"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.
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
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