It’s not like I’m picking on anyone here, or maligning public schools, which I will philosophically support until the day I die, which produced me (a decent if not perfect citizen), and which provided me a space to do what I was born to do, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful. It’s just that, again, when it comes to teaching, sometimes it’s the learning what not to do that really counts. I think of a line Bob Dylan sang, “…I’m loving you / Not for what you are / But for what you’re not”; I think of the unfortunate truth that you can’t know if and why a book’s great unless you’ve read a horrible one. So that’s how I’m going to frame this–by what I learned what a teacher shouldn’t do as a student of those who did those things.
Don’t physically abuse students.
I realize that this is fairly easy to avoid today as–in most schools–corporal punishment is forbidden. I caught the tail end of the corporal punishment era, and I can verify that the practice does not achieve its intended effects, and that its unintended effects are the opposite of what the punisher desires.
I was whipped–yes, whipped–with paddles carved for that express purpose, that an alarming number of teachers had handy–37 times when I was in 7th grade. I know this because I was a statistics and mathematics freak, and I counted everything that mattered (my fascination with Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, a little over a week after I was born, was likely the stimulus). Administering these mild beatings were usually study hall-“teaching” coaches, but my shop and art teachers also got into the act, and my phys ed teacher, a coach whom I respected, whipped me on the last day of school because (he told me) he was the only coach who hadn’t yet.
What’d I do to deserve this treatment?
Early on, I was simply testing limits. The art teacher just called my classmate David a “Polack”? What would he do if I not only pointed out his bigotry but also asked him how he’d feel if someone called his wife a slut? OK, so I was not very good at equivalency statements, but I was 12! His also being my church’s minister did not keep him from whipping me and sitting me out in the hall for a week.
So my study hall teacher / football coach has a funny voice and covertly dips snuff in the classroom? Why not, when he steps out to talk to another coach, duck down in my seat, hide behind the head of the kid sitting in front of me, stuff my tongue in my lip, and precisely imitate his trademark idle threat: “Y’all best keep your mouths shuuuut or I’m gonna take ya out in the halllllllllll!” I didn’t know who Levon Helm was at the time, but he’s exactly who this guy sounded like. My impression was so close to the real thing I could make the entire study hall sit up straight. One day, he didn’t quite step outside; he was tucked just inside the door frame, beyond my line of sight. I let it rip, picking on one of my best friends: “Hey, Mike Craig? You best git yer mouth shut or I’m-uh take you out in the hallllllllllll!” Mike, sitting a few seats in front of me, had seen the coach get up and move, but still he stiffened like he’d taken an electric shock. Unfortunately, the coach heard–and saw–me, too: “Overeem, grab the board off my desk and git out in the hallllllllll. Nowwwww!” He actually asked me what “cheek” I wanted it on, then blasted me thrice as the two other coaches he was talking to burst into laughter.
After those initial encounters, I’d come to a few important conclusions:
1) It’s more than possible to get punished by a teacher for something the teacher himself did wrong that you just happened to point out.
2) Some teachers are sadistic bastards that enjoy inflicting pain.
3) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who have no sense of humor about themselves.
4) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who, out of laziness and lack of imagination, are short on strategies.
5) “Getting busted” (what the coaches called it) only hurts for about 30 seconds.
6) “Getting busted” is also a guaranteed attention-getter–and a laff-riot.
The practice’s impotence as a deterrent transferred the power to me. The practice’s extremity transferred attention to me. The practice’s barbarism transferred civility to me. As a true-blue seventh grader, little was more important to me than me, so I tried to get busted as often as possible.
Having finally caught on, teachers only whipped me 18 times my eighth grade year, and I didn’t get whipped once as a freshman (more than a little credit should be given to my having incrementally matured). But the lessons those 37 beltings delivered stick with me still: admit your mistakes, work at reducing student pain, learn to laugh at yourself, develop a tool-kit of strategies for non-violent direct action against student “high-spiritedness,” control the show by making your lesson attention-worthy and witty, and strive for justness, not power.
“I was only the photographer!”
