Gimme Some Truth

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Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire

The parents want one of the teachers arrested. I have been summoned from my room by a mother who has known me for years. Some of the parents are demanding that the teacher be fired. I listen to their complaints and try to calm them down. I do the best I can to defend the teacher with whom they are furious, but it isn't easy.

Alex is a third-grader with a messy backpack. In fact, it's more than messy—it's a virtual nuclear holocaust of crumpled-up papers, folders, and candy. Here's an opportunity for his teacher to teach him something valuable. Instead, he began by yelling at Alex and dumping his backpack all over his desk in full view of his peers. Then he called on a student to go to his car and retrieve a camera. He took a picture of the mess and told Alex that he would hang it up during Back-to-School Night to show all the parents what a slob he was. Then the teacher added the final touch: He told Alex's classmates that for the rest of the day, when they had trash to discard, it should be thrown on Alex's desk instead of in the garbage can.

Now the boy's parents are in my room demanding that the authorities be called.

After enormous effort, I calm them down and beg them to let our principal handle the situation. The teacher must be given the chance to explain his actions, although it's clear that if his behavior was as cruel and humiliating as it sounds, no explanation can justify it.

Days later, after several meetings with the principal, the young teacher emerges from the office, face tear-stained and posture slumped with contrition. Yet he comes to me and bitterly defends himself. "But I'm right. It worked...Alex's backpack is neater now." And I realize the real tragedy here is that the teacher has missed a terrific opportunity. He had a chance to help Alex learn the value of organization and become a better student. Instead, he forever marked himself as a cruel ogre to Alex and his classmates. It would take months to undo the harm of such a moment, and the teacher did not even comprehend the damage he had done.

The larger problem here is that many teachers are so desperate to keep their classrooms in order that they will do anything to maintain it. This is understandable—an "End justifies the means" mentality is at the heart of many explanations of how children are handled these days. Given some of the practically impossible situations confronting teachers today, it seems reasonable.

But let's be honest. It might be explicable. It might be effective. But it is not good teaching. We can do better.

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Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by Rafe Esquith. Copyright © Rafe Esquith, 2007.

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