids.  I suspect this was what Mom and Dad did when they had a problem--ask a neighbor for help and the behavior was being passed down as a value in their children.  Just an observation.

Back to my story.  A conservative and well run school.  My student teacher was assigned one of the two second grades.  Reading her file, she was a good student, had good grades and good comments from my colleagues whose classes she had taken.  She was a tall thin girl, perhaps 5'10" or 5'11" with long auburn hair.  I know she looked down at me.  She was easy to like from our first meeting and I had hopes of a successful student teaching experience for her.

Student teaching experiences mostly go like this:  first week observation, maybe help grade papers, second week, teach a small group, go around the room helping where necessary, third week start teaching a subject and then the following weeks add subjects until near the end of the twelve weeks the student teacher is teaching the whole class all day.  Sounds simple but it isn't.  In this case we were starting in January which means the children were already into group behaviors with their regular teacher.  You might say a rhythm had already be established.  So starting in January is a bit harder then starting in the fall.

Mary (no real names as usual) Smith, my student teacher did well with the initial small groups and the cooperating teacher and I were pleased.  However, when it came time for the whole class, the little ones just didn't pay attention.  There wasn't that control.  I talked to Mary and mentioned that she might want to raise her voice--she was quiet by nature.  Even raising her voice she was quiet and the kids continued not to pay attention.  I had a problem--what to do.

I tried other ideas to suggest to Mary but nothing seemed to work with the little kids.  When she was in front of the classroom their eyes were elsewhere along with their feet, hands and little bodies.  No control.  I was frustrated and I know Mary was as well.  

One afternoon after the children had gone home, the cooperating teacher, Mary and me talked about the problem  There were tears.  She wanted very much to be a teacher--she HAD to be a teacher.  The following week would be the fourth week and a decision had to be made.  If I pulled her from her assignment Mary would be able to get her tuition back and we could start over in the spring at another school.  As I said, it was crunch time for Mary. 

I went back the beginning of the next week and sat in the back of the room.  No difference.  Mary's quiet voice was just not getting through to the children.  I was feeling bad.

I have to admit I didn't want to go out to the school on Wednesday.  Any time I pulled a student from a teaching assignment it was like I had failed.  I was totally frustrated in not being able to solve the problem in getting Mary to learn how to control a classroom.  My suggestions had all failed.  Trust me, I am a grump in these situations.  And I was at the height of my grumpiness.

I pulled into the school parking lot parking at the far end so as not to take spaces for the parents who come to help in the school.  I walked into the office and told them I'd be in the second grade room although I was mentally preparing what I might say to Mary about breaking off her assignment.  I would have to council her on how she might approach the class  to announce that Friday would be her last day and......   What else could I say to her?  And how could I help the cooperating teacher for something like this upsets the children and she will have to re-establish control--more work for her.  It was not a good situation.  And I would have to face tears and I do not handle tears well.  

I opened the door and quickly went to the back of the room.  Mary was in front of the class--and the class was paying attention.  Paying attention? Paying attention!  I looked over at the cooperating teacher who was leaning against a window sill on the far side and she smiled at me.  SMILED!  What the hell was going on?  I watch Mary go through the lesson, helping the children and they hung on every word.  They were in adoration of Mary.  It was amazing and I was totally baffled.  But "pleased" was also a word I would use.  Ecstatic would be another word I would encompass.  

I remember quietly walking over to the cooperating teacher by the window.  "Okay, what's up?"  She smiled one of those cat got the canary smiles and looked out into the parking lot, not saying a word to me.  At that moment Mary and she were teachers and they weren't going to give me a break here.  I looked again at the parking lot and down at the far end where I had told my student teachers to park was a Harley Davidson black and chrome motorcycle--a fairly large one.  Impressive as only a Harley can be.  

I finally got the whole story from several teachers including my cooperating teacher.  Mary was late (I tell all my student teachers to be the first one in the room) getting to the school arriving after the buses had shown up.  This bike comes in with a rider all in black leather, black helmet, the works.  It goes slowly up and down the parking lot with just about every student in the school watching.  This was bike country.  And then at the far end, it backed in a slot and Mary took off her helmet, shook out her long hair and there was applause from the kids.  Applause.  At least that is what I was told.  She took off her leathers, stowed them in the saddle bags and walked into the school with just about every pair of children's eyes on her.  One of the upper grade teachers told me it was like a TV scene. 

The cooperating teacher told me the kids were completely in her control from the moment they came into the classroom.  Questions flew about her bike and she responded that if they were good that day, she would answer questions before they went home.  They were good and they were good until spring when Mary completed her student teaching assignment.  I gave her an "A", she "earned" an "A".  Had there been an opening at that school I think they would have offered the position to her.  As soon as Mary had control of the class the other teachers in the school considered her one of them.  She was a teacher.

Strange what that bike did for her.  My analysis of the situation was that as soon as the children saw the bike they realized Mary was one of them.  This was bike country.  And they understood her.  She never raised her voice--it was always quiet but those little children hung on to every word.  Apparently, Mary also did well in the parent/teacher conferences and the parents accepted her.  

I have never seen such a change in a classroom since that time.  Doubt if I ever will.  What it told me is that the teachers and the community have to be alike.  Everything fits like a glove.  
In this case a motorcycle glove.   

Again, a bit of luck.  And if you remember one of your favorite teachers after reading this, be sure to thank another teacher.  

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