From Mr. Killstudent’s Lethal Bag of Teaching Tricks: Shushing

December 6, 2010

This is the fourth and final major duty of a substitute teacher.

I remember the first time I got a lesson plan like this:

“Complete page 834, 38-50, 51, 52, 54, 61. No Talking. If anyone is uncooperative, leave their name. When I return it is an automatic detention. NO QUESTIONS ASKED.”

Sounds like this teacher sure doesn’t take any crap. I must be subbing for the one I’ve met in the lounge who tells me, “I don’t take any crap from them.” This is usually after they ask me, “Surviving today?”

Armed with the leverage of write-ups, I begin my quest for an all-silent day. It’s 7:46 am and there’s no one else in the room; so far so good. The first two girls walk in, talking, as human beings are known to do. It’s okay, I tell myself. After all, class hasn’t actually started yet, so this particular crime is outside my jurisdiction.

Sure, it’s always hopeful at first – the best (quietest) students always come in early, ask what the homework is, and quietly pull out a paperback. Then, in the last 30 seconds before the bell rings, 36 shitheads pour in. The girls are shrieking about having a sub, and there’s always a cluster of them recounting, with great severity, an episode with a backstabbing friend, and how they are fed up with her crap. The guys are shoving each other, pretending to square off to fight.

But they technically aren’t talking, and the bell still hasn’t rung. So I do nothing.

Then it rings, and everyone is still talking.

I try the middle name game during attendance, and this time they don’t care. They can barely hear my guesses.

I write a weird name on the board, and get proportionately weird looks – for 1 ½ seconds – before they turn back to their friends, and talk some more.

I think back to my University of Michigan teacher training, trying to recall tips and strategies for classroom management.

“Shhh,” I say.

It falls away unnoticed, like a piece of paper towel tumbling into Niagara Falls. Instead of piercing the din, it is absorbed by it. It feeds and nourishes it.

I remember another strategy: the silently raised hand. In this approach, the teacher does no talking or shouting or threatening, but instead raises one hand and waits for the students to do the same while scanning the room with a smug, disapproving glare.

Or, similarly, I could say, “I’ll wait…”, with judging eyes and folded arms.

Or I could go with, “Ladies and gentlemen! Let’s keep the noise level down.”

I remember these from when I was a student. The teacher would periodically dispense such a cliché, the dissonance would waver for a second, then bounce back up, full force. A few kids would look up, then back at their friends. These teachers never seemed too bothered. In fact, they didn’t even seem to know they were saying it. It is the words that echo through generations of teachers, and their platitudes became the aural wallpaper of 13 years of school.

There were many more:

“If I hear any talking, you will get a zer-o
“Stop visiting with your neighbor”
“People, people!” or “People, please!” (accompanied by snapping fingers).
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, TIME OUT!” (making a “T” with hands).
“Let’s END the discussion”
“This is NOT your lunch hour” or, “I can keep you during your lunch hour if…(insert idle threat here)”
“um, ex-CUSE me”
“Settle DOWN” (especially effective with a nasaly “dyooooowwwnnn!”)
“I need SILENCE!”
“I need all your ATTENTION”
“I need all eyes and ears directed up here toward me”
“I need all heads off the desks”
“You need to list-en because this might be on the test”
“Don’t pack up yet…class is NOT over”
“If you talk during the filmstrip, I can always assign more work”
“You need to RAISE YOUR HAND and be called on before you speak”

These crowd-control strategies fit nicely alongside such classics as:
“I don’t know, CAN you [go to the bathroom]?”
“Do you have enough [food, candy] for everyone?”
“What did I just say?”
“You need to stop disrupting the class”
“You need to take a chill pill”
“You need to be on task”
“You need to get your butt in gear”
“You need to stop wasting time, I suggest that you get to work”
“I don’t a-ppre-ciate your attitude “
“You’re in hot water now”
“You’re getting a note home”
“[do this], or your GRADE will reflect it”
“I don’t want to have to baby-sit all of you”

While I remember none of my teacher training, I remember these. And I think, no. Fuck that. There’s no way I’m doing any of that. Even if I works I could never live with myself. I will not allow the generations of teachery voices to echo through my mouth!

