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Stone and Fire: A Tale of Two Teachers, Part 1

Among the effective teachers at my school, there are two who could not be more different from one another. I have renamed Ms. Stone as a tribute to her emotional detachment from the storm and strife of the classroom. The other, Ms. Fire, has earned her name with her fierce involvement in the lives of her kids.

I met Ms. Stone at the beginning of my first day of school. “Remember,” she told me, “these are not your children. I have my children at home, and I am their mother every afternoon and evening. These students are not my children.” She runs her class from on high, leading with crystal-clear demands that follow upon explicit, oft-restated lessons. Her classroom is sparkling clean at all times. When I am in her room I marvel at the quiet, contented labor of her students. It would be as unnatural to act out or play around in her classroom as it would be to fly out the window. In fact her authority, as well as her entire pedagogical style, is very much like gravity: It is constant, and in its constancy it is calming and comforting.

Ms. Fire is always comparing her students to her own children. “My son would never talk to a grownup like that,” she says, or, “She is like my son with her math, but her reading is much better.” She told one girl, “Are you sure you want to talk like that right now, when I live two blocks away from you and see your mother at the store?” Ms. Fire is deep in her students’ business. And her students fight and act out, but only when Ms. Fire turns her back. They certainly get aggressive with one another far more frequently than do Ms. Stone’s students, but they also are kind and friendly with each other. In a word, there is more living going on in Ms. Fire’s room, more social interaction and far more discussion of various grievances. And Ms. Fire’s kids also do their work.

And I have to wonder: Why do they do their work?

You see, I sympathize with Ms. Stone’s methods. In fact, I model my teaching on Ms. Stone. It seems, well, easier. At least in theory. I try to maintain a constant, consistent tone because I am afraid to let my students live out their lives. Keep in mind, life can become very chaotic, very loud, when it is the life of 23 7-year-olds. I try to maintain a certain authoritarian distance because I know no other way of maintaining authority. Ms. Stone’s method seems far the more transferable — that is to say, it seems to be a method that can be practiced by a 23-year-old man as well as a more experienced woman. Yet my kids don’t get their work done the way Ms. Fire’s kids get their work done. How does Ms. Fire do it, and can I, perhaps, add a little Fire to my teaching? Is that even advisable?

Over the next few posts I am going to look more closely at Ms. Fire’s methods, in contrast to those of Ms. Stone, in order to point out what I see as some advantages and dangers of her teaching style.

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.