Thursday, October 5, 2017

Teacher Voice

You know this voice.

I used my teacher voice twice today.

It's a common experience among teachers that entire years of children have personalities that remain consistent throughout elementary school. Last year's kindergartners, for instance, were a charming bunch of cuties, and that's held true with them as first graders. This year's fourth graders, on the other hand, were challenging to work with as third graders, and while I don't have personal experience to back it up, that seems to have been true of them going all the way back to kindergarten. It's certainly true of them now, and it was, in fact, a fourth grade class that brought out my teacher voice for the second time this morning.

The first time it came out was with a second grade class. That's not quite fair: there was really just one child in the class who led me to use the voice that is like a heavy spear, projected across even the largest room, a voice that communicates both authority and restrained anger, that cannot be ignored, and has never failed to get the attention of the offending student on whom every other technique has failed. I won't use the actual name of this child, but away from school, I like to refer to him as the Destroyer.

First grade was his first experience of public school. Prior to that, he'd been home-schooled. At first, we teachers put down his defiant and disruptive behavior to attention-getting: he didn't like sharing adult attention with twenty-plus other children, so he made sure he got the lion's share of it. From day one, he was (and remains) the kind of child who cares not a whit whether the attention he receives is positive or negative. And in fact, because we equity-minded education professionals are scrupulous about meting out fair shares of praise and encouragement to every student, and urging classes to work together as learning communities, the individual troublemaker does get more attention per capita than any other child. Again, it's mostly negative, no matter how gently it's framed, but children like the Destroyer don't make any distinction about that. One on one time in the principal's office is far preferable to having to share a teacher with two dozen other children.

Over the course of his first grade year, the Destroyer was so effective at causing every music (and this was true of PE, as well) class to revolve around his antics that he had it down to a science: he got himself removed from class earlier and earlier, until finally he just went directly to the principal's office rather than the music room or gym. As much as I believe in the importance of music education to every child, I must admit I was relieved not to have this one in my room: the rest of the class could finally learn something. Toward the end of the year, the principal got tired of babysitting him, and he did seem to be maturing enough that, once he'd been reintroduced to specials, he didn't need any more attention than any other challenging first grader.

All children lose knowledge over long American summer breaks, and elementary curricula take that into account, filling much of September with review. That goes for classroom management, as well: we spend a good chunk of time the first few weeks going over expectations and reminding children of them. This year, we've also introduced a new system called PAX that has made a game of positive behavior, and it's been working well in many of my classes. It's a community-oriented system, rewarding children when they work together as a class to reduce disruptions and increase on-task time, in hopes of receiving a small reward of some silly time at the end. I've been impressed with how well this new frame of reference works with many classes I would've found difficult to deal with in previous years of my career.

I said many. It's not all of them: every class has one or two holdouts who don't quite get it, though the peer pressure with this system is far more powerful than with any other I've experience.

It may not surprise you to learn that the Destroyer wants none of it.

Today he single-handedly made it impossible for his class to get through more than the first five minutes of the music lesson. He engaged in low-grade disruptions that slowly escalated to dead-eyed defiance. Calling for help from the office is useless with this child: he wants to go there, and receive the dedicated attention of whatever adult is trying to convince him of the error of his ways. Twenty minutes into class, I finally concluded he needed to be separated from the rest of the children, and sent him to the "cool off rug" (same principle as the time out, with the added understanding that some children just need a minute to collect themselves). He made a dramatically slow crawl across the room. I chose to ignore him, doing my best to focus on the musical piece I was trying to teach the rest of the class. Once he finally got there, he tested me by sitting next to, not on, the rug. I ignored him. He folded up the rug. I continued to ignore him. He got up, took down a xylophone from the counter where I'd put it after using it to demonstrate some things to the class during the first few minutes before the Destroyer hijacked it, found the large mallet that's reserved for playing the gong, and began to pound on the xylophone.

The teacher voice came out with a single mortar shell of direction: "STOP."

