When I was studying to be an educator, I came across a funny, bold-faced word in my first teaching textbook: “dangle.” The definition boiled down to unstructured time during which discipline problems might surface. When you planned a lesson, it said, you should time it to ensure that it would not create “dangle.” Concern set in.
In my first year of teaching, especially, there were many days when my lessons were shorter than the time allotted for class. I would always congratulate my students for understanding so quickly and then tell them that was all I had for them that day. I would then say that they could work on another assignment, or simply relax for the remaining 5 or 10 minutes, but that I expected them to remain respectful of our classroom.
For the most part, that worked, thanks to the strong rapport I had built with my students. I had been told many things about classroom management; building a rapport, however, was always an afterthought or a side effect of something else.
“Don’t smile until Christmas.” “Get angry with them before you are actually upset so that you remain in control.” “It’s easier to start off strict and ease up than it is to become strict later.” I remember being shown a stern photo of Queen Victoria with the caption: “When we are relaxed, our faces look like this.”
It’s not necessarily bad advice. But it did prove impossible to follow.
Students are funny! I could have had every determination not to smile, but I lost count of the number of times they genuinely made me laugh.
That rapport I build with students also meant that there was an expectation that they could speak frankly, and so could I. It helped us through all the times we needed to check in about classroom expectations, so that unstructured time didn’t become a risky proposition. It eased our interactions, as we were whole people with needs and limitations and did not need to be concerned with how respectful and honest feedback would be received. (To that end, nothing has proved as helpful as my experience as a resident adviser while I was an undergraduate.)
After five years in the classroom, I went to graduate school, and then to teach at the university level. In all, 14 years lapsed between teaching high school and my return to the Los Angeles Unified School District — the district that gave me my start.
I worried about whether or not I’d have the stamina I did at 22 (I do not) or whether or not I would understand procedures that had changed for everything from submitting grades to taking roll (it’s a work in progress). Would I be able to regain that rapport?
Just like in 1999, the sage words of my colleagues swirled in my head. Back then, a colleague who had been teaching for decades said that everyone complaining that kids “these days” were disrespectful or simply less interested in learning were completely wrong. “The kids are always the same,” he said. “The changes that you think you notice happen to you.”
Now 20 years older than when I first entered the classroom, I can attest to the fact that I am certainly more irritable and less tolerant of certain behaviors. But I am no less a teacher, and no more likely to fault students for being kids who behave appropriately for their age.
A few months ago, learning about how the poetry of Emily Dickinson was revised by publishers who did not understand her unconventional punctuation or meter, my students saw a side-by-side comparison of the original poem “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” and the revised “May Wine.” The last couplet in the original reads “Not all the Frankfort berries, yield such an alcohol!” The last couplet in the revised version reads, “Not Frankfort berries yield the sense, such a delirious whirl!”
Before I could discuss what the publisher was trying to accomplish with the rhyme and the meter of the poem, a student, rightly offended that someone would alter the work of an artist, loudly declared: “I prefer the alcohol!”
I don’t know if my students laughed first, or if the comment hit us all at the same time. All I know is that in that moment, I was no Queen Victoria. I laughed, my students liked that I laughed, and I liked that they laughed. The kids were the same, and so was I.
Rafael Jimeno teaches sixth grade mathematics and world art at Southeast DREAMS Magnet Middle School in South Gate, California. He received his teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach in 2003, and his Ph.D. in Political Science from Arizona State University in 2010.