The Magic Bullet

This post is written by member Christopher Margolin.

Prior to the first bell on the first day of my teaching career, I was given a few words of advice from a veteran colleague:

  1. Find the biggest, meanest kid in the classroom
  2. Ask him to stand up
  3. Embarrass him in whatever way possible.

This was supposed to be the “magic bullet,” and at just 22-years-old, I was searching for any way to control my students – because at that time, I thought discipline was about keeping all students in line. Period. So, it sounded like a good idea to me. Here I was fresh off the bar stool, and ready to save the world.

I believe the initial interaction with my first class went like this:

Teacher: “Good morning, everyone. Let’s get this year started. My name is …”
Student: “I’m gonna go piss.”
Teacher: “I haven’t even said my name yet. You’re not going anywhere until I’m done.”
Student: “I’m gonna do it either way.”
Teacher: “You’re going to do exactly what I tell you, and right now, you’re going to stay in that chair, and be quiet.”
Student: “Whatever you say.”

The student then proceeded to stand up, walk behind my desk, pull down his zipper, and pee on the floor in the corner of my classroom. The class, a room full of senior Credit Recovery students, burst into hysterics. He finished, zipped up his pants, and walked out of the room. I had no words. The “Magic Bullet” had failed, my floor was soiled, my mouth left agape, and it took everything I had to hold back the tears building up behind my eyes.

Worst of all, I had lost the class on day one.

Now, fourteen years later, I find myself out of the classroom, and into the district office as a Curriculum Specialist. I’m responsible for observing and coaching teachers—both new and veteran—in my district, and working with them not only on content and curriculum, but also on how to better engage with their students, and partner with their content in order to plan their classroom experience. While it’s not the major focus of my position, one of my jobs is to help find that one avenue to make Bobby Bully and Tommy Teacher find something in common that might help them to work together throughout the year, and to make teachers understand that we are far beyond the world where heavy-handed discipline can be used to force anyone to pay attention; most importantly, to help teachers find a way for students to relate to the material enough for them to want to learn rather than simply be a warm body in a seat.

Students deserve to be recognized daily. Even if it’s a simple threshold greeting, it’s still an act of recognition for a student who may not receive much elsewhere. If poverty is a leading factor in behavior issues, then we must reach out to those students who are house-insecure, or food-insecure, or clothing-insecure. One must find a way to positively engage with them and reassure them that they are in a safe environment. School should be their sanctuary — their weekday vacation from whatever awaits them at the sound of the final bell.

I’ve told newer teachers to remember what they went through as students. To remember that not every day was a good one, and that in those moments of frustration, the last thing we wanted was to feel picked on by a teacher. I tell them to let all students know that bad days happen, and if it’s a real doozy, that Joe Student can give a quick signal, and you’ll know to either let them breathe through it, or crouch down next to them and let them know that if they need an ear, you’ll be there. It’s not rocket science; it’s compassion, it’s teaching, and it’s the understanding that sometimes we have to be real people, and not just the sage on the stage (if you are a “sage on the stage,” please try to figure out why there’s so much obvious distance — metaphorical or not — between yourself and your students).

What’s learned in the classroom should be much more than curriculum; it should be about life, and about finding oneself in the crowd, and choosing the best path, and knowing when to ask questions, or when to just listen. Classroom management works best when students feel like they are a part of the process of learning. In the world of education, there is no “Magic Bullet,” and to the teacher who thinks otherwise, all you’ve done is shot down a student who probably deals with a few too many bullets — metaphorical or not —  of his or her own. Creating a comfortable environment allows for students to build a respect for their teacher, and be willing to share their own thoughts and ideas. You know, like a real class is supposed to work.

Chris Margolin is the Vancouver Public Schools’ Curriculum Specialist for Secondary English Language Arts, Advanced Placement, College in the High Schools, and Running Start. He spent 12 years as a high school English teacher, working not only with students, but also as a member of the district curriculum design team, developing the district’s Creative Writing course. He currently resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife and daughter. 

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

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