My father hit me only once in my life. I was 13 or 14 and I said something snarky and disrespectful. To my shock, his fist connected with my jaw hard enough to cause me to stumble backwards.
If you think he never hit me again because from then on I was a changed person, respectful and polite, then you don’t know much about teenagers. Snark and disrespect are their tools of trade. Teenagers use sarcasm like crowbars, prying themselves away from their dependence on the adults in their lives. Even the sweetest-natured 8-year-old eventually morphs into a pubescent teenager with a snarl on her face.
My father’s blow didn’t miraculously “cure” me of being a teenager. He never hit me again not because I wasn’t provocative or sassy in the future, but because he was ashamed. Normally an easy-going, loving man, he realized he’d let his temper control his actions.
Anyone who’s ever dealt with teenagers can relate. Their challenges to our authority can be infuriating. That’s why I understand the armchair quarterbacks who, having seen the video of the violent arrest at Spring Valley High School, call for doubling down on students who act out in a classroom.
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But as a high school teacher, I know those responses are wrongheaded. Aside from the tricky issues of race and gender, consider the broader concerns of power and control. In a well-run classroom, the teacher is in control but the students aren’t powerless.
From moment to moment they make choices about their own learning – how much attention to pay to the lesson, whether or not to do their best work on an assignment. Sometimes my control as the teacher and the students’ power to respond are in complete harmony. Those moments of shared communion are joyful, the kind of days that keep teachers in the profession.
Other days I feel my control as the teacher is threatened by a student being non-compliant or even openly defiant. If I’m not careful, I can slip into a no-win power struggle – wanting to “double down” and regain control.
My first two years as a teacher were spent at a middle school where corporal punishment was the norm. The principal kept a paddle on his wall to use on misbehaving students, but I soon discovered that the students I sent to him came back sulky and uncooperative.
Worse, by sending the students to the administration to be disciplined, I had ceded my authority as the classroom teacher to someone else. My students now saw the principal, not me, as the person in control of the classroom.
That’s not to say that sometimes a student doesn’t need to be removed from a classroom, or the administration shouldn’t step in and take control of a situation.
However, I’m the only person in my classroom with a fully mature brain, and I have four times as many life experiences as the teenagers in my charge. If I can’t out-think or out-strategize a teenager, I’m in trouble, indeed.
There are plenty of ways to get ourselves in trouble in the classroom. Every teacher I know has been That Teacher, the one so angry that she drew a line in the sand and dared a student to cross it. We’ve all kicked ourselves later at how we let a minor annoyance escalate into a major problem – or worse, how we helped blow it up.
If we’re smart, we reflect on those moments as the failures they are and figure out how to be more effective and humane next time – because there will always be a next time.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.