After reconnecting with a former student yesterday, I began thinking back on my last years as a classroom teacher. I recall several other amazing students, and wonder what has become of them. I especially recall one guy, Andy, a sixth grader. All of the teachers who taught him (and I mean they all chimed in) said he was the very devil himself. They said he continuously acted out in class, and his defiant misbehavior ruined the learning environment. Andy was about to be my student for the next six weeks. Time for classroom management to go into overdrive.
Sixth graders are typically the sweetest little children, perfectly behaved, focused on pleasing the teacher. But, apparently, not Andy! Well, I believe in giving everyone the fresh opportunity to define their relationship with me themselves without any prior baggage preceding them into that student/teacher relationship. And I had 2 secret strategies.
Strategy One: The Great Seat of Honor
I tended to often teach from the physical center of the classroom, and I always tried to think of ways to shake things up a bit. One of my classroom management strategies was the Great Seat of Honor—the student desk nearest where I tended to stand and teach.I saw a new group every 6 weeks, and on the first day of class I would describe the nature of the Great Seat of Honor and then “randomly” pick the student that had the great privilege of sitting in the Great Seat of Honor.
The Nature of the Great Seat
The class understood that whoever got randomly picked would be mercilessly tortured by me for the next 6 weeks. I told them that I always picked on the person in the seat and waited to do so when they least expected it.
I called on them more, a lot more, almost all of the time. I gave them the hardest questions, and when they answered I would drill down with harder and harder questions and then question them about the certainly of their answer to turn them to steal. Sometimes I would even pull my own chair up next to the Great Seat of Honor and teach almost exclusively to that student only as if s/he were the only student in the class.2 I would stare down whoever sat there. It would be brutal, and only the strongest would survive.
Bottom line: whoever got randomly picked, would get a lot of very, very intense teacher attention. It was so simple and so effective. I never really understood why, but this really worked well, especially for squirmy little kids.
Random? Of Course Not
Now, of course, there was nothing random about who got to sit in the Great Seat of Honor. I chose them carefully. I told them I picked a number between 1 – 100 in my head. I would ask those who were bravest in the class to then raise their hand and choose a number. And when the student who I had predestined to the seat said his/her number, I remembered that number. The number in my head was always that number or a number so close to it as to put that student in the Great Seat of Honor. Crazy silly.
Who was always predestined to end up in the seat? The student who teachers had told me needed the most attention or tended to act out the most. And if no such student was so identified, then I picked a somewhat shy student who I thought would thrive with all of the attention. Of course, having been forewarned, astonishingly, Andy just happened to pick the exact number I had in my head for the Great Seat of Honor. And there he did sit.
My hope with this strategy was to give the student sitting there just enough attention to feel special and avoid the opportunity for misbehavior to ever happen in the first place. Astonishingly, as silly as this sounds, it worked like a total charm, until that day.
Strategy Two: Mama
The movie, Throw Mama from the Train, had just been a box office sensation the summer before. At the time, I went to church with one of the main guys who designed the official Hollywood big posters and large cardboard stand-ups that movie theaters across the US use to promote the movies in the theater itself. He had given me one from Throw Momma from the Train. It was huge. It was hideous. Mama was just tremendously ugly and was mean.
I put it in the back corner of my classroom with a chair in front of it, facing Mama. The students all knew that if they misbehaved in my class, they had to go sit in the back of the room and face Mama. “And trust me,” I said, “nobody wants to have to sit with Mama. Just look at her!”
While everyone thought it was sort of funny and cute, still, that monstrous hideous Mama was just scary enough to do the trick. And what middle school kid wants to have to sit with Mama? It’s telling that no one ever actually had to do it. They all behaved well, until that day when…
That One Time When a Student Acted Out…
Andy was seated in the Great Seat of Honor. I was seated in a chair beside his desk. I was resting my arm on his desk and just teaching away, frequently turning suddenly and staring him right in the eyes as I raved on about some musical tidbit as if it were more important than breathing itself. As I was speaking I suddenly turned and locked eyes with Andy who unexpectedly just blurted out, “Will you adopt me?”
Andy, who had been looking right at me the whole time I had been teaching, hadn’t been paying attention to the lesson at all. In the stunned moment of silence following his question, you could hear the other students in the classroom gasp. No one didn’t not pay attention in music class and survive. No one asked an impertinent question in music class—ever! No one interrupted learning in music class. These were unthinkable things for music class.
Yet, Andy just had. The whole class was in a state of shocked anticipation. (And so was I.) What was Dr. Tyson going to do to Andy?
In that instant, looking at this cute little 6th grade kid who was staring at me expectantly, I realized that he was totally and completely serious. I was absolutely caught off guard! They hadn’t taught how to deal with this kind of situation in teacher training courses.
In a lucky flash of brilliance, I instantly froze my look of complete shock and disbelief, and turned to show it to the class while saying, “This is the look on my wife’s face tonight when I say, ‘Hi honey, I’m home. And boy do I ever have a surprise for you. I brought us home a son from school today.'” Then I turned back to Andy and said, “Sorry, buddy. Ain’t happenin’ today.” Then, in a sort of a joking sarcastic tone, “I would at least have to warn her.” and then just went right on and completed what I had been saying. Situation diffused. Sudden and unexpected anxiety in the classroom diffused. Andy had not been slain.
I had escaped a possible train wreck. Well, at least I thought I had escaped a possible train wreck. Until the next morning…
My homeroom students began to enter my classroom, and I was piddling about getting ready for the day. Unexpectedly, I noticed a sealed envelope on my desk addressed to “Mrs. Tyson.” What in the world was this? I opened it. It read:
Dear Mrs. Tyson,
Yesterday I asked Dr. Tyson to adopt me. He said he couldn’t because I would come as quite a shock to you. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to shock you. I understand now that you need to think about it for a while first.
I want you to know I will not be a problem at all. I will make good grades, and I will always do my chores. I hope you say yes.
Whoa! I hadn’t expected this at all! I took the note down to the sixth grade counselor’s office. Oh, she is a very, very special soul. I explained to her what had happened and gave her the note. With a warm smile, she took the note, patted my shoulder and said, “I’ll take care of it, Tim. Don’t worry.” I think she saw the worry in my eyes.
OK, Time for a New Strategy
Apparently, Andy’s family had welcomed a new baby to the house, and Andy was feeling a bit neglected. The counselor suggested my wife and I take Andy on a “fieldtrip,” after school one day, dinner at a restaurant of his choosing. She made arrangements with his parents. Andy chose an Italian restaurant on Highway 41.
To be honest, I was dreading this—really dreading it. I mean, how exactly does one carry on a casual conversation over dinner with a 6th grade boy you really don’t know at all?! We picked him up at his parents’ and off we went. Much to my surprise, all three of us had a crazy fun time.
Andy was this engaging, talkative, personable little guy who effortlessly entertained us the whole time: never even the slightest lull in fantastically interesting conversation with a little 6th grade boy. He was totally the coolest kid ever. We all had a blast.
That was all he needed. He just needed some attention. One meal’s worth was sufficient. The counselor, God bless her soul, was completely right.
On the last day of his 6-week class, Andy told me he really enjoyed being in my class and that I was his favorite teacher as he shook my hand before leaving the room. He stopped by a couple of times after that to ask if I missed him. I wonder how he is doing today, over 25 years later. I would be very surprised if he isn’t amazingly successful.
Part 2 in the series: Memories from an Educator ↩
The funny thing was, when I did this, the entire classroom would focus all of their attention on me, those on the edges of the class even sitting on their legs in their seats and leaning forward so they could see better. I always thought that was the most curious thing. ↩