The old maxim, “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving,” as an approach for teachers to instill order at the start of a new school year has never been more invalid and disconnected from the generation of young people who sit in our classrooms. The essence of the saying is about wearing a mask that embodies seriousness and commands respect. There will always be some students who test the rules to see what behaviors the teacher will tolerate.
It’s understandable if new teachers are intimidated by and preoccupied with effective classroom management. One of the quickest ways to lose power at the all-boys high school where I teach, though, is to stand behind the podium wearing a continence without any semblance of kindness.
To whatever degree I’ve been able to impart skills and strategies—point my male students toward an engaging path of inquiry—whatever inspirations have taken place in nearly two decades of teaching teen-aged guys, those desirable outcomes happen most when I’ve become an ally who challenges them fairly rather than an overly rigid tight-ass who appears to be out to get them.
When kids are old enough to have their own phones, what lights up their faces in intervals throughout each day, besides supportive connections with friends and loved ones, is a culture of cruelty. Sure, online bullying is a contributor to this, but I’m not thinking of personal attacks against them, so much as I’m concerned with the rampant glorification of judgment and condemnation they see in “Twitter beef” between sparing famous people, defaming memes, or YouTube videos whose exclusive purpose is to entertain through ridicule.
Let’s acknowledge the unrelenting presence of our president disparaging the latest person rousing his ire on Twitter. Meanness has never lived with greater proliferation or ubiquity than in our current age of accusation. Boys are bombarded by the inescapable male meanness, in particular, from the relentless tweets coming from our president.
Most high school teachers have well over one hundred fragile teenage egos coming in and out of their classroom each day. Inevitably, one of them will challenge us when our thresholds have dipped below optimal levels and we’ll react to them in a way we regret. Every year, at least a few times, I’ll wince when I remember one of these incidents later that night when I’m loading the dishwasher or mowing the lawn. Teachers have so much power to influence how students see themselves. It’s so easy to forget this in the throes of a school day. As a male teacher, there’s an enhanced opportunity to teach young men about their humanity, about messing up and owning it.
My first interaction with Rob comes to mind. When he became my student, I eventually knew him to be a gregarious guy who hid his vulnerabilities behind humor. I met Rob the previous year. It was May. Even though he was not yet a student of mine he decided to sit in my class. I had never met him before, but I recognized Rob because he had developed a reputation as a wise-guy.
I approached him and raised my arm, pointing to the door.
“Out,” I said.
“Oh, c’mon, Mr. Chesbro, I can’t stay? I heard you’re a great teacher,” he responded while grinning. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
“Out,” I repeated.
“I’m going to have you next year for AP and I wanted a preview. I can’t stay?” The class watched me look at the wise-guy as I decided my next move. “I’m only kidding, Mr. Chesbro, I was just asking my friend here if he needed a ride after school,” he said, as he stood from the desk.< “All right,” I responded as I offered him my hand. “Why don’t we start over. What’s your name?” I asked.
I thought about my impatience with Rob as I drove home that day. Sometimes I forget the number of burdens some kids walk around carrying. Teachers don’t always get an e-mail from a parent or guidance counselor about a student in emotional duress because the family might be too embarrassed to tell the school about the older sibling in rehab, or the incarcerated parent, or the weight of the words such as cancer or divorce are so new the family isn’t ready to share them yet. While Rob was most likely only talking to a friend who happened to be in my class, students have all kinds of odd ways of seeking attention from adults in a school.
What compels me to follow up with a student is when I think they might be questioning whether I’m on their team or not, if they have misinterpreted my response to them as one more force they need to armor themselves against in the daily adolescent struggle for self-confidence. Whether they reveal it to us or not, all students are trees in a forest of other trees leaning and stretching themselves toward whatever light they can find.
Rob accepted my apology that afternoon. From my experience, apologizing to a student enhances my rapport with them. After all, we are the ones always pointing out their missed homework, and wrong answers, and it seems to me we are uniquely positioned to set ourselves apart from a culture of cruelty that confronts them, at all hours, on their phones. An apology from a teacher to a student gives them a glimpse into our humanity and maybe it even can help them begin to accept their own.
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