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Ms. Mumbles and Mr. Reasonable

There is a teacher at my school who mumbles every thought that passes through her head. Sometimes when she speaks, it is hard to discern whether she is talking to you or talking to herself. She pulls groups of students and works with them on reading and writing. Imagine her, old as the sun, surrounded by third graders who are all leaning in, striving to understand what she is saying. They are silent, listening. When they finally understand her direction, they get straight to work. When they finish, they hold up their sheets to her and she either mumbles in approval or does not. If she is silent, they set right back to work to find their error and correct it.

Cut to my classroom: I speak very clearly and in a nice loud voice. I give exact instructions; I tend to rehearse each sentence in my head before I say it. Imagine me surrounded by a roiling chaos of second graders, running around the room, throwing dominoes; the worksheets are on the floor, untouched, unconsidered.

What in the world is going on here? Why does Old Ms. Mumbles get total respect, while Young Mr. Reasonable gets none?

There is something ineffable, maddeningly ineffable, about claiming the respect and attention of children. I used to think of it as “experience.” So many frustrated nights, lying in bed, saying to myself: “Ms. Mumbles has years of experience, and the kids feel this in their bones. They know that you are raw.” I remember a conversation between two of my students: “Mr. Arp is an old man.” “No, he is a preteen. Or not a preteen. He is a teenager.”

But attributing Ms. Mumbles’ success to “experience” is not so edifying. For one, I have seen plenty of veteran teachers struggling with tough classrooms. Also, “experience” is too vague an idea. What is Ms. Mumbles doing right?

A teacher once told me: it is good to be a little crazy. Applying this strange advice to Ms. Mumbles, I can say: it is good to have a bit of distance between yourself and the kids. There should be a difference, in other words, between the teacher and the children. This difference is integral in maintaining order and stability.

I have so often found myself acting like a big second grader: “Why did you hit him?” “He hit me first, I was getting my hitback!” “No hitbacks in the classroom!” “Yes hitbacks!” “No hitbacks!” And so on, and so on. Even though I always win these arguments because, in the end, I am the teacher, the fact that I enter the arguments at all, that I allow room for arguments, lowers my status to that of a, well, preteen.

So my question is this: How can I fake the distance necessary to maintain authority and gain respect? How can I act in such a way that my children know, at all times, as a matter of course, that they are children and that I am an adult? I am finding it difficult to communicate authority on the subliminal wavelength of children in a convincing and consistent manner, when I was so recently a youngster myself. Perhaps I should try mumbling.

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.

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