Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.
On a Friday afternoon, before the last class of the day, in the winter of my second year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, I was busy setting up a video segment to show as part of my lesson on the causes of the French Revolution. At that moment, my principal walked into the room with a pad of paper and took a seat in the back of class. Just my luck, I thought. The principal rarely observed my classes, or even dropped into my classroom, but here he was at a time when my students were likely to be at their most distracted.
Sure enough, my students strolled in acting off-the-wall. A boy chased a girl around the room. There was joking and yelling. The students did not seem to notice that the principal was sitting quietly in the back. I started to panic about what to do. Should I yell at them and try to assert authority? Should I walk around and gently touch the out-of-line students on the arm and remind them to find their seats? (Had the principal not been there, I probably would have stood in the center of the classroom and waited for calm.)
In any case, the principal came to my rescue … sort of. He stood up and spoke loudly. The students, suddenly aware of his presence, fell silent. “You aren’t even giving this teacher a chance, ” he told them. One of the students laughed and the principal grew angrier. He told the students that they weren’t taking learning seriously and that they all had to stay an extra hour after school. When the students objected, he threatened to make it two hours. Then he looked at me, told me that he’d do the observation another time, and walked out of my classroom.
Incidentally, I went on to teach a great lesson. I have worked hard at instilling rigid beginning-of-class routines, but even so students often come to class riled up and need time to calm down. The passing periods at the Brooklyn Arts Academy were five minutes, and students often went into social mode. Getting them back into academic mode after passing periods was a challenge, especially with no bell signaling the start of class. Once students settled down, however, I was usually able to keep them engaged.
In this particular lesson, we watched a clip from a PBS documentary about the French Revolution in which the excesses of the monarchy were discussed. I showed them images of Marie Antoinette’s elaborate hairstyles as well as the banquet dinners of King Louis XVI. His gluttony was contrasted with the plight of the Third Estate, made up largely of peasants who struggled to buy bread yet were burdened by taxes.
The principal came back at the end of class to ensure that my students served out the detention that he had spontaneously assigned to them. He asked me if I was okay with supervising this, and seeing no choice, I assented. He left again, and my students immediately began protesting about unfairness and how the principal couldn’t do this. Then, a light bulb went off.
“The principal is just like Louis XVI!” said one boy excitedly.
“Yeah,” said another, “he drives to school in a fancy SUV. He wears expensive suits. Meanwhile, we got to eat nasty cafeteria food.”
“Let start a French Revolution in the ‘hood!” one girl exclaimed.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the hilarity of that comment. I was both angry at and proud of my students that day. I had to maintain a stern persona during that hour of detention as I was following the order of my boss. Yet I sympathized with my students’ feelings of injustice because they had never been punished in such a way for similar behavior before. In fact, I felt like I was in detention too, since I was also eager to start my weekend. Most importantly, though, I felt validated by my students’ demonstration of critical thinking. I always encourage students to make connections between history and the present. By being heavy-handed, my principal unwittingly provided my students an opportunity to do so.
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