The first weeks of any school year are a bitter, silent power-struggle between teacher and the teeming hordes of students set before them. The victor will come to reign supreme for the following year, and unless dominance is established clearly and brutally from the onset, unless you claim yourself as an unfeeling Terminator willing to destroy the lives of your students should the need arise, all is lost. It takes very little environmental circumstance for children to get all Battle Royale on one another, and unless they feel the looming, spectral presence of authority nearby, they embrace their animal nature in an instant. If there is any hope of solace, of control, of a day that does not require Xanax, these early classes must set the tone. This is a war. There’s no tears in war, and there’s none in teaching.
In teacher’s training (which is like bootcamp, in a way, except with more sharing circles), the recruits are informed of some of the bitter truths about children. They are wild, angry, Lovecraftian horrors who, in so many words, want to dine on your flesh and drink every drop of sadness from your weeping husk of a corpse. Given the chance, a randomly assembled group of children would absolutely take up arms and devour the living flesh of any adult put before them, like so many cats upon an aged, deranged baglady. Docility morphs into ravenous fury in but a few moments.
There is possibly no worse feeling than standing before a group of children and having them be one-up on you. Everything you do only makes you seem more parodic and hilarious. Attempts to wrest control from the children only make them find the experience more ludicrous and more worthy of scorn. If they turn on you, it is nearly impossible to get them back.
This is why, at times, seasoned teachers sound grizzled, and old-soulled, and weathered like coal-miners. Seasons and seasons of children have hardened them. Put into the right mood, any teacher can suddenly summon forth the voice of Tom Waits and describe a time where the young ones won. Where everything went wrong, and the mood turned on them. A single tear will form as they summon this vision from memory. It is too hard, and they do not forget.
So, how do you avoid it in the first place?
The first week of teaching involves viciously marking your place as alpha. You can set up your class as a hugs-n-fun zone with student-directed learning with no desks and a paradigm that allows for maximum flexibility and efficacious pedagogical techniques that maximize the zone of proximal development. But even then, you still need to pee all over everything and make sure the troops know who’s boss.
Which is difficult, because kids are smart, and if they really ever put the thought into it, they’d realize a few things. As a teacher, I don’t have any actual real power. I can remove them from a group, or get them suspended, but then they’re isolated and not learning, so you don’t want that. The magic of the law means if I even enter their personal bubble, educational SWAT teams will crash through the windows, arrest me and rend my teaching license in twain. Detention only goes so far before you have to let them go to eat.
But they cannot know this. Through magic and will-power and wacky adult psychological trickery, I have to convince entire swaths of children that I possess authority somehow, and that it is their job, nay, their duty to bend to my will. That my cast-iron glance actual means something, and that when I count to three, oh boy, something really bad is totally going to happen.
Most of the process is a long-known, and secretive, shadowy dance. It is almost all face, and posture, and carriage. With this dance, teachers generate the illusion that they have power over the students. That their word goes. That society, and the school, and totally your parents say that I am the boss, so I am, now spit that gum out, put your hand down, and don’t ever text in my class. I remember when I student taught in a grade 5/6 class, one of the kids was misbehaving and I called his name sharply, and stared. He froze midway through, his adolescent brain calculating: can this 20-something weirdo actually do anything? He seems serious. Also he is wearing a sweater-vest. In the end, his calculations told him whatever it was wasn’t worth it, and he backed down. I had nothing up my sleeve, but half of being an authority-figure is just being an excellent bluff.
The beginning of the school year means steely eyes. It means stern, crossed-arms when the time comes. It means ram-rod spine, and architecturally quirked single eyebrow, and no smile that crinkles the lips or shows the eye-teeth. Students should feel warmth and caring, but they should also have the sneaking suspicion that their teacher, maybe just once or twice out of curiosity, murdered and ate the flesh off of some misbehaving students. Because I am now teaching ESL, and because thus much of my job requires me to be a dancing language monkey, I have to work extra hard in those first days. Students see me as jovial, and jokey, and silly, and also someone who speaks some crazy gibberish language while waving his hands about. By necessity, I need to be pleasant and buoyant to keep the kids interested, and to make them even vaguely understand what I say. And because I must ramp this up, so too must I blast out the unholy fury.
We were warned at orientation to not let the Korean co-teachers take over the discipline, and if anything, I’ve gone the opposite route, and control it almost entirely. Occasionally I will use a teacher as a translator for my snarling wrath, but I find there is little I can’t communicate with mime and a lot of glowering.
I make it sound monstrous, but monstrousness is necessary. It’s a requirement. Kids need the rest of stuff, the kindness, and the caring, and all that pedagogy and what-not, but they also need an inhuman murderbot of pure malice to be holding the chalk.