Honing the Proper Persona for Public School
New teachers often express the same sentiments over and over when they take their first public school teaching job:
I can’t believe these kids! They don’t care about anything!
They are amazed at the audacity of some kids in their class, and exclaim, I would never dream of acting like that when I was in high school.
Well, the reason they say that is simple: They didn’t grow up in the ghetto.
I wasn’t surprised about a thing when I took my first teaching job. On the contrary, I was surprised at how well-behaved the students could be once I properly implemented tough classroom discipline.
I remember sitting in my Algebra I class as a freshmen in public high school. A guy named Jesus rolled a joint on his desk every other day, then put it behind his ear for the entirety of the class period. Six black guys played dominoes for the entire hour, and if the teacher came by to ask them to do their work, they would laugh and tell him to fuck off. So when I got my first job, my biggest worry was that I would be an ineffective wuss who the students could easily roll over as if I was…well, a joint.
But discipline wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be, and I think I know why: I have a little bit of ghetto in me.
When I went to UC Davis, and played soccer for the Men’s Soccer Team, I had a nickname that surprised me. I was known as “Ghetto Matt,” or just, “Ghetto.”
“Hey Ghetto, hurry up with those bags,” they would call out. Even funnier, these words even came from the mouth of the coach at times when he wanted to be funny. “C’mon Ghetto, pick it up!”
I was surprised by this nickname, because in high school I though of myself as one of the least ghetto kids on campus. But that was because I was comparing myself to kids who were far, far worse. It turns out, once I entered the real world, I was ghettoer than almost everybody.
Fast-forward to my first year of teaching. I seemed to have an easier time controlling my classes than most new teachers. There are a few reasons for this. First, I knew what I was getting myself into, and wasn’t surprised when my students came in without backpacks and had grills in their mouths. I was expecting it, and I got just what I expected. Second, because I came from the same neighborhood as my students, I have a little bit of ghetto in me, and I let them know it’s there.
Unfortunately, being gangster isn’t a skill that can be taught. It comes from a youth surrounded by negative peers, and participating in various crimes and questionable activities. I’m not going to ask you to go out and get arrested like I did as a kid. It’s too late for that. But I think I can give you some pointers on how to deal with the students in your classroom. I’ve previously written about building relationships with the people in charge of discipline, and how you should look at your students. These will help, and if you haven’t read them, I strongly suggest you check them out.
The first piece of advice I need to give you is that you need to have an edge.
The good news is that you don’t need to be from the ghetto to have an edge. My mentor is a soft-spoken white woman from North Dakota who has been teaching for 20 years. If you saw her, you would think she looks like the kind of woman who might not belong in a school where the security staff outnumbers the counselors. But she does. You can walk into her class when her students are doing group projects, and they are still speaking in whispers. She might be the nicest person on earth, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t kick a little ass.
How do you get an edge? Well, it’s kind of like a no-nonsense attitude where the students know you’re only a half-second away from ripping into them. No matter how calm and composed you seem normally, they need to know you can turn it on at will. This is kind of hard to explain, so I’ll try using an example.
Let’s say you’re teaching a lesson, and a student calls a girl sitting in front of him a “fat bitch.” The worst thing you can do is ignore it. If you do that, the entire class now knows you don’t want to confront the real stuff, and the ensuing weeks are going to be painful. Instead, you stop class cold, and say something like, “Wow, Pablo, I can’t believe you think you’re allowed to talk like that in my classroom. In fact, I am downright amazed. We’ll talk a little more about it when the bell rings, but for right now go sit over there now!”
Don’t stop the class for too long, and don’t ask him to apologize. That can come later. You don’t want to get in an argument, in fact, you don’t want the student to talk at all. You do all the talking, and end it with a command. Maybe like me, you send kids outside to a bench to cool off. Maybe you have a desk in the back. But you probably want to have a place to send them without sending them to the office. The office is a last resort. But they do need to know that when you send them to the back of the room, they are one step from the office.
Without even waiting for the student to get to the back of the room, resume your lesson. Make a point of ignoring the offending student (unless they start mouthing off, then they’re gone). And just before the bell rings, call them over to sit with you at your desk so that the whole class sees (see my post How to Have the Conversation After Class).
