“You reap what you sow.”-Apostle Paul
I knew nothing. I should not have listened to them; they had a different style, but what was I supposed to do I was a brand new teacher? I was ignorant, I say. Seasoned teachers told me, “Carter, when you get in that classroom don’t you dare smile. Do. Not. Smile. Do not joke even with them.” They said this referring to a group of middle schoolers. The experienced teachers continued, “Once December rolls around you may begin to crack a smile.”
Sounds tough, huh? I did not expect to hear these things.
I ended up teaching after ending a career as a pastor and I was looking for some meaning and purpose in life since most of my adult life I spent working to become a pastor. I also needed some bread, cratch, moooooolah. Money. Money. Money. Pastoring left only change and lint in my pockets.
Back to the story at hand, they may not’ve actually said those things but whatever they said I heard what I heard. It was hard to hear things with much accuracy in those days. My new teacher anxiety plugged my ears.
I chose middle school over high school because I thought I could handle middle schoolers. I’m only 5 feet 8 inches so I thought I would at least be taller than them. I found out I was short once I started working with middle schoolers. “They could not be that tough” I said to myself. My colleagues did not help the situation. “These students are tough. Some come from foster homes, some come from two parent homes but they are all street smart and tough,” some colleagues warned. They may or may not have said this but I heard what I heard.
Before school began each year our district had a districtwide meeting in an auditorium at a high school. Everyone from the district attended. The auditorium was packed. My eyes were saucers; I had no clue where to sit until one of my new colleagues saw me and waved me over. I wandered over to my new colleagues and squeezed by them to find an empty seat. “Don’t step on toes and don’t fall,” I repeated to myself until I safely sat.
Not knowing what I was getting into, I sat by one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever met whom I now call my Road Dog. At the time of our meeting, I did not know we would coach championship teams together, get robbed of a basketball championship together causing a scene on the hardwood after the game, teach scores of students together, and live our working an personal lives as friends. He was in his late sixties at the time. He stood well over six feet tall, had a full head of hair (I remembered his hair because even when I was 31 or so I was beginning to lose mine, I am not jealous though, seriously) and he said what was on his mind. I’ve always been drawn to those types, especially in work environments. He did not say more than one word to introduce himself. While looking straight ahead he held his fist up in my direction for a fist bump and said “Barton.” I went to shake his hand and then turned my outstretched hand into a fist connecting his with mine. “Does he dap up everyone, or did he just do that because he thinks my hands are dirty,” my anxiety ratcheted up.
Feeling a bit intimidated in such a large space and by all these veteran teachers, I responded in like kind, “Carter.”
After a few minutes in silence still looking straightahead Barton said, “Carter, I will be coming by your room for discipline support.” His neighbor teacher didn’t get along with him so well so later he pulled me aside and said, “Don’t let that old fool come to your class for no discipline support. You gotta do what you gotta do for your own class, your own way. But these kids are sure tough. You can’t let them know your weakness.” He may not have said this but I know what I heard.
The picture the veteran teachers painted for me, a green teacher, was bleak. I felt despair before I even entered the classroom. At the time, I felt they did not paint a bleak picture on purpose but they just talked teacher talk something I was not ready to hear and something I was not used to.
I stayed up all night eager to make a difference with these young people, but I worried. I worried that I would in fact need that discipline support; I worried that this group of students would be so difficult that I would not be able to teach them. Memories of my student teaching came to mind when I lost control of classrooms. When those young students hated me. “I was too easy on those students in my student teaching. I just need to be tougher.”
Those memories served as nightmares. Into my nightmares I feel asleep on night before my first day of school.
The first day of school I used the nerves to take in aggressive tone and posture against them. I barked out orders trying to act as close to a drill sergeant as possible. People listened to drill sargents, don’t they? If you know me, I am anything but a drill sergeant. But, that year I determined not to smile until December and I was not going to need that discipline support because the drill sergeant in me was going to make sure that the middle school stayed students in line.
The students came in on the first day found their seats. I waited for a second it started my barking from the start. “Everybody up,” I said with as loud and as booming a voice I could muster. The students just looked at me and do not move. They stayed there. “Oh,” I said to myself, “I’ll just bark louder and harder, “Did you not hear me get up out of your seats and go make a line in the back of the room?”
My barking disconnected me from students. My barking was counter productive. The beginning, the first day, was the beginning of the end. I reaped intimidation. I thought I would sow trained, well behaved students, students who fell in line.
