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Who's in Charge?

by Nancy Clark

Being female, especially a young female, and teaching at high school level, I often employed classroom control strategies that men would perhaps not need. Even when "young" no longer applied, it seemed that always there were students--boys, especially--who needed to try out their emerging male personas on a female teacher.

It probably would not have mattered which gender teacher was present, however, on the day in my classroom that two big sophomore boys fast prompted one another to raise fists and rush to battle. (Over a female, what else?) It would have been great just then to be a man, but fortunately my rush between them worked. Along with that probably ill-advised action, I added a shout so loud that everyone else in the class raised their collective eyebrows, dropped their jaws, and sat frozen. They had never heard such volume from me before--and it had the same impact on the poised combatants.

So on this day, I strode between them and with tremendous volume shouted, "No way, guys! NOT in my classroom!" I picked the one I thought most likely to respond, set my chin, and shouted in his face, "You, Jason--right now--head for the hallway--GO!" He fled. I spun to the other one and pointed to a chair apart from the class, "Mike, sit there--NOW--and don't move!" Divide and conquer. Then one at a time to the Dean's office.

The suddenly loud voice worked for me. One particular incident was memorable. I was conducting individual writing conferences in a classroom of tables set up in a huge U configuration. I'd admonished the kids to stay focused and productive while I gave individual attention to one at a time. They knew the routine. Sitting at one end of the U was Kevin, who was typically uninterested, moody, and on this day without any writing draft of his own. Twice I looked up to find him standing in the back of the room conversing with a buddy. Twice I eye-contacted him and pointed to his seat, and he reseated himself. The third time, however, I let out a deafening, "Kevin, if you don't get back in your seat and stay there, I'm going to break both your legs!" Everyone watched as Kevin, paced slowly back and sat down, whereupon he looked up and sneered, "You couldn't break my legs."

"You sat down, didn't you?" I retorted. A partially suppressed twittering from the rest of the kids iced my cake. Kevin stayed seated.

Then there was Brian--in a keyboarding classroom filled with shiny new computer screens. Brian was freshman who had proved he needed watching. And I was a teacher who managed by walking around. Typing drill was in progress when suddenly a girl on the center aisle yelped, "Oh, gross!" There on her screen was a huge spit-wad dripping its way toward the keyboard.

I looked quickly at the projection possibilities: two logical choices, Brian being one. I walked to the network power switch and shut down the entire lab. "You have all been coached about the importance of careful treatment of this equipment. Now," I said, "I leave the lab shut down until either someone either admits to the deed or rats on the jerk who did it." Right away there was loud consternation among twenty-five freshmen, who were irritated at being shut down. Heads turned toward Brian, who grinned and looked for some shred of approval.

What followed had an unexpected result. Calmly, I ordered Brian to the hallway, telling him to sit on the floor. I flipped the switch back on, walked to the hallway, and then, standing over Brian, I let the loud voice loose. I attracted the attention of the in-school policeman, who came and stood behind me. (Later he said he did not interfere since I seemed to be doing OK on my own.) In my anger at one point, I struck my hands together in a loud clap. I sent Brian down the hall to the Dean's office with the policeman watching him go.

With a deep breath I walked back into the classroom to find everyone deeply involved with keeping their eyes on the copy and typing with great dedication. In fact, that went on for so long despite my back-to-normal approach, that I stopped the kids before the end of the period to say, "Hey, the incident is over. What's wrong here?" Silence. Sidelong looks at one another.

Finally, one brave freshman raised his hand. "Well, we heard the slap when you hit Brian." They had concluded that I'd hit him!

So I executed a single clap, saying, "That's what you heard." Relief spread through the room. And I was relieved that the notion had not gone home with them to be repeated to parents.

There is also a part of the growing male persona that wants to "save" the lady in distress.

Daily during a senior English class, groups of freshmen on their lunch hour would gather by their lockers and become so loud that we in the classroom couldn't function well. On two different days I had stepped outside to remedy the situation, and they quieted down. But freshman in lunchtime bunches have short memories, and at the next boisterous gathering, big Dave, the mayor's son, stood up saying, "Lemme take care of 'em, Mrs. Clark." He opened the door and closed it behind him. Whatever he said, combined with his football body presence, caused the freshman to improve their memories for ever after. I shall always recall Dave's swagger when he came back in, surveyed all of us and said, "It's all taken care of. Now, where were we?" I never asked him what he said.

Another time, Tom, the smallest of junior boys, a wrestler, saved the day for me. This was a remedial English class of fourteen boys and two girls. There were some rough kids in that group, and among them one who had been "locked up," according to the kids. Brian came from a hard family; he had a surly manner, a sidelong sneering glance, and seemed perched on the edge of defiance most of the time.

On this day I had called on Brian to respond in class, and he let loose a stream of swearing. This would call for my disciplinary response--and I wasn't too happy about that, considering the particular kid. But, Tom, sitting in the front row, turned immediately to Brian and said, "Hey, cool down, man." Then he looked at me and at his much bigger wrestling buddy and back at Brian and declared, "Brian's not going to say any more, Mrs. Clark, and I apologize for him. You know, some of us may do a lot of bad things, but we don't swear in class." And his wrestler friend smiled support, and others nodded in approval. Tom had his moment of rescuing the "female in distress," with peer approval---and I was indeed grateful.

Bill was a sophomore in English composition class. Bill had not yet seen the size of his mind and his potential compared to other kids; he had seen, however, the appeal of gangs, drugs, and an anti-authority stance. He was from a divorced home with little support. He thought and wrote (when he chose to) exceptionally well. In my attempt to get him to do enough to get his credit, I read his surprised reactions one day when I told him frankly that he had an exceptional mind compared to the great crowds of high schoolers that surrounded him--and what I predicted he could do with it. Perhaps that was what he remembered (as opposed to my other regular prodding) when the class found themselves lining both sides of the building hallway during a tornado alert. It was not a drill, but rather a real tornado warning in the area. I was marshalling not only my kids but any others in the mix to "please sit, back to the wall" when one boy standing in the middle of the hall refused to cooperate. "You can't make me do anything, lady, so back off!" Bill sprang to his feet and put his face squarely in the other guy's, and undertoned, "You're not going to give this lady any static. Either you sit down, like she said, or we'll take this outside after the storm, just you and me."

My jaw dropped; I stepped back. The guy sat down, and Bill, having wielded his reputation and mystique, dropped back into place. "No sweat, Mrs. Clark." And he was not looking for peer approval. Later I gave him a quiet, "Thanks, Bill," and he only nodded.

Who was in charge? Whoever it was at any of those times, I counted myself a winner.

Selection 32 of

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Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Clark. All rights reserved.