But I don’t want to be known as the crap-taking sub either; the one that takes crap from the students and is known by the non-crap-taking teachers as a crap-taking-teacher.

So instead, I grab a stack of referrals and hold them above my head. When I see many of the kids finally looking at me, I pause, then say in a calm, strong voice:

“Last person still talking gets a referral.”

The din falls away quickly, until all that is left is the one girl, still sermonizing about her crazy bitch friend.

She realizes it, and glares at me:

“What. Everyone else was talking.”

She’s right, but I can’t let her know that. “What’s your name?” I ask.

“I don’t know.” People laugh. Shit, I think. I messed this up already.

“Do you have an ID?”

“Um…no?” The students, I’d soon learn, are always entertained by what John Holt calls a good game of “Cops and Robbers” between sub and student. Suddenly now I’m a cop. A cop who gets paid $75 a day.

“Just tell me your name,” I say in my best stern voice.

“Uhh…Ashley.” The girl smiles bitchily, and the class is cracking up.

I look at the roster and there is no Ashley. However, the school anticipates the students torturing me, and they’ve left a seating chart of crudely xeroxed, pixelated student photos. I comb through them, trying to guess which one she is. She and all her friends look the same, though the talking culprit is slightly fatter – no help, since these are head shots.

Frustrated and humiliated, I look for the office extension in the sub notes, and walk toward the phone. I tell the girl, “I guess I’ll let them know you lied to me.”

She rolls her eyes, though her defiance has turned nervous. The secretary answers the phone and sounds annoyed when I say this girl won’t tell me her name and that she’s being very disruptive and uncooperative. “(Sigh..)” the secretary says, which easily translates as, “can’t you handle these kids?”

“We’ll send someone down,” she actually says. The assistant principal comes down to the class and berates them and, indirectly, me:

“Just because you have a sub [looks at me] you think it’s all fun and games? Well if you’re not going to listen to him [looks at me], you’re going to have to deal with me. Because I don’t play. I don’t mess around – you will get suspended.”

He leaves, and everyone has looks of disgust and withdrawal. The talking culprit has been removed, and the class is quiet. Supposedly, I had won. But instead of seeming tough, I seemed weak: a jailhouse snitch. And although it was quiet, it was no fun being in such an unhappy classroom. I thought, this is what I do for $75 a day.

By the end of the hour, they were all talking again, but I barely noticed. The next class came in and I just gave them their work. They did it, turned it in, and left. They talked the whole time, and I don’t know what was so bad about it. Was the teacher I was replacing so harmed by it. Were they sick at home somewhere, sensing with paranoia that, somehow, two of his students were conversing?

In fact, after that first class, I spent much of the day chatting with the students. Turns out most of them weren’t shitheads after all.

By the end of the day, when I’m prepared to write my note of how the day went, I’d taken plenty of crap. Earfuls of it. And not written down a single name, except for the one girl whose writeup I can’t take back. She was sacrificed in order to preserve my no-crap-taking reputation.

Poor girl; she was already having a bad day. Perhaps I could have even helped her, if we could’ve just talked.

I drove home, filled with the dissonance I went to ridiculous lengths to kill. I decided that it wasn’t worth it – after all, I was Mr. Killstudent. I wasn’t supposed to be taking any of this shit seriously.

But soon after, I got caught up into playing another game of cops and robbers, instead of just being reasonable. It was middle school choir. 77 girls crammed into a room. We tried singing “Under the Sea.” But this one row of girls wouldn’t stop talking, and it continually disintegrated into misshapen noise. Tired that day, and lacking the creativity that I can usually summon, I said some things I should not have; things probably like, “let’s keep the noise level DOWN.” Over and over. Eating away at our collective humanity.

I think some of the girls noticed the extra pain in my eyes. On her way out of class, one of them handed this to me:

It was the cover of a hand-made card. On the inside, it read:

Perhaps a first step on the way to a truce between student and teacher, between talker and shusher.  And yet, the 100 years war over talking in class continues to rage on.

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