Thursday, July 16, 2009

HIDDEN FACTORS: What Competent Teachers Really Need to Know

My first year of teaching I taught seventh graders. Things went reasonably well, except for one youngster who drove me to distraction. He did it by echoing me. I tried a variety of tactics to get him to stop, but to no avail. In fact, if I said, "David, please stop repeating me" he frequently would respond by saying, "Repeating me."

This behavior went on and on and it was having a disruptive impact on the class. Finally, having exhausted everything I knew about behavior management, I felt I had no choice. The school, which was in the heart of the Bible Belt, still subscribed to the "Spare the rod and spoil the child" principle. In fact, on the first day of school I found a paddle sitting in the chalk tray of my classroom. It was red with "El Diablo inscribed on it." When I asked the principal about it he told me that paddles were made by kids in wood shop and I should feel free to use it.

He did the same. A giant of a man with a misleading Gomer Pyle manner, he wielded a mean paddle himself. School legend had it that no one ever returned for a second treatment from him; and there was no doubt why. When he administered punishment the crack of his two handed paddle resounded throughout the halls and the school's biggest behavior problems left his office in tears. The net effect was an orderly school.

Anyway, after weeks of trying everything I could think of, I reluctantly said to David, "If you don't quit repeating me I'm going to have to paddle you." "Paddle you" David said quietly. With that I ordered him out into the hall for the administration of corporal punishment.

As required, I asked a neighboring teacher to witness punishment. At the sight of my witness David realized I was serious and dissolved into hysteria. "Oh my God, he screeched, "don't hit me!" I tried to quiet him by saying, "Come on David, take it like a man." But David squalled, "I'm not a man, I'm a little boy!" By the way, he was uncommonly small.

The commotion attracted a crowd — chiefly the kitchen staff from the nearby cafeteria. The janitor and some passing students assembled as well. As my colleague struggled to put David over his knee, David screeched for help from the Almighty. The cooks clucked in disapproval and looked at me as if I were a war criminal.

Embarrassed and deeply regretting my decision, I just gave David a light swat. But he reacted as if I had hit him full force with a cat-of-nine-tails. When I returned to the classroom with a sobbing David the kids looked shocked and frightened.

That was the end of corporal punishment for me. For a long time I felt that the chief lesson I had learned was that there were better ways to control behavior. But years later I discovered, quite by accident, that repetitions such as David's are a classic symptom of Tourrete's Syndrome — a psychological disorder three times more common in males than females and most often found in children. So there is a very good chance that I paddled David because he was ill. So the second lesson to be learned from this incident is that teachers had better know their business better than I did.

Clearly aspiring teachers should learn much more than they typically do about youngsters and what either empowers or impedes their learning. In other words, teacher training must transcend mere methods and require in-depth understanding of both learning and learners as well as possible abnormalities such as Davids. Lacking this knowledge, novice teachers will surely make damaging mistakes.

The shame of it is that teacher preparation is moving in the opposite direction. The "highly qualified teachers" requirement of No Child Left Behind has turned out to be a joke. To save money and find "teachers" for America's educational wastelands, many states are requiring less, not more, of future teachers. The financial savings this makes possible are obvious; the human costs are typically hidden. But they are real nonetheless.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at

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