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Sunday, April 3, 2016

I blame Big Tom White

People have often asked me where my confidence as a teacher comes from and how they can develop their own confidence.

I have never been really sure what to say. I don't know exactly. My classroom is, as much as anything, a cult of personality. Woven into it are clear expectations, consistent routines, and mutual respect. It works for me. It doesn't work for everyone and that is OK. Teasing apart why it works is my challenge.

But as I have taken on the role of mentor and leader, I keep reflecting on how to help others develop the inner stance that translates into leadership in the classroom.

Probably the most important thing is not to be afraid of kids. A little fear of large groups of children is natural and healthy, don't get me wrong. I am terrified of places like Chuckie Cheese.

Fear in the classroom is different. In my classroom, with my students, with teenagers in general (my preferred age group), I feel no fear, even when I probably should.

I blame Tom White (a pseudonym, of course). Tom was a student at the first school I interned in Chicago while I was still in college.

Tom was 18. He had earned 5 credits in four years. He had missed the previous year of school because, according to the teacher I worked with, he spent 8 months in the state penitentiary for aggravated assault. He was also over six feet tall, about 260 lbs and built like an NFL linebacker. He was known as Big Tom White.

The kid was no joke. And they let him return to high school. Maybe, just maybe, an alternative might have been better.

At any rate, I had two interactions with Big Tom. The first time I met him, he sauntered into the classroom I was assigned to. He and the teacher engaged in a friendly conversation that included Big Tom cussing and using the "n" word.

He glanced at the back of the room and saw me for the first time. I was collating copies (I do NOT miss crappy copiers!). 

Big Tom looked at me and said "I apologize, I didn't mean to talk like that in front of a lady."

I responded, "Thank you, though you probably shouldn't use that language at all," and I smiled.

Big Tom expanded like a balloon. He stood up straight and expanded his chest. He took half a step in my direction.

"But thank you for apologizing," I continued.

Immediately, the air leaked back out of Tom and with a final first bump with the teacher, he slumped away. After he left, I blew out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. It was an intimidating moment and I was told in no uncertain terms to watch myself with "kids like that."

I didn't see Tom again for a few weeks, but I heard stories, none of them flattering.

A few weeks later, I was working with the administrative office. The school had decided to implement some new tactics and policies to decrease the plethora of tardies occurring each hour.

One new tactic was playing catchy tunes during passing, so students would hustle along. One of the new policies was to require teachers to close and lock their classroom doors as soon as the bell rang.

The final step was to sweep all late students to the auditorium to receive their detention slip for that afternoon. It was not a popular program.

On its first day, I helped manage the crowd, answered questions, and handed out detention slips. It was unpleasant and I heard every imaginable (and sadly believable) excuse about why students couldn't stay:

"I gotsta go get my baby"

"I gotsta go to work"

"I gotsta watch my lil' brother"

"I gots a doctor's appointment"

To each concern, I gave the same response: "See Mr. R after school and he'll make arrangements for you." This was the response I had been told to provide. Mr. R was currently busy, but he would reschedule detentions for legitimate conflicts.

About half way through the day, Big Tom was deposited in the auditorium by the head of security. He sat near the back, looking bored. 

I moved up and down the aisles handing out detention slips. Eventually, I came to Tom. I handed him his detention slip. Calmly, almost nonchalantly, he said "I can't stay today, I gotsta go see my parole officer."

I gave him the same response I had given everyone else. He replied "He can't make me stay."

Without thinking, I responded matter-of-factly, "That's right, sir, but he can tell you not to come back."

Big Tom White blinked up at me and shrugged. I walked away.

I don't know if Tom went to see Mr. R after school. I never saw him again. My interactions with him were respectful and led to no ill consequences. Mr. R told me he expelled Tom about three weeks later.

Tom's story is incredibly sad. I had no positive impact, no impact of any sort, on him.

But he had an impact on me. To this day, when someone tells me they feel intimidated by a student, I think of Big Tom White. I will never encounter a scarier dude than Tom. 

Yet I didn't let Tom know he intimidated me, and because I didn't show any fear, he didn't treat me like some one he could I didn't matter to him.

So as I try to figure out how to explain the inner authority, the innate confidence, that commands a classroom, I blame Big Tom White. 

He taught me that any fear of students I might have is my problem, not theirs. He taught me to believe that as the adult, I am always in the position to be respectful and kind. 

I am always the authority. I can't make anyone do anything. Unless they believe I can. Unless they believe I want what is best for them and I am on their side. Then it's like magic and that is why my memory of Big Tom White is a good thing.

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