Friday, December 14, 2007

When The Teacher's Away

In the season of flus, family vacations, and fearless weather-related commuting, substitute teachers tend to get some extra work. That was the case last week in my Peace Games class.

Given all of the variables that a substitute teacher introduces into a classroom - new routines, unknown names or personalities, a lesson plan that may be too much or not nearly enough - the day can quickly descend into six hours of crowd control. It was certainly the case when I was in school and not much has changed in the years since. I'm used to this, and so when the students were a little rowdier than usual I took it in stride. I saw it as an opportunity to let some of their true selves rise to the surface. I saw that Caroline is the not-so-subtle leader - the real "Queen Bee" - in this class, as she gathered friends around her and excluded others. I tried to console Lebron through his suddenly unpredictable mood swings, as he went from coloring quietly to tossing his marker across the room to nursing his bruised ego. And I couldn't help but see that Zhade stayed remarkably calm through all of the chaos. I just tried to take it all in and make it a learning experience, more for me than for them but I thought that was pretty good considering. I mean, we got through a lesson plan and no one was seriously injured, egos aside, so I called that a success.

My co-teacher, a graduate student originally from Eastern Europe, saw the scene very differently. She was mortified. And when I told her that it was really pretty good in comparison to some I'd seen, she was in shock. I wondered whether maybe I'd just become immune - or worse, insensitive. The more people she spoke to, however, the more normalized it seemed to become: this is just the way things are, at least in this country. She seemed disinclined to settle for this oversimplification, and her perspective got me thinking a little bit about substitute teachers and what they inspire.

I picked over in my head some of the more memorable substitute teachers I'd had in my lifetime and some of the things that we'd done to them, and it occured to me: being a student in a substitute teacher's classroom is quite possibly the closest I've ever come to being in a mob. It really was like a mob mentality. I remembered one day with particular horror. I think it was fifth grade and by the end of the day students were literally lifting their desks and chairs over their head and carrying them out of the building. They wanted to sit outside, they explained, and out they went. And meanwhile, inside, it was a free-for-all - running, falling over each other, scribbling on each other's notebooks, using colored chalk on the board - and I was right in there. And it's not like we didn't know how to behave - or didn't expect to be reprimanded as severely as we were (and as we surely deserved to be) - but it felt out of our hands. We were looking for leadership, and when we couldn't find it at the front of the classroom (from this poor woman who'd never been to our class, who didn't know the first thing about us, who was wholly ill-equipped for what we threw her way, both literally and figuratively) we looked to each other. The loud voices rose to the top, by their words and their actions, and pretty soon we were all maurauding with the best of them. A righteous, directionless mob of 10 year-olds.

In the aftermath - the day after - we took a real verbal thrashing from our teacher (who, in fairness to us, had been very transparent about her "Irish temper" on the first day of school, so we really should've known better). I'd never seen her so mad. And when she asked - no, demanded - that we explain ourselves, there wasn't one person who could do it adequately. After all, what excuses could we give? There were none. We couldn't understand what we'd done. It was as if we had been in a trance - or at least, that's how I felt.

So, what to do. After all, despite best intentions and hopes to the contrary, most every teacher needs to take a sick day once in awhile - and it's in these situations that we, as the adults, look to students to be the leaders. And there's no question that this is exactly what they become. The question is, what kind of leadership will they show? The true test determinant in whether we have prepared them adequately to be peacemakers is what happens when a fight breaks out and no adult is there to be the deterrent or arbitrator. What instincts win out in a vacuum?

Of course, our class last week was just one mile marker on the road to peacemaking. It wasn't the worst case scenario, but when we were confronted with conflicts we tended to juggle them rather than manage them. It's what most teachers do all day long, out of necessity. Because of that - and because a week has passed and because I'd become acclimated to craziness around substitute teachers, unlike my co-teacher - I'd been inclined just to let it all go, to go in next week and leave the "baggage" at the door and start over. It's not an entirely bad idea, necessarily, but it lacks a little creativity and a lot of courage.

It takes courage to confront conflict and be willing to acknowledge it, to say unambiguously, There was a problem here and here's how it made me feel. It's a not-so-tacit way of saying that actions have reactions and consequences, and it uses a real and non-abstract example. It doesn't need to be finger-wagging and scolding, but if done well and to the point it could create a new set of expectations for the next time we're on our own, expectations rooted not just in "rules" but in relationships.

And that, really, is at the heart of this peacemaking thing.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

From Kindergarten to the Campaign Trail

I remember writing a "short story" in fifth grade, in which I was the President of the United States. As I recall, the plot was either unconventional or uninteresting, depending on your point of view: I stopped at a McDonald's and wound up being mobbed by the adoring crowds before sneaking back to the White House with tattered clothes and a half-eaten cheeseburger. Another report came out this week that suggests that my story - or even the remote possibility that my teacher, Ms. McNamee, remembers reading it - may come back to haunt me, should I ever decide to run for public office.

Kids, be careful what you write about wanting to be president. Those refrigerator gems are now fair game. As reported in the Chicago Tribune this weekend, the rhetoric between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama has turned into something resembling a recess spat. This weekend, Clinton's campaign issued a press release that cited these alarming anecdotes:
  • In third grade, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want To Be a President.' His third grade teacher: Fermina Katarina Sinaga "asked her class to write an essay titled 'My dream: What I want to be in the future.' Senator Obama wrote 'I want to be a President,' she said." [The Los Angeles Times, 3/15/07]
  • In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want to Become President.’ "Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama's kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, 'I Want To Become President,' the teacher said." [AP, 1/25/07 ]
They were part of her rebuttal to Obama's claims that, unlike himself, "others" in the field have been priming their careers and angling for the presidency for decades. Sure showed him, I'd say.

This new strategy notwithstanding, I have no regrets about that fifth grade story. I've since become a vegetarian, tend to shun suit-wearing whenever possible, and feel okay with not being president - but there is something affirming about having been able, encouraged even, to write a story like that. In fact, I'd suspect that Little Hillary has a few of these in her past, too. They are hallmarks of hopeful childhoods that have had at least some modicum of encouragement, whether that be from a family member or from someone like either Ms. Darmawan or Ms. Sinaga (in Obama's past) or Ms. McNamee (in mine).