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Don’t Smile ‘Til Christmas

That’s a popular saying. Basically, it means you’ve got to get tough with the kids when they first see you, and stay that way for a good long time. After all, every parent knows it’s the sacred duty of every kid to test every adult every minute to find out precisely what can be gotten away with.

I’m up to the challenge. On the first day of class, I might phone the homes of every kid who looked at me the wrong way. Doubtless that will be the talk of the classroom. “This teacher is crazy!” That’s music to my ears. They prevailing platitude states a good lesson plan is the single best factor in classroom control, but I’d say a bad reputation trumps the good lesson plan every time. After all, if the kids are tying you to a post and setting fire to it, your excellent lesson plan is likely to go up in flames with you, no matter how good the instructional objective may be, or how much praise it’s garnered from your supervisor.

Actually, I like kids a lot — working with them is by far the single best part of being a teacher. As an ESL teacher, drawing them out and making them comfortable enough to speak freely is a major part of what my job entails. So, much as we all treasure peace and quiet, I don’t have the luxury of simply telling them to sit down and shut up the entire year. Nor would I want it — I don’t think I’d like that any more than the kids would.

Once kids know who I am, and what I will and will not tolerate, they have a lot of freedom in my class. As long as they do the work, they can speak out and complain about the class (or even the teacher) as much as they like. I don’t mind. I can give as good as I get, for the most part, and kids who can out-talk me, even on an occasional basis, very much deserve extra credit. In fact, such kids have gone above and beyond what can reasonably be expected of newcomers.

But this year is a little different. Francis Lewis is, supposedly, annualized, meaning while class levels change, kids spend a year with any given teacher. But there are frequent exceptions. Most of my level-one kids proved to be what we call “false beginners,” meaning they had significant passive knowledge, and a huge head start over my real beginners.

Actually, despite what the 100% infallible state and city tests may have suggested, I’d have classified most of them as level two. Of course, I only saw them and their writing every working day of my life. That’s certainly not the same as knowing whether they’d blacked in A, B, C or D on standardized tests for 30 minutes on a single day when they may or may not have eaten breakfast, stayed up all night, or taken a family member to the hospital.

As new kids walk into my classroom, I ask them what’s your name, where are you from, and how long have you been here. In advanced classes, I’ve frequently encountered kids who were stumped at the first two questions. Yet they filled in the right circles, the state had spoken, and that was pretty much it. What’s the difference if they understand nothing? The test says they’re advanced, and that ought to be good enough for anyone.

Differentiating instruction is all well and good, but this year was a very tough balancing act trying to address the needs of two distinct groups that most definitely did not belong together. Whether or not you believe in learning styles, it went well beyond that. I’m afraid, though I specifically went back to square one at least twice in an effort to reach the beginners, I was more effective reaching the majority — in this case, the higher group.

This month we were able to remedy that, for the most part. I kept the false beginners and the rest joined another class, with kids at a similar level. But now, about one-third of my class is new, and I’m being tested all over again. This puts me in the unfortunate position of having to roll back the liberties of kids who know me well, who have certain expectations of me and what they can get away with.

So how do you go back to not smiling when most of your kids know very well it’s one of your favorite things to do? It’s generally believed that once you smile there’s just no taking it back. This may be true, but I’ve got a plan.

I’m going to try selecting a few of the most talkative and influential students who’ve been with me since September, pulling them out of their classes, and explaining what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Hopefully they’ll understand. They are pretty smart kids.

If I can get them on my side, maybe they’ll encourage the new kids to get with the program. After all, they want their freedom back, and that’s the quickest way to get it.

In fact, that’s exactly what I’ll tell them on Monday. Wish me luck.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.