When all else fails, tell the migrating geese riddle

08 Jun

Elation and fatigue. A good combination, I guess. Figuring out where I ought to be, preparing for my re-entry into teaching. Subbing again this month after a year off has awakened that desire again. But I dreaded being in a fifth grade class, the only gig available that day, being more comfortable with older students. I like the developing complexity of teens, their ability to think in the abstract, appreciate multiple points of view, and control their impulses. They know how to work the tech equipment, and don’t need to be escorted between classes.

I arrive, am looking over my sub notes, see the first page lists names of students most likely to give me trouble. Then I see notes from yesterday’s sub–so they’ve been out of their routine already–that’s hard on them. A teacher comes in from across to give me a heads up, says this crew is a handful–they gave yesterday’s sub a hard time; she explains the usual disciplinary procedure, and pledges her support. She says she plans to come in and give a little talk on respecting the sub at the start of the class. Another comes in, and says basically the same thing, and wishes me luck. A third! Must have been some talk in the staff room yesterday. She says I can send the rowdies to her, no problem. It’s certainly a supportive place to work.

Despite the warnings, I feel ready. Eighteen years of parenting, eleven of homeschooling, and a few years teaching public school have done something for my confidence. I mindset to turn things around and not get pulled into a tug of war.

Ms. H– comes in at the start of home room, and says her piece. It comes across fine, not, as I’d feared, as if I was a wuss who needed the senior teacher’s help. Had that experience before. I add that I’ve been given The List, but I don’t plan to look at it unless someone’s going to cause trouble, and if they’re already on it, I’ll come down hard. Ms. H– likes that, later says she likes my style, has to get my number. Maybe I pulled the wool over some eyes there, since I’m not really that way.

And I find I just really like these kids–every one. Not that I’m afforded many meaningful exchanges in the busy classrooms, but they are fine, just fine. They’re really all ready to respect me, and I find all I seem to have to do is be kind and respectful, be real, laugh with them, do what I do best, ask them to help with the rest. “Where is the cafeteria, anyway?” “How do you usually do this?” “Sorry about switching partners on you, can you make it work anyway?” Um, who was that teacher who just came in?” “Yeah, it is boring, but it’s all I have right now. Any ideas how to make it better?” When I can appeal to their better nature, things flow pretty well, most of the time.

It was a fantastic day. I got to do some real teaching, not just administer a test, show a video, or supervise busywork. Didn’t have to send anyone anywhere besides the occasional seat switch for focus. A got kudos from several teachers, had no deadlocks with students, just lots of interesting “contextualized interventions” to keep noise down, keep students participating and being nice to each other, and, what swelled my head most, twice I overheard students calling me “nice.”

Student discipline: “You just have to keep your thumb down,” said one teacher. “Keep ’em in line,” “Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” and so on. We throw the words around, but the best teachers, the ones I respect because I see how they really are with students, don’t really live by that. I think one of the biggest mistakes new teachers make is to take that advice as first principles. But it’s not that simple. It’s not about “classroom control” in that sense. It’s a very difficult thing to express, but achieving a state of educational progress, not a state, a flow, is an art, not a set of techniques. It’s about being very observant, getting a handle on the plan and routine, keeping things going, and showing you really are glad to be there and intend to do your best. And never, ever, trampling any student’s dignity, while, as much as possible, keeping one’s own ego out of it.

Contracted teachers can be so stressed, tired, discouraged, and sometimes it means stupid discipline. As a sub, I think it’s easier to be objective about it. I’m not hampered by loyalty to the system or school or staff, not so concerned about job security or impressing the principal, not tired or burned out, and in most cases the previous reputations of students are unknown to me. Another advantage is that, if I float from place to place, I remain somewhat of a novelty, a mystery.

Dumb discipline–once it was three boys goofing around in an assembly, and a teacher picked one and came down hard, on the wrong one. It was before the event had started, and after they had no doubt been sitting still in their chairs for a hour, and needed to move a bit, check in with the tribe, connect and laugh. Is that so bad? I can’t remember what caught the teacher’s attention–I think it was an object snatched and tossed. She steps in, picks the one the thinks is guilty, tells him to stand, face to the wall, until she says he’s done. It’s called “Step 1,” part of the “Steps” disciplinary strategy. When a kid breaks a rule, the teacher is to say “You’ve chosen Step 1,” and he or she has to stand apart in a designated area until talked to by the teacher, to think, take responsibility and discuss a better way, then they are released. Or go to Step 2 if they continue to break the rules, until there’s an office visit, etc. Handy, straightforward, logical, open to intelligent interpretation by individual staff. And the kids knew what to expect, wherever they were in the school building.