Exhibit A: Math, 8th grade
Don’t just stand or sit there. Don’t just flip transparencies, hand out worksheets, or click through slides. Don’t drone like a muezzin. (Actually, I would now find that interesting.) Look the hell alive! Life is short, education is forever!
Many of my junior high teachers acted as if they’d rather be anywhere else. I had a math teacher that you’d have thought must have had an invisible gun to his head. He taught grudgingly–think about that! One of my science teachers relied on overheads to let him think about his football playbook for the bulk of the hour. One of my history teachers blatantly twisted his eyebrow hairs and read wrestling magazines behind his desk while we worked on endless worksheets. Another history teacher we called “The Tree,” due to his tendency to break down our past into dualities: “Over herrrre [left arm extended, left palm turned down and cupped], we have the Axis, and over herrrre [right arm extended, right palm turned down and cupped], we have the Allies [hold pose, pause, let learning sink in].” It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that history did not necessarily tranquilize those who taught it.
When a teacher did show enthusiasm–I’m serious about this, and you have to remember, I was a junior high boy–it was almost sexually arousing! In the case of one of my math teachers, there was no “almost” to it; you’ve seen it in the movies, but I was once forced by an unexpected anatomical event to decline her invitation to work a problem on the board. Sexual attraction and engaging educational content: a devastating combo!
To be clear, though, the lesson I took with me in this case was to try to teach each lesson as if it were my last, as if each second mattered, as if, should I bomb, students’ lives would be scarred forever and they’d remember me as a failure. Easier said than done, perhaps, but I have always refrained from micromanaging my lesson plan so I’d have to spend some of my class time operating without a net. It works. And, at least for me, it’s exciting, and fun. For all involved, I hope.
“I repeat, I was only the photographer!”
Exhibit A: Shop, 8th grade
If you don’t know your stuff–if you don’t love your stuff–do us all a favor: Do something else for a living. Having your summers off (news flash: it’s actually more like two months, we don’t get paid for it, and the time we spend working at home adds up to at least a summer’s equivalent) is not worth ruining 179 days of 120 students’ lives.
An art teacher who didn’t do art. A science teacher who excelled only in handling transparencies. A social studies teacher who clearly was connected to the study of society only as far as the textbook explored it, and who could communicate about history only in the textbook’s words (“Don’t read it to us again! You assigned it for us to read last night!”). An English teacher (oh so many of those) who didn’t seem to think that, for example, the ideas of Mark Twain applied to her own life–wasn’t that the whole point? A physics teacher who asked me not only to write and/or proofread but also grade his tests. I was in eighth grade. And not a fantastic science student.
I’ve been lucky in this regard because I loved to read and write before I knew I wanted to be a teacher. But once I made the decision and began contemplating the difficult practical realities ahead of me, I flashed back to those moments when I’d made an ass out of myself and disrupted my and a whole classroom’s education. The common reason why? Not because I wasn’t being challenged; that’s my problem to solve, not the teacher’s. Most of us recognize and respond to teachers who are not only lively, and just, and kind, but who also know and especially love their material. The energy generated by deep and broad knowledge, natural enthusiasm, and a desire to share what the material’s done for you is the best classroom control tactic of them all. Why did Miss-uh Phipps-uh never have to lift a finger to redirect me? She knew Dickens, Steinbeck, Homer, and sentence diagramming like her own name, understood it so well she could simplify it for us or show us multiple ways into it, and actually enjoyed it to the extent that her fun was contagious. Why could I not wait to go to Mr. England’s physical science class, even though I was a notorious science bungler? He could not wait to put us in the driver’s seat and help us do science, with majestic but affectionate sarcasm and fool-proof advice. He could always convey what science was worth, and when you finally earned his praise, which was never withheld without logical reasoning, you got repaid with warm humor and a grin that crept ever so slightly out of his stoic visage.
I got into this business largely because, whether this is the experience of the average American or not, I frequently saw a fun job being botched, and realized it wouldn’t be so hard to do correctly, and really enjoy. For once, I was right. I thank my “Bad Teachers of Junior High, and quite sincerely, for making the mistakes that sent a beam of light down my pathway to success. Without them, I’m not sure I could have honed my understanding of a very complex task, and reached the point where I could freely make mistakes of my own.