(Editor's note: This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
I had a very difficult class today. It concerned the issue of food in the classroom.
At a recent staff meeting the importance of the food rule was reiterated: food and drink (except water) aren’t allowed in our building. If we see food in our classrooms, we're supposed to seize it and throw it in the trash.
Consistency is important because teachers who do not enforce the rule make life much harder for those who were.
I have had massive problems with food all year. I have explained over and over to the students that they may not have food in the classroom. (“But I’m not eating it,” they plead.)
Every day I sweep up twenty to thirty candy wrappers, evidence that I’m losing the war.
Today I noticed a large clear plastic bag sitting next to the desk of one of my students. The mouth of an open bag of chips was sticking out of the top of the bag. At least one other, full bag was underneath.
I took the bag from the student. Because of the large quantity of food involved I wasn’t sure if I should trash it all so I decided to lock it in my desk until the end of the period. I thought I might ultimately discard the open bag and forward the rest to the office for someone higher up to adjudicate.
Before I even got the food secured away the student began screaming at me.
“What are you doing? You’re gonna give that food back to me! The office gave me that food!”
Apparently someone had sent this food to the student and he had picked it up in the office earlier.
The room quickly descended into an uproar. Several students were screaming about the injustice of my having taken the food. I tried to restore order so that I could explain the situation but the students were having none of that. They rained insults at me including a few curses.
I tried to reason with one girl but she put her hands over her ears saying she wasn’t going to listen to anything I had to say.
Then I noticed a commotion near my desk.
A student had yanked the door of my desk open and spilled the bag of food on the floor. The chips from the open bag were everywhere. A sealed bag was hanging half out of the desk door.
The student who owned the food now became even more incensed.
“You’re givin’ me that food back or else,” he vowed.
I lost my temper. I opened the sealed bag of chips and emptied them in the trash.
I spent the next few minutes trying to gain enough quiet to explain myself to the class. Finally I was able to do this. I related the school policy and my reasons for taking the food.
This did nothing to mollify the students. They remained angry and raucous. Only when the indignant food bearer stormed out of the room did they calm down.
I expect many readers will find my behavior inadequate. They expect the teacher to quickly cow a class into submission. Trying to reason with irrational fourteen year olds appears weak.
I will stipulate that, yes, I made several errors; most importantly I tried to explain when every word simply made the situation worse.
All I can say in my own defense is that teaching is a forging of relationships with 150 different personalities.
Incidents like this reveal the bind I often find myself in.
Quiet students need a decorous classroom devoid of drama.
Disaffected kids come to class spoiling for a fight. They feign ignorance of the rules and become indignant at any perceived slight. Rules become a red flag.
And what’s most surprising is that tomorrow virtually all the students will have forgotten the whole thing.
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