Students Are Sharks

 

Students are sharks, no doubt about that. When they scent blood in the water, many will unite and attack. The object of that attack will be the teacher.

I saw some teachers destroyed by students when I was in high school. Even in Catholic schools, teachers were fair game if you could rip them to shreds and not get in trouble (or too much trouble). Few teachers wanted anyone in the school to know that their students swarmed them, sometimes daily, and made them tremble in the face of disdain or vicious attacks. Many teachers would just hold it all in and not share their torment with others. Some of these teachers broke down and quit the profession. That was a true victory for the sharks.

It didn’t matter if the teacher was a nice person; if he showed some fear, or lost his temper and yelled, or trembled; he was dead meat. As a student, I never joined the sharks in their blood-letting. It was too easy; a weak teacher, belittled, and getting his ass chewed; I didn’t want anything to do with that. But you only needed a few students to set up the shark attack. Three or four and the class could be thrown into chaos.

Dealing with Possible Destruction

As a young teacher, losing control scared the hell out of me. It terrified me. I did not want to show any weakness on any day that would open me up to attack.

In 1969, before I entered my first classroom to teach my very first class, I had nightmares of the students turning against me and making me bleed so much that the front of the room was bathed in red. After teaching for 33 years and being out of the game for the past 16 years – I still have nightmares (which I call schoolmares) about not being in control.

In my teaching career I have strong memories of the teachers who lost control; who would cry, females and males, weeping shamefully, after their sharks’ devoured their soft flesh with delight.

I remember a former Marine, a big, strong guy who could rip a student to pieces in a physical fight, brought to blubbering in the teachers’ lounge. He didn’t last a full year on the job. I remember one teacher who was being observed by our department chairman crying as the lesson unfolded because the students became uncontrollable. He lasted two years before he gave up the job. There were plenty more.

Now some teachers can maintain discipline by being bastards or being scary or being both. Students can be rightfully afraid of strong-willed, mean, unrelenting teachers. And many of these teachers actually taught well. A good teacher is a good teacher even if he is a prick or she is a—(well you can supply an accurate descriptor here).

I didn’t want to be a scary, nasty teacher; that’s not me. I wanted to enjoy the classroom and have a good relationship with my students. I wanted to like my students and I would prefer that they liked me. Admittedly there will always be kids you dislike and, yes, some kids would dislike you. That’s the human condition.

Just prior to entering the classroom at the age of 22, I wondered: How do I circumvent the possibility of ultimately facing a school of ravenous adolescent biters looking to chomp on me?

I recalled both good and bad teachers I had encountered when I was a student. One started the very first lesson on the very first day by saying, “People, people let’s begin.” Nothing happened then but he had unknowingly lumped all his students together into one grouping (“people, people”) and many of those “people” in a relatively short time had formed a school of sharks and ripped this guy apart.

Okay, lesson one, don’t let the students think of themselves as one group. Keep each one thinking of him or herself as an individual. They had to think of the relationship with you as a dual relationship – me and Scobe – between two distinct individuals. If a kid liked you that probably would stop that kid from kicking your ass in class.

So no kid represented a group. No kid was the leader of the classroom. No kid represented his race or religion or ethnicity. The kid was the kid and nothing more. It was the student and me, period. Easy to say but how do I put that into effect?

I would face close to 30 kids per class on that first day. I figured that I’d meet them at the door and try to say something personal to as many of them as I could. The administrators of the schools want you to stand at your door to make sure the kids in the hall are behaving. No, it would be better for me to set up the future conditions in my classroom on that first day at the door.

So I would stand in the doorway those first few days and say silly things. If the kid had a tan I’d say something such as “Well, at least we don’t have to go swimming and have fun anymore now that school has begun.” Or “I’ll bet you can’t wait to do a lot of homework.”

To kids who swaggered and looked tough, I might say, “Okay, you are in charge of protecting the nerds. They need someone like you or they are dead from… ” and I’d wave my hand at the students rushing through the halls to their classes. I think most students, like most adults, think other people are idiots. I’d play on that with the tougher kids.

I’ll admit that what I had to say was never all that clever. I just wanted a word with the kid; that’s all, just a lightning-fast personal word, one-to-one.

In class I could build a one-on-one relationship even if I hadn’t gotten to the kid at the doorway. If some student said something really stupid, I would look at another kid in the class and do a quick eye-roll that only he or she could see. We made a connection at that moment. Then I would tease the kid who said the stupid thing— never nasty, just in fun. A little humor and a quick one-to-one with an individual student during class could go a long way in establishing a personal relationship and a classroom tone.

I also knew never to do the same lines or actions over and over. That could get boring.

Okay, that was one idea to employ, a truly personal relationship.

The Humor Trip

Some teachers don’t have much of a sense of humor in their classrooms. If a student got off a good line at your expense, how should you react? Get angry that a kid would dare say something funny about you, the paragon of education? No. For God’s sake, just laugh. What the hell? I enjoyed teasing my students, so why can’t they tease me? There were only a few times when I really wanted to kill the kid who said something mean to me, but I never let the #$%^&* know that.

