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OUT OF THE CLOSET
The Journey from an Audacious Teen to an Adept Teacher
The math class was off to its usual slow start. Mr. Peterson, a quiet and unassertive teacher, began taking roll. It was difficult to discern what he was saying as his monotone voice drifted in the air. Simultaneously, a 15 year old girl entertained the class with her usual antics. The classroom was her stage and entertaining the troops, at the expense of dear old Mr. Peterson, was her favorite pastime. There was a reason this capricious teen, and many like her, saved their inappropriate behavior for school.
For you see, I happened to know this girl’s history. She was adopted as a baby to parents who would remind her how lucky she was to be living under their roof. She lived in constant emotional turmoil, never being good enough for her parents’ approval. At the age of 15, her main focus in life was to elicit laughter from her peers. This teenager’s hijinks would throw into disarray any classroom whose teacher was not up to the task of handling her outbursts. She used this as an escape from the reality of a childhood filled with despair. Unfortunately her overactive sense of humor gained approval from her peers which only fed her insatiable appetite to amuse. This day, as with so many before, would present Mr. Peterson with its usual challenge of maintaining his classroom decorum.
He asked her nicely, several times, to “settle down.” Her co-conspirators, while not openly participating in her foolishness, snickered at her boisterous behavior. This young girl manipulated the classroom to her fancy, thriving on disrupting any academic work.
Mr. Peterson became more frustrated. He was not capable of raising his voice, as he was a kind, gentle man who just wanted to instruct a math concept. But his red face belied his false sense of composure. The 15 year old continued to destroy his plans for completing the assignment in a timely manner. Engaged in her frivolity, she was startled when Mr. Peterson stealthily came up behind her as she was sitting at her desk. He gently placed his hands on her arm and quietly said, “Come with me.” The girl immediately enjoyed the new attention she garnered from her peers. With Mr. Peterson’s hands gently guiding her, she arose from her seat as he led the way to his coat closet. This was hilarity! The students were enjoying the scene and the young girl was in the height of her element. Mr. Peterson calmly opened the closet door, escorted the girl into the 4’ x 4’ closet and closed the door behind him. He calmly said, “You can come out when you are ready to learn.”
The darkness obscured everything in front of her, with the exception of a thin line of light between the door and the wall. The class quieted down, not a giggle was heard as Mr. Peterson began his instruction. How desperate was he to ask her to stay in his closet so he could teach? Why would it take this kind of episode for the young girl to finally question her actions? How did I know this young student so well? For you see, the girl was me.
I do not remember the remainder of the class, as I stood humbly sharing space with the hangers in the pitch-black closet. I wish from that day forward, I altered my foolish ways, became an outstanding student, and had success because of it. I did not. But I started to make a gradual change, which would not see fruition until my adulthood. My grades were above average in high school and only a little better in college. I used the excuse my parents’ hurtful home life determined my inability to succeed in school. It was a long transition, but I eventually made a metamorphic change from a lazy, entitled 15 year old to a productive and successful master teacher. Teaching came naturally when working with children who found it difficult to settle into the discipline of learning. I related well to those rambunctious kids, as they mirrored my childhood behavior. My students’ inappropriate conduct was symptomatic of something more serious, perhaps even relating to their home life. What I needed at the age of 15 were teachers’ intolerance of my actions and intervention with my inability to prepare my school work. What I received, for the most part, were teachers who allowed my unhinged conduct, while glancing at the clock, thanking God, they only had to put up with me 40 more minutes. I believe the same may be said about today’s teachers.
Placing today’s rude child in a coat closet would prove disastrous for job security, and rightfully so. Whereas many of today’s inexperienced teachers would never contemplate the coat closet as a form of discipline, these teachers do create their own virtual closet when they allow poor behavior to take place in the learning environment. Ignoring a disruptive child and allowing him to manipulate the classroom is cloistering him from achieving, as well as prohibiting the educational discourse of the other students.
My collegiate professors espoused “ignore the bad behavior, reward the good behavior.” I truly believe those professors, who preached this idiom, never darkened a public school classroom as an instructor. Ignoring the bad behavior only allowed it to ignite more bad behavior. Chaos in today’s classrooms (from EdSource) is a product of the Covid shutdowns. Teachers say they are struggling to teach students who are disengaged or exhibiting serious behavior problems. It is described as a current crisis in education.
Covid is a nice excuse but poor classroom management did not get its start with the shutdowns. Where does the solution lie? In my opinion, a serious revamping of Teachers Colleges must take place immediately. Classroom management is seldom taught in these institutions of higher learning. I believe I know the reason why. Collegiate professors are encouraged to research and write papers. Seldom do they have actual real-world experience in America’s public school classroom. It’s time these Teachers Colleges hire professors who have had at least five to ten years of recent experience in the actual field of teaching K-12 students. In my 25 years of working with student teachers, I can easily state that at least 90% of them had no idea how to get a class started. That was 30+ years ago. My experiences with new teachers in my last position demonstrated it has only gotten worse. These newbies dressed like the kids, fraternized with them and of course, yearned to be popular. However liking the teacher because he is cool does not translate into actual learning. In the latest 2023 report of the schools in my state, only 47% met or exceeded grade-level in English Language Arts with only 32.9% doing likewise in Math. As one parent wrote regarding my former school: The laziness of teachers on top of their over the top political views which are thrust down our kids throats is out of control. This school and it’s district ARE NOT what the hype will try to make you believe.
America’s public schools’ report card is not showing progress according to fortune.com. It’s time for action, not rhetoric. Today’s teachers are not given the tools in their post-secondary institutions for successful outcome-based learning. There are perspective teachers who are called to teach and possess the passion to do so. Today’s Teachers Colleges have an obligation to give them the skills they need to become successful. The beneficiaries are America’s children.
So how did this unruly teen of the 60’s evolve into someone called to teach for over four decades? By the Grace of God! In my early days of teaching, I tried to be the cool teacher who desperately wanted to be popular with the kids. But then I remembered my teenage self struggling because my teachers “just ignored the bad.” I knew I needed my students’ respect before I could get them to travel the productive pathway to learning. It was a journey filled with detours, obstacle courses and incredible experiences. God knew what He was doing when He called me to teach. The Japanese have it right: Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.
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