From a Series of Reflections Celebrating 30 years as a teacher
Chestnut Middle School, Springfield, MA / 1998
As a rookie English teacher in Smithtown, Long Island back in 1968 the concept “Classroom Management” would have stuck in my throat. The very idea that a teacher had to “manage” kids offended my hippie sensibilities. I believed that if the teacher totally engaged kids in their learning, then there would be no need for DISCIPLINE, as such. My passion and preparation went completely into planning Lessons.
I taught a Tolerance unit using “Flowers for Algernon” and a Mystery / Reading-for-Details unit based on “The Problem of Cell 13” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” If, after a few days into something, the kids didn’t pick up on it, then I would typically trash the Unit and make up a new one. Don Rippert, Kathy Polvi and I, the three rookies in the English Department that year, even invented our own method for teaching Grammar by using characters in the land of Glip, Glop and Glupia and having kids diagram sentences like “The stupid klutz fell down when he tripped over my kumquat.”
I got a tremendous feel for how to energize kids and how to engage their good will. I had to evolve these instincts because I did not have the personality to become a believable disciplinarian, more to the style of Don and Kathy. I had to keep moving with the kids because, if I ever stopped or slowed, I’d lose them. I had no safety net of unmitigated adult authority in-and-of-itself to fall back on.
The principal of Great Hollow Junior High School was Murray Lebowitz. He was a former military man with a very smooth manner. Because he was liberal in liberal times, he would get a kick out of my sheer enthusiasm for teaching, and he tended to overlook the fact that I could never seem to keep my classroom window shades “straight and even”, as per one of his famous directives.
I taught both seventh and ninth grades that first year, and it was a great combination. I could relate culturally to the older kids— the creative but abrasive George who was passionate about the Mothers of Invention, the introspective Sue who instantly became a James Taylor fan after I played “Fire and Rain” in a poetry unit. But I could really cut loose with the seventh graders. I never had so much fun as when I adapted Kathy Polvi’s Melodrama unit and had kids create their own radio dramas with sound effects. Then there were the times we acted out “Rocky Raccoon” in the school parking lot, and organized the first Great Hollow Junior High School Film Festival of original 8 mm movies we made in the Film Club.
With all the energy I had in those days, I could burn off most behavior problems by sheer good will and humor. I was also quick to come up with alternative assignments for the occasional kid who thought that what I was asking him to do was too corny for his style. And I kept kids after school, spoke to their parents, and often leaned on my assistant principal, Harry Ortgies.
Chuck Schmidt was the worst discipline problem that year. This was the first child I ever yelled at. I’ll never forget getting so frustrated with him that I broke down and had him write 100 times “I will be good in class.” Giving this kind of punishment went against my grain. Nothing that came naturally to my character or to my educational philosophy worked with him. Having to teach Chuck Schmidt made me realize that sometimes you can have kids in your class who simply will not become engaged with the work, no matter how inspiring you try to make it nor how much fun it is to most of the other children. In cases like Chuck, you needed to have a Plan B, which has nothing to do with the curriculum of your subject.
Teaching involves making some kids behave on the raw principle that if they do not, they will be punished. My educational idealism bumped up against classroom reality and I had to grow in a way I did not intend to—- I had to find in myself the power of unmitigated adult authority in-and-of-itself. This power had to transcend the content and creativity of my lessons, and even my very enthusiasm for teaching. Developing this power took another 20 years.
The Unmitigated Don Rippert
Don Rippert had the disposition and passion to be a Child Manager. He had no doubts about unmitigated adult authority in-and-of-itself. He relished it. He kept his classroom window shades straight and even with absolutely no effort at all. His desks were in teacher-centered rows every day, while mine, of course, could be in a child-centered circle on Monday or cooperative clusters on Wednesday or an amphitheater semi circle on Friday followed by the classical grid of rows to start the week off on Monday. While I struggled to find exactly the right resonance to each child’s unique learning style, Don grabbed hold of his classes, dominated them, sometimes bullied them, and then ran them through the curriculum.
While I was passionately engaged in the Art of teaching kids, I think Don just got a real kick purely out of being with them, especially the toughest ones. I imagine that instead of agonizing over Chuck Schmidt like I did, Don would have chewed the kid up first period and spat him out, sitting up straight in his seat, in time for Science. This is why a newcomer like Don got along great with the school’s Old Guard, veterans like Joe Cash, legendary Smithtown Math teacher.
Joe was a huge man, the Black Irish big guy with a well-weathered stern face and the heart of gold. He looked like he had been through many, many wars, especially at sea. Kids were sure that, prior to teaching in Smithtown, Mr. Cash had been a pirate. Some were very sure that they could see, on the lobe of his one of his tremendous ears, the hole where he had worn his earring. A missing front tooth didn’t hurt his image, either. As a matter of fact, in addition to being a Math teacher, Joe actually was the captain of a commercial fishing boat he took out from Port Jefferson Harbor.
Captain Joe was extremely soft spoken with children, but was known to thunder menacingly at that occasional young mathematician who was caught bobbing her chin a bit off course from the captain’s compass. The marvel of Joe Cash’s Classroom Management was the efficient way he collected and distributed papers. The children silently passed their papers down and around the rows so that, when the final pile arrived on Mr. Cash’s desk, it was arranged strictly in alphabetical order, exactly as in his grade book. Woe unto the child who was not paying attention and misplaced his paper in the pile. A man running a boat and a business and teaching full time had no time for sorting papers, filling out discipline referral forms to administrators, keeping kids after school, or calling parents on the telephone. Everything had to be transacted pay- as- you- go. Whatever impulses made Chuck Schmidt misbehave in my class would have completely dissolved before reaching his muscles, reduced, perhaps, to a mere twitch, in the presence of Mr. Cash.
My friend Don Rippert followed in that tradition, but with a greater appreciation for the role of theatrics in Classroom Management.
I once came into his room on some English Department business. Anyone would have had the impression that a riot was going on. All the kids were either standing on their desks cheering, or out in the aisles jumping and screaming. Don was planted in front of his wardrobe, blocked by a child who was flailing his arms to prevent the adult from opening the closet door. “Out of my way!” the teacher bellowed. The kid was heaving in hysterics. With a straight face, Don repeated with even greater melodramatics, “Get out of my way!!!” But the kid wouldn’t budge. With that, the man firmly pushed aside the squiggling boy and opened the door of his coat closet. In a flash the kid hiding inside leapt out and bolted past. Mr. Rippert now totally cracked up, setting the whole class spinning off into utter pandemonium, which seemed like it would never end.
Then, as soon as he felt that crescendo of kid excitement naturally ebbing, very quietly, Mr. Rippert commanded that all grammar books be taken out and opened to page 54. Instantly, the room fell into order. Silently, the texts were out and opened. Soon, kids were reading out loud about subjects and predicates as if nothing but Grammar had ever gone on in that English classroom.