Or come back with a funny remark of your own. But never nasty, “Timmy, your mother is a smelly ape!” That achieves nothing.

Okay, so have a sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy what you are doing. If you like what you are doing, the kids should like it too. I called that emotional transference.

Classes didn’t have to be dry, dull and deadly. I would do the literature I liked, that I enjoyed, that I could get excited about when I taught it. I would teach writing the way I wanted to teach it.

So this was the plan I put into effect the very first day of my career. Did it work? I think so. In 33 years I never had to throw a student out of my class; or write a disciplinary referral on anyone. I never had to yell at a kid. Don’t get me wrong; there were times when I wanted to walk down the aisle and belt a kid in the nose. No teaching day is perfect even for the best teachers. That is something all teachers know. That’s why most days you see the teachers dragging their asses out of the school building.

Liking My Students

Did I like all of my students? Just about. I did have a few that I couldn’t stand and a couple I can honestly say I hated.

People might think it is wrong for me to say I had a couple of students I hated but I did. Why lie? Out of the approximately 6,000 kids I taught, I think hating two of them is pretty good. Some will say the word hate is too strong a word. If it is then feel free to change it to a word that means hate but doesn’t sound like hate. I’ll have a section about these two creeps in the future. You might hate them too.

And one seemingly weird thing, which will probably sound totally idiotic to many of you, but I remember from my little sister and my cousins when they were toddlers that they liked to have the same books read to them over and over; that they liked to eat the same food night after night. I remember an uncle who shaved his beard and his daughter cried as if he had died because she had never seen him clean shaven.

A certain sameness creates calm.

So I dressed basically the exact same way day after day after day. Each year I tended to have a different uniform (after all my uniform would wear out with such extensive use over one school year). I figured it would be easier for the students to basically see the same Scobe day after day. A leopard doesn’t change his spots and my clothes were my spots.

I remember one year when a PBS station was doing a show about my classroom and that year I wore a burgundy sweatshirt every day. So for the show every student wore a burgundy sweatshirt. It was fun to see all of us looking alike. And we did not give in to telling the producer of the show what we were doing. I just taught my regular class and the students were just great. It was a fun day!

The Attention Span Problem

Here is another situation that concerned me, the attention span of students. I found in my elementary and high school days, in college (even in high-level honors programs), in graduate school and in the mind-numbing education courses to which would-be teachers were subjected, that many students could not concentrate for prolonged periods of time. You could see legs beginning to vibrate; faces lost in dream-states, eyes drooping, and big yawns.

I knew you couldn’t teach a kid if that kid couldn’t pay attention. How do you solve that problem?

Over my years of teaching there have been many idiotic attempts by educators to find methods to engage students for prolonged periods of time. One such was called cooperative learning, where you put students in groups and they teach each other. The smart kids did all the work, achieved all the grades for the group, and the lazy kids did nothing, but they still achieved success through their hard-working peers. Of course that nonsense was not around in 1969.

So what did I do? I watched television. The kids I would teach had been brought up with television. So what held their interest for a half-hour or hour-long show? Something did because we had a nation of kids addicted to this form of entertainment. It took me a while but I got it. Commercials!

Every 10 minutes or so, the show was interrupted with a commercial that did two things; it introduced something new, maybe some product or food or cigarette brand and it gave a break from the program that the kid could get back into when the commercial was over.

How could I introduce the commercial aspect into my lessons? Every 10 minutes or so, I would interrupt the lesson and go on a short riff, something funny or unusual. Then I would get back to the lesson but first I’d say something such as, “Wait, wait, I’ve forgotten what we were talking about. Can anyone help me?” Of course, the kids would raise their hands and tell me what I had taught. Okay, that was a sneaky way to do a review and it also gave the kids the idea that I had a pretty poor memory.

The Students I Taught

In my career I taught every type of student—from advanced placement to regents to non-academic. I once had a class comprised of six felons who had taken someone’s life when they were in junior high school. I had some students who were—even at the young high school ages—far smarter than I would ever be. But a kid is a kid, no matter how brilliant. If a kid taught me something by something he said I had no problem saying, “Excellent. I never thought of that.”

I taught kids from all races and many ethnic groups. I treated them all the same—I’d tease, cajole and praise kids if what they had just accomplished was worth it. I was never overly-critical. I was not an easy grader.

My department chairman won a bet against a teacher who said my popularity was based on my giving out high grades. He told the guy to bring his grade book in and he’d compare the grades, especially when we taught the same students. This teacher’s grades were far higher than mine. My chairman won the bet.

So I had my plan and I put it into effect from day one. I might still have schoolmares so long after retiring but I did accomplish what I set out to do—that was, being the best teacher I could be and to never lose control.

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

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