But this teacher was pissed off, perhaps off her game because of the change of routine, and busy with other things. The boy stood there, and stood there. Had she even remembered he was waiting? He looked embarrassed, out of his element. I wanted to step in, since I’d seen the incident, but didn’t want to mess with a teacher on her high horse. What was going through his mind? I didn’t do anything (he hadn’t). This is dumb (it was). Teachers aren’t fair (she wasn’t). My friends are laughing (they were).

As a teacher,you try to interpret events, see who started it, make an example, get back to your job of teaching the others as quickly as possible, but if you realize you’ve got it wrong, for God’s sake, admit it! Many a time in my first year teaching I left a student outside waiting for a talking-to, forgetting they were there. I’ve yelled at students out of cumulative irritation, overreacted, been unfair, reinforced bad behavior with attention, missed important incidents. And I remember that feeling of just being such a rookie–if things started to slide out of control, started to become merely a show, a show of my incompetence and the coolness of some clown, I felt so tense, so frustrated. It takes time to learn the subtle art of classroom control. The very term is misleading, really. It’s more a process of observational, relational, verbal, physical, and emotional multitasking. And having reasonable expectations is very important. I will probably always set impossibly high expectations of what I want to accomplish with and for students, but I’m learning to notice progress, in any case. And I try to take it all with good humor.

When all else fails, I tell this riddle:

You know those V-formations of geese flying their migration routes? How there’s always one arm of the V that’s longer than the other? Who knows why that is?

(I’ve told this any number of times, and hardly ever hear the right answer, which is: Because there are more geese in that one.)


Posted by on June 8, 2013 in Education, Places & Experiences


Tags: , ,

4 responses to “When all else fails, tell the migrating geese riddle

  1. thelandroverownerswife

    June 9, 2013 at 2:35 am

    What age range is Grade 5? Year 5 in the UK is 9-10 year olds and is the penultimate year of Primary School (elementary? in the States, I think). Year 7 is the first year of what I guess you guys call High School but we call Secondary School.

    • prettymuch

      June 9, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      Fifth graders here are expected to be age 10 by the start of the school year in September, equivalent to your year 6 (our real “year one” would be kindergarten stating at age 5, though next is “first grade”). In our county that’s the last year of elementary, 6th-8th graders are middle schoolers, then high school 9th-12th. The next county over does K-8th all together (mostly rural communities, not worth bussing middle schoolers to central location), then high school. In our state currently, formal school is not mandatory until age 8 (research-based), and after that one may be registered as a homeschooler. Other states are much more restrictive.

      • thelandroverownerswife

        June 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm

        Wow, that sounds complicated.

        Over here, when I see the Foundation children lining up on the first day of the school year in September, I often feel that it is too soon, as the youngest Foundation child may just have turned 4 in the August. Foundation isn’t a compulsory year but there is a lot of unspoken pressure to enrol your child to ensure they aren’t ‘behind’ the others come Year 1 (the first mandatory year in the UK – child to be turning 6 during the academic year) and that they aren’t the odd person out with all the other children knowing each other.

        The difference in mandatory age between the UK and the States sounds huge but I seem to remember watching a documentary a few years ago which proved that by the time the children in both countries got to around aged 13/14 (I think) they were pretty much on a par with each other.

        I suspect the parental acceptance of a Foundation year in the UK, is, for the most part, driven by a parents need to get back to work and not have to incur a full days child care cost. This is wrong but in the current climate over here, families like ours, where mum or dad stay home to be there for the children, are becoming rarer and rarer and I can’t help but feel this is not a good thing.

        I’m glad you had such a positive experience as a sub though 🙂

      • prettymuch

        June 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm

        I agree that the pressure on parents to send their kids to school is largely about economics. Also maintaining economic growth and productivity. Stay-at-home parenting creates no tax revenue, while both daycare businesses and working parents do. Also, on the child-centered side, there’s a real need for economically disadvantaged kids and English language learners to be exposed to good early education–this is not a need, or an advantage, for every child, however.
        About the mandatory age, perhaps I wasn’t clear– eight years only in Washington state, perhaps a few others. Most parents do not know this and assume that all five year olds need to go to kindergarten, and usually to preschool before that. There’s are continuous attempts to push the mandatory age back to five or younger, and activist homeschoolers continually lobby against it.


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