I was trained in the days when a teacher’s classroom was their castle. We were told that, no matter what the curriculum said, we could close the door and do whatever we thought was best. Nobody, except administrators, had a right to walk into your classroom without permission.
This is an idea that I still take very seriously. There are 30 teenagers in front of me 5 times a day. I am responsible for their safety and education. There is nobody else there: no principal, no security agent, no chancellor, no Bloomberg, no education reformer, nobody. It is just me and the kids, many of whom would rather be doing a million other things with their time.
It is a tricky thing to get 30 inner-city teenagers to care, or at least not tune out, a 50-minute lesson on the Ming Dynasty. Armed with nothing but chalk and charm, I have to help teenagers arrive at knowledge they might never hear or see again. Bringing students to the place where they are receptive takes work, patience and preparation.
And this is why I hate being interrupted.
We are in the middle of a lesson, maybe a student is asking a question or I am answering one, and then the phone rings. “Can so-and-so come to the office after the period is over?” So now, instead of just trying to deliver this lesson and keep the kids engaged, I have to remember to deliver this all-important message to Johnny that he should come to the office.
When do I do this? Do I slam down the phone and say in front of the class “Johnny, go to the office at the end of the period”? Do I try to keep on teaching, walk over to Johnny while 30 eyes are on me and whisper the message in Johnny’s ear? Do I wait until the end of the period and tell Johnny as the students are filing out of the room? Will I even remember to do this when the period is over?
After the 50th or so call from the “office” this year, I realized something: none of these calls are important. If there was one such call during the year, it would stick out as an emergency. I would say “oh wow, it must be important, they never call from the office.” But they always call from the office, every day. I am required to step out of my role as educator and into my role as gopher for people too lazy to leave the comfort of their own desk.
My new policy: you want to talk to a kid, go find him/her yourself.
But I suppose I have to be careful what I wish for. There are those other interruptions where visitors physically appear in my classroom. Sometimes it is a school aide who needs to drop off some bit of info for a certain student. Over the past few days, it has been my fellow teachers who have found reason to visit students in my class. Last week, a teacher stood at the threshold of my classroom door (which I keep almost always open) and stared in scanning the rows of students. The students started chuckling at this. A few days ago, a teacher came to my class to drop off some review sheets for his exam.
While I understand there might be those moments that you desperately need to see a few students, I try very hard never to disturb another teacher’s classroom. I believe I have done it once all year and felt terrible about it. What goes on in the classroom is the most important thing to happen inside of a school building. I treat it as a sacred thing. Disturbing class time to me is like handing out leaflets in church while the sermon is taking place.
It is not that I am insecure about my classroom management. It is that I know the type of work that is behind bringing students to a certain intellectual and emotional place. That place is very delicate. Any disturbance, any side comment, even a change in body language can throw off the entire balance. A ringing phone or an outside visitor dispels all of the mystique in one short moment. The class might not get out of control, but that delicate place certainly gets lost.
I was much more tolerant of this stuff at the start of my career. People would call or visit and I might even engage them in empty banter. We would go back to the lesson after the person left without missing much of a beat. After 12 years of visitors and disturbances, it gets tougher for me to be so accommodating.
Part of it is that most people, including teachers, think that students are going to be in groups or working independently when they call or visit. Having the teacher answer the phone or track down a student is not a big deal in these situations, since the teacher is not doing much direct teaching. However, I am a traditionalist. This means that I largely establish the rhythm of the class. Either I am asking a question, writing notes or listening to a student. At the same time, I am formulating where we should go from that point and how to make the next smooth transition. There are a million things happening inside of my brain. A ringing phone or a visiting teacher is very distracting.
I suppose this gets to the heart of the matter. After 33 years on the planet earth with ringing phones, outside obligations, orders barked and the general din of New York City, I value more and more the time that exists for quiet reflection. The classroom is probably one of the only places where kids get a chance to do some actual thinking in a relatively peaceful environment. For 50 minutes, we can seal ourselves off from the world, leave our problems behind and enter a place of abstraction and ideas that few children will rarely experience again.
These are the ramblings of an old man I suppose. There is nothing I can do to stop these disturbances, but it gets tougher to make my peace with them.