The other children froze. I strode toward the back of the room where the Destroyer was sitting. Before I could reach him, he hurled the mallet at the children sitting on the other side of the room. It didn't hit any of them. I spoke a few more teacher voice words to the Destroyer (I don't remember what they were), looked at the clock, and realized there wasn't time to give him what he wanted and have him removed, thus at least salvaging a few minutes of teaching time: it was now time for the rest of the class to line up. In the hallway, I told his classroom teacher about what had happened. "It goes on all day," she said with a sigh, just before she begged me to write it up as a major referral.

I did that at lunchtime. I also emailed his parents, requesting they meet with me during conference week. I don't know that it will do any good, but somehow, I need to come up with a plan for him.

The rest of the morning did not go well. I was off my game. First graders, more second graders, even kindergartners were doing poorly. The one bright light was a third grade class that shone with a drum circle lesson. They were succeeded by a fourth grade class that evoked my teacher voice again with a tattle storm and loud, disruptive behavior that resulted in me writing three minor referrals during my lunch break. The second fourth grade class did well, and after lunch, I had a great time with two classes of fifth graders (a group that has, by all accounts, been consistently wonderful since kindergarten). 

But back to the Destroyer: sitting in the study, retreating from the mah jongg party going on downstairs, I dozed off for awhile (this year I've been coming home drained almost every day, in large part because I'm teaching seven classes back to back every morning), awaking to realize that the second grade Destroyer is a metaphor for the political nightmare this country is immersed in.

Think about it: we have a President who daily assaults us with attention-demanding tweets that are a shit salad of insults, boasts, and senseless blurts. His executive actions are prompted not by any desire to do what's right for the country, but rather by efforts to shore up his racist base, to reward loyalty, and to punish those who dare disagree with him. Yesterday, it was revealed that the secretary of state referred to him in July as a "fucking moron." Today I saw a headline that suggested he and the other two high-functioning members of the cabinet have a "suicide pact": if one of them is fired or forced to resign, the other two will quit in solidarity, leaving the White House essentially headless.

Trump has surrounded himself with lackeys and grifters, creating a kleptomaniacal swamp astronomically worse than anything that has existed at least since the Harding administration. He has elevated family members with no expertise or experience in the policy matters they now direct, appointed celebrities to manage huge departments and agencies, and handed the Department of Justice to a closet Klansman who would love nothing more than to transform the nation into a 21st century version of the Jim Crow South. Every day brings a barrage of new absurdities and outrages that would have dominated news coverage in any previous administration, but is now just par for the course. The Trump regime is wearing us down: politeness, civility, the PAX method are useless against its single-minded assault on our better angels.

It's time for Congress and the courts to use their teacher voice, to stand up straight, stare the rich Destroyer in the eye, and say "STOP." Your antics have gone too far, Mr. President. There's so much we should be doing, but can't even begin on: hurricane-wracked cities needing cleanup and rebuilding, infrastructure projects put on hold decades ago, undocumented immigrants who need to be naturalized rather than demonized, an unwieldy national health system that a bipartisan effort could make huge improvements on, a gun lobby that is well past the time when it should have been told that of course we're going to politicize this and every mass shooting from now on because it's gun politics that make them possible...

In short, we need a President. Instead, we've got a spoiled seventy-year-old rich jerk who's acting a tenth his age, whose insatiable hunger for attention cannot abide anyone or anything receiving headlines with bigger fonts than his. As long as he continues to play this monstrous game, the nation will be wearily watching as yet another scandal breaks, even worse than what came yesterday but soon to be subsumed by an even more horrifying revelation in this evening's update.

Come to think of it, Congress is never going to roll out its teacher voice. That leaves the rest of us to do it.

Altogether, now: it's a head voice, but it starts in the diaphragm. Aim it square between the miscreant's eyes. And keep it simple: diatribes in teacher voice don't redirect; they just badger. Say it with me, so assertively, firmly, and loudly that he can't ignore it:

STOP.

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