You might have noticed one very important aspect from my example, which is my second point: Don’t ever get mad, and never scream.
If you listen to any of the advice on this blog, make it this one. Never yell at your class, and please, please, please don’t ever get in a screaming match with a student. If a student is yelling, there is no way you are going to reason with them. They are beyond rational conversation and logic. And remember this: A student usually starts screaming because a teacher does.
You should never let yourself lose your cool. If that happens, you are finished. Once you start screaming and yelling, the students have won — and they know it.
I am always dumbfounded when I walk by the classroom of a “screamer.” It is amazing. There is the teacher, yelling at the top of their lungs. They sound like everyone’s imitation of a screaming grandmother. “Waa! Waa! Waa!” Then there are the students, who have seen this act so many times, they don’t even notice it anymore. Some of them are laughing. Half of them are smiling. They know that the teacher has lost it, and it happens so often, they have stopped worrying that there might be repercussions. They know there won’t be. Screaming is nothing but empty threats, and they are savvy enough to understand that.
I yell at my students three or four times a year (notice I said “yell” and not “scream”). I never yell at them in the first two or three months. I yell so rarely, that when I do they are amazed and a little worried. I plan my yells strategically throughout the year when I feel myself losing my iron grip on the class. You know the feeling. A few of them have been mouthing off a little too much, and one or two of them think they are starting to run the class. I do my yelling on Monday or Tuesday, and go about being sour for the rest of the week. The week following that is always a good one, trust me.
Even when I yell, I never lose my cool. It is a cold, calculated yell that is a few months into the year. The students know me by then, and hopefully respect me. And I have killed them with so much kindness up until that point, they feel they’ve disappointed me. They don’t just brush me off as a ranting looney.
I guess there is one last piece of advice I’ll give you about having an edge. This might also be one of those that can’t be taught, and must be partially natural and partially shaped and honed.
You need to be the wittiest and most sarcastic person in the classroom.
You may think this goes without saying, because teachers are the only adult in a classroom full of kids — but it doesn’t. As you know, these kids left childhood behind a long, long time ago. They are like drunken adults. They know their way around the street, and have seen just as many grown up things in their short lives as some forty-year-olds. And they are funny. Man, some students are absolutely hilarious, even if most of their jokes are inappropriate and in bad taste. They are still witty, comical little things who are looking to wrestle control of the class from you.
This relates to being the Alpha Dog in the classroom. You need to be in charge, because if you’re not, someone else is. This means you need to outwit every challenger who steps up to the plate. Make them look a little bit foolish. Cap on them. Get the class rolling — but never in a mean way. If you make fun of them, do it with a smile, then go over and play-punch whoever you capped on. Let them know that if they open mouth, they are going to get something — but never outright disrespect them.
To sum it all up, you need to combine these strategies so that you are a teacher with an edge. Always keep a cool composure, but right underneath it, let them know if they step out of line you’ll bust their ass. Never scream, and only yell a few times a year. In the ghetto, they respect cool. You need to always maintain your cool, but do it in a dangerous way. And you better be the Alpha — the wittiest person in the room. You need to be able to meet all challengers. If you can’t do that, you’re in trouble, plain and simple.
Unfortunately, not all of this can be taught, and there is a lot more that goes into having the proper persona than I can cover in just one blog. You’ll have to keep reading if you want more tips just like these.
I guess I should still remind you about the importance of professionalism. Just because I come into class some days with an Oakland A’s hat cocked a little bit to the right, doesn’t mean I’m up in front of my class acting like some idiot rapper. I think it is important for kids in the inner-city to have role-models who are urban, but are professionals. That is what we are missing, people from the bad neighborhoods who show you can still be successful and cool (I know, I’m making a big leap by calling myself cool).
They say teaching is an art, and I believe it. Some people are born to do it, others work at it. Sadly, I will say this: You are going to have a tougher time teaching in a low-income public school than someone who was born in a similar neighborhood and went to a school just like it. That is just a fact of life — we are products of our environment, and what is familiar is easier, what is unfamiliar is more difficult. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
Remember my mentor. She grew up in North Dakota, thousands of miles from the Bay Area barrios — but that doesn’t mean inside her public school classroom, she can’t get a lil’ bit ghetto.
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