Finally some students began to get up and then others begin to follow. Before long all of them were standing in a single file line at the back of the room and I made my way to the front desk. I called out names and and demanded the students go to their desk on the double. I wanted to make sure that they knew who was their commanding officer was.
As the days went on I continued with the same commanding tone and volume. One day the class had enough of my barking. Before long, in front of the entire class, I was on the phone calling people‘s parents. I thought to myself this will definitely keep them from misbehaving on my watch. I will call their parents and embarrass them in front of all their peers so that they’ll know if they mess with me I would embarrass them into compliance.
I remember seeing a tear in someone’s eyes after I called her parents. But, the tear was not because I had called her parents. Whatever small trust, if I had any at all, I developed was gone. With a long face she said “Mr. Carter why are you calling me out? I don’t get it. Why are you picking only me out of the whole class? Look around everyone’s talking. That’s cold, Mr. Carter, that’s cold.”
I stopped, looked around the room, and saw people running around, out of their seats, chucking paper balls around the room.
Then a fight broke out. I ran over to break it up. One of the smallest kids in the class locked up with a bigger kid and there was venom in their combat. I separated the two and through the deep inhales to gain my breath asked, “What is the problem? Why are you fighting?” Both, without a trace of tiredness, replied and pointed at the same time, “He took my pencil.”
Within a few months I realized that this group was too tough for me. Where was the discipline support when I need it? Where was that control over the class I looked to have by barking out orders, not smiling or joking, and using my sargent-like tone, volume, and posture? How will I make it to the end of the year?
One day I knew I went too far. While instructing, no one in the classroom paid any attention. They talked, texted, and who knows what else. I was all out of tools. I had no more teaching strategies to use. I had barked orders. I had written referrals. I had students on classroom suspension. I had students on school suspension. I had parents in the room. I had other teachers in the room. I had administration in the room. My last choice was to let it out. I turned around, clinch my fist almost falling to my knees, and shout at the top of my lungs with what was probably a deranged look in my eyes, “SHUUUUUT UUUUUPPPPP!”
I did not know it would come out with such violence, frustration, and rage. Once the words “shut up” torpedoed out of my mouth, I released my fist’s clinch. When the derangement left my eyes, I looked up to see a chorus of students pointing at me and laughing for about 30 seconds which seem like an hour. After the nearly eternal half a minute ceased, they carried on about their business just as they had done before I had that violent outburst.
A few weeks or maybe months later, while meeting with other seventh grade teachers they expressed challenges they had with their classes. Since all of us had challenges, for sure their challenges were not as difficult as mine, we decided to have an assembly in the multi purpose room so we could have a talk with the entire seventh grade class about their classroom misconduct. We wanted to enhance learning in all of the classes.
The day came for the students to file into the multi purpose room. This was the first time I saw the students, since the first day of school, enter into a space together with some degree of order and self restraint. I think I cracked a smile.
The smile was short lived.
The meeting commenced. The first teacher grabbed the mic and began to explain the reason for the meeting. He let the students know that met because their teachers noticed the misbehavior in the all of our classrooms and around campus and we wanted to make sure students learned. So they needed to be responsible and accountable for their own behaviors. They needed to behave more like they wanted to learn.
The second teacher then grab the mic and echoed the first teacher’s words.
The student sat attentively.
The third teacher grab the mic and echoed the first and second teacher’s words.
Although beginning to get a bit antsy the middle school students sat attentively.
The fourth teacher grabbed the mic and started to echo the first, second, and third teachers words, but before the fourth teacher could get out a complete sentence, the students with pointed fingers and deranged looks in their eyes, erupted in a chorus of laughter. It was a long 20 seconds.
I stood before the seventh graders shocked. In that moment I felt the pain I had inflicted on students whose parents I called and spoke to in front of the classroom, I felt the trauma of sitting in a classroom where someone barked at them, I experienced the the wounds I inflicted when I turned to the classroom and shouted shut up to them so violently.
The first teacher ran to my rescue taking the microphone and waving his arms saying something to calm the students down. I can not remember what he said I just remember how I felt. He gave the mic back to me and I said, “wha wha wha wha wha wha.”
The meeting ended and I recall sitting in my room dejected because of the way I was treated. I did not come out of my shock until I chose to use the experience to learn something.
I treated students poorly and I was treated poorly. I reaped what I sowed. Whatever seed we plant the harvest will be likened to the seed. When we treat others a certain way, life works to ensure that we experience what we’ve given to others. Each person we have in our care, parents, teachers, and leaders, remember how we treat them we will receive in some way or another.