My “Foundations of Education” class this week was very valuable. Our professor, Karen, a smart and funny thirtysomething Jewish lady, had us make up rules. She told us to pull out a piece of paper and said, “You are an elementary school teacher. Write down the 10 rules that will govern your classroom.” Then she made us do the same thing again, pretending that we were the Dean of the University of Maryland (I’m taking classes for teacher certification; they take place at a college in the Washington, D.C., metro area).
It’s a simple exercise, but a wonderfully instructive one. Karen understands that discipline is the great irreducible for teachers. You can take all the education classes in the world. You can pass the Praxis exam, a math and verbal test required for teachers. Hell, you can have your own kids. But if you can’t master the kill-or-be-killed moment when you enter a classroom and the great vortex of childhood and/or adolescent Gotterdammerung grabs your ankles and starts to drag downward, you won’t make it. Trying to teach without passing through this fire is like planning a major league career and not being able to catch.
I had survived my moment, on the first day I subbed in 2008. The first class was fifth grade. Here’s how subbing works. It’s about 6 in the morning and you’re asleep. It’s cold outside. Maybe even snowing. The person calling you is a teacher. They’re sick. They have no lesson plan. Can you be at school in an hour and take charge of six sets of 30 kids in one day?
The best metaphor for what happens when you walk into the classroom as a sub is the movie “300.” In “300,” a small group (thus the title) of Spartans, led by Leonidas, position themselves on a dry little mountain pass where they withstand an assault by about 10,000 Persians. The Persians throw everything they’ve got at Leonidas: armies, arrows, freaks of nature, elephants, even a gay dude who thinks he’s a god (not Andrew Sullivan). Through it all, Leonidas holds steady. As a sub, you are Leonidas. The kids are the Persians.
This is the mindset you need when you walk into the classroom. On my first day, a kid kept making noise. And of course, in a classroom, when one kid starts talking, the kid next to him starts. And the kid behind them. And so on, until the chatter becomes a drone, which then escalates to a row. And then they start throwing stuff. Wanting to prevent this, I gave the kid detention. He informed me that at St. Teresa’s they didn’t have detention. He didn’t say it with sarcasm, but with a kind of pity for me. Poor old sub. Dude thinks there’s still detention. I looked around the room. The noise level began to rise. And rise. A kid tossed a paper football across the room. The Persians were coming.
I noticed a small bell on the teacher’s desk. A weapon! “OK LISTEN UP!” I shouted. Then a laid out the rule: three strikes. I ring the bell when the noise level rises too high. Third time I go for the principal.
Of course, it got to the third time, and I told Sr. Mary, the principal. What happened next truly surprised me. I was subbing at the same school the next day, except this time it was for a different teacher. Suddenly, the teacher I had been filling in for—one of the best, toughest, and most effective teachers I have ever seen—opened the door. She looked angry. She came over to the desk and dropped a stack of papers in my hand. They were apologies. She had gone into her classroom, slammed the door shut, and addressed her class: “How did you disrespect Mr. Brehon yesterday?”
Incredibly, hands went up. We talked, one kid said. We threw things, said another. We ignored his rules. She then made them all take out a piece of paper and write me a personal apology.
I was stunned. I would never have thought it would have worked; in my time the trick was to deny your involvement. Yet the therapeutic model had worked. Afterwards, I told Sr. Mary, the principal of St. Teresa Elementary, what had happened, marveling that the kids had ratted themselves out. “Oh, they want to tell the truth,” Sr. Mary said. “Kids want to do the right thing if you give them the chance.”
Kids like rules, Karen tells us in our “Foundations of Education” class. They thrive on them. This is such an obvious fact, yet it is often buried by politically correct educators and journalists. The failed public schools where I live in Washington, D.C., are a perfect example. In articles and essays the problems of lack of supplies and poverty are given as reasons for the state of the District’s schools, which spends $12,979 a year per student—the third highest in the nation. But if there is no order, having Bill Gates himself teach Computer Science won’t matter. A 2007 Washington Post article on the long history of failed school reform in D.C. opened with the tragedy that at one school kids didn’t have a working “media production room” where kids could broadcast their own TV shows. But in those same District schools (the article noted a page later), over half the teenage students in Washington are at schools that meet the city’s definition of “persistently dangerous.” Every day in the city an average of nine violent incidents are reported. In such an environment, what use is a TV studio? To broadcast your school’s implosion?
Actually, that’s not a bad idea. In “300,” Leonidas used his own impossible circumstance, leading 300 men against thousands, to shame the people back home into taking some action to defend themselves. Maybe a daily broadcast of the knife fights, drug deals, and blackboard jungle chaos will finally, at long last, penetrate the liberal dogma that the answer to every school problem is more supplies and higher salaries. With more and more D.C. parents choosing charter schools, we may be getting to that point. Everyone in D.C., including the schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (whom I will be talking about again), knows that the thing is broken. Rhee was appointed in 2007, and since then has shut down 21 schools, about 15 percent of the city’s total. She’s fired almost 300 teachers and 36 principals, people who, judging by the statistics—and police reports—simply can’t accomplish the sine qua non of a classroom. Order.
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.