"From The Trenches"

               George Cassutto,  North Hagerstown High School, MD

     eaching seems to bring up the imagery of World War I. The
     classroom has become a trench where the forces of good are
     doing battle with the evil empire known as teen-age students.
     I wish it did not have to be that way, but the challenges of
     teaching have developed into a struggle for the hearts and
     minds of the students that we teach. 

     Who is to blame?

     Does it seem like each 9th grade class that enters the school
     year after year is getting more difficult to manage? I can
     certainly attest to the fact that behavior problems have
     increased over the years while academic performance has
     dropped. And it seems to get worse every year. So now it's
     time to point fingers and assign blame. Is it our colleagues in 
     the middle schools? Hey you guys? What's going on down there?
     Are you passing students who can't read or write or who know
     how to study for a test? How can you make it to the 9th grade
     without knowing the basics like who wrote the Declaration of
     Independence or what our nation's written plan of government
     is? Or should we point our fingers at the parents? It seems as
     though simple courtesies such as not interrupting and not calling
     out have been forgotten. Did you remember to teach your
     children about respecting adults? Or making sure they don't use
     profanity in public? What about following the rules outlined by
     the school and teachers? And what about homework? Why do
     I have to post a message on my web page about what the
     homework is for tonight? Parents, who is the parent at YOUR

     Reaching My Limit

     I know you all are doing a good job. And it's not like I never
     looked the other way when my students (or my kids)
     misbehaved, or turned a deaf ear to their profanity. But there
     is a trend here, and it's having an effect on how we teach and
     learn. It's not a good trend. 

     I have reached the limit with the lack of respect that I
     experience from my 4th mod class. I showed no reluctance in
     telling students what I was thinking and feeling today, and I
     DID raise my voice. I told one: "Did you think I could teaching
     while you were tapping your calculator on your desk?" I turned
     to another student and said: 
          Look, I am sick and tired of having to
          baby-sit you. And I have 20 other students
          who are reviewing for a mid-term exam.
          While I am baby-sitting you, they are losing
          out on their education. That's not fair. Next
          time I need to stop class to ask you to grow
          up, you are out!!

     I finally turned to the whole class, now quiet so they could hear
     me ream out the guilty party: 
          It's not just him. This class is extremely 
          insensitive, rude, and lacking respect. If you are 
          unable to follow basic rules of classroom behavior, 
          then you need to leave.

     I am sure the one student flashed me the finger as I turned
     away from him. I chose not to quickly turn around to catch him
     in his final act of defiance. Did the tirade have an effect? Yes, 
     I taught the rest of my lesson with relatively little hassle. Did
     I diminish myself in the eyes of my students? Possibly, but I am
     not there to be abused! If no one else is willing to stand up to
     them and let them know they are out of line, who will? The
     administration? I would certainly not want to be accused of
     writing too many referrals when I should be dealing with
     discipline problems "in-house." Well, after so many phone calls
     home, detentions, and referrals, this is how I am choosing to
     manage discipline in my class, for better or for worse.

     On the way out.

     I encountered a young teacher in her first year after school in
     the hall. She was holding a stack of referrals and was on her
     way to drop them into the assistant principal's box as she was
     leaving for the day. I asked: "How are things going?"
     "Tomorrow's my last day," she confessed. She went on to say
     that she could not go on day-to-day without getting some help,
     some positive experience from her Math students. She
     expressed hope about an opening with an engineering firm in a
     neighboring town. "At least I won't have to take the stress of
     my day home with me," she commented. I expressed my
     sadness and wished her luck. But I understand her
     unwillingness to invest any more of her professional life in
     unwilling and even rude customers. Had she started in 1979
     rather than 1999, maybe she would have been more willing to
     see it through.

     Facing Change

     I am grappling with the prospect of change myself. My wife has
     urged me to apply to the highest paying county in Maryland,
     Montgomery County. I just discussed the possibilities with my
     principal, who seemed supportive. He pledged his support as I
     begin to move through the process. I am terrible when dealing
     with change, and there will be a lot of it if I am hired by this
     other, more economically advanced district. I have built up a
     niche here at North Hagerstown that took years to establish. I
     feel at home in my classroom, surrounded by my aging PCs
     with their glowing Internet access. A new position would force
     me to start from scratch where all that is concerned. The pay
     would be much higher ($15,000 more per year), but would I
     be happy?
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