My first day as a schoolteacher
by Jon Roland

Like many out-of-work computer engineers, I applied for work as a substitute teacher, at the best of the local school districts, near where I live in Austin. However, it took several months before I got my first call to serve, to fill in for a 7th grade science teacher.

The morning of Dec. 7, 2001, I was reminded of Pearl Harbor as the kids swarmed into class. After years of pontificating about the problems of public school education from a distance, I was about to experience the problems first hand, and put some of my theories and skills to the test.

I also realized that I had not been with so many children of that age since I was that age, 44 years ago, so I would have the perspective of a time traveler, to see changes that might not be apparent to those who experienced the changes gradually, like a frog being boiled slowly.

The first thing I noticed was that the day began at 8:30 AM, and ended at 4:00 PM, divided into 7 periods, with about two minutes between periods and 30 minutes for lunch. When I had been that age, the class day began at 9:00 AM, ended at 3:30 PM, with 6 periods, five minutes between classes, and had 45-minute lunch breaks, so some people could go home for lunch, which I often did.

The classroom was well-equipped for lab work, with a dozen microscopes of good quality, specimens, and supplies. There were twelve tables and 24 chairs, evidently originally intended to seat two to a table and to be used for lab work. However, I found ten of them had been pushed together in pairs so that four students would face one another, which could facilitate collaboration but also facilitate disruption, as proved to be the case.

The teacher had a computer with a 15" display, but I was not able to even get a login screen. Apparently it was not in working order.

Class sizes varied from 17 to 21, somewhat smaller than the average of 26 in my day.

One of the first things I noticed was the poor acoustics of the room. Hard floors, walls, ceiling, and furniture tended to magnify noise but also made it difficult for me to be heard, even when the students were cooperating by being quiet. I had to speak at a volume that I am used to only having to use in an auditorium without a PA system. When the students were all talking, which was often, it was difficult for anyone to hear or be heard. There were four acoustic panels suspended from the ceiling, so evidently some thought had been given to the problem, but they were totally inadequate. Now one might expect an acoustic problem in a lab, but a classroom needs to be surrounded in sound-absorbing materials. Otherwise, the environment tends to encourage talking and disruption.

On examining the course material, I was struck by the fact that they had not been issued science textbooks. Evidently, they had textbooks for some of their classes, but not this one. There were textbooks on a shelf, which were used to read during class, and to do the exercises at the back of the chapter, but they were numbered and had to be accounted for at the end of the class. Most classwork, and all homework, was based on class notes and handouts. One obvious change from my time was photocopy machines and an almost unlimited budget for the use of them. However, the handouts did not make up for the lack of a textbook the students could take home and study at their leisure.

When I compared the level of the material, however, I found that, while the material touched on many points that were actually beyond where my 7th-grade materials had been, the level of explanation and discussion was lower. They seemed to be preparing the students to pass multiple-choice and short-answer exams rather than to impart a deeper understanding of the concepts, or to develop skills of analysis, computation, and writing.

There seemed to be a high dependence on instructional videos, and there was a VCR-TV in the room, near the ceiling, but it would have been difficult for the entire class to see it well. We had 16-mm films, with wall-sized screens. One of the videos contained a factual error, which the regular instructor apparently had not caught. (The old estimate of 100,000 genes in the human genome was recently revised to 30,000, as widely reported even in daily newspapers.) I left a note on the blackboard correcting it, and wonder what happens when the regular teacher returns next week.

I found most of the kids to be intelligent, cooperative, eager to learn, and charming. Even the disrupters were good-natured and entertaining, which could seduce a harried teacher into letting them slide. Their social skills for getting attention and entertaining and manipulating one another seemed more advanced than those of my classmates had been, but their social skills for cooperation and avoiding or resolving conflict were much less highly developed. Academically, I found their writing and mathematical skills to be far behind. They were being led to hit a lot of high points, but not to develop the kinds of skills, including social skills, that require long practice. This would also include skills of scientific, historical, and legal analysis and research.

As might be expected, many of the kids tried to "test the substitute" by misbehaving. Many of them were accustomed to often being sent to the office for their disruptive behavior. I preferred to try to use skills of leadership to disrupt their disruption. From some of their comments, evidently I managed to succeed, even better than their regular teacher was able to do. However, it required a quick wit, and I can imagine that it might be difficult for many teachers to maintain that after a few weeks or months.

Each period except the fifth and the seventh had about two or three disrupters, who tended to play off one another, even if separated. The seventh and last period had none, and proceeded smoothly. The third period was a "conference" period with no students, and the fifth was an "inclusion" class, with a larger number of disrupters who had apparently been assigned to that class in an attempt to transition them into less disruptive behavior. If they were the ones thought to be nearly rehabilitated, then I hate to think what they had been like before. The real victims were the two- thirds of the class who were good kids who just wanted to learn. The disrupters were not bad kids. Indeed, they were charmingly good-natured. But they were crying out for discipline and not getting it, and trying to substitute getting attention. Unfortunately, neither the school authorities or the parents seemed willing or prepared to administer the kind of discipline needed or tolerate anyone else doing so.

The "inclusion" class had an additional teacher assigned to help keep order, but she seemed to spend the entire period with one student, and did nothing to keep order, even when I had to step in to break up a friendly tussle between two boys. I suspect her other job was to inspect the substitute.

The greatest potential support for discipline I got was from some of the more serious students. In my time, the only disrupters we had were newcomers from out of town. I still remember one of them, the first and only disrupter I had ever encountered, and apparently the first our art teacher had encountered, because she couldn't handle him. So I stepped forward, and with the obvious support of the other students, made it clear to him that we were there to learn and that we were not going to tolerate his misbehavior. We left no doubt that if necessary, we would resort to force, although none of us had ever had to do that before. He got the message, and settled down. Later we would become good friends.

I wonder whether peer pressure could be developed to control misbehavior. Many of the students did complain about the disruptive behavior of their classmates, but not to the point of rejecting the disrupters socially. Other teachers I spoke to think not, but in some classes it might work. One clear contrast between my time and the present is that today's students seem to respond only to peer pressure, to the exclusion of adult guidance, as much as they instinctively want it. In my time, adult guidance was paramount, and peer pressure fairly weak. In my case, peer influence was almost nonexistent. I looked to the examples of the wisest and best of every time and place, and did not find them among those with whom I was living. It might not hurt to do more to introduce today's children to the heroes of history, in ways that bring out what was heroic about them.

Parents and teachers tend to blame one another for the shortcomings of modern public education. Some even suspect a conspiracy to "dumb down" students. However, I am able to explain all this by "emergent behavior", motivated by a combination of factors, all of which would have to be adjusted to solve the problem. Neither parents, teachers, or students can swim against the tide by themselves. The best of parenting, and the best of teaching, can only do so much to overcome the effects of good students being mixed with disruptive ones. Unfortunately, there is a common unwillingness to do what has to be done to bring the disrupters under control, which for many would be a kind of residential military boot camp, 24/7, 365 days a year. Drugs are an easy out, but almost never likely to be the solution. Boot camps will be expensive, but the lack of them will be much more expensive. Otherwise, we will become a nation of dependents with casual social skills but little ability to work together for worthy goals.