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A Math Teacher Writes / François Bereaud

When I started teaching, I was as green as one could possibly be. My experience consisted of loosely being a summer TA for some high school kids who came to my university, four weeks of substitute teaching, and zero education classes. I knew none of the verbiage, much less what it meant. Lesson plans, anticipatory sets, and classroom management systems were all lost on me. Teaching at an inner city school, I was led to believe the last one would be crucial to my survival. But I was twenty-two, just learning to manage my finances and park the car without getting a ticket, how could I manage a room full of teenagers?


After a department meeting, a veteran teacher with a reputation for being tough pulled me aside. She said the key to classroom management was record keeping and pulled out her grade book. Since we’d only been in school a few weeks, she showed me a class from the year before. The left column contained student names, the top row dates, and the body a series of complex markings which she proceeded to explain. From these markings, she could tell on any given day who was late, who forgot a pencil, who stood up without asking permission, and who interrupted her. Then she expanded on the punishments for each offense. I was amazed and horrified. Ethical implications aside, I knew I’d be completely incapable of the organization.


The most important person at Camden High was Mr. Jenkins, the Dean of Students. He was an older and imposing man with a good-sized belly and deep voice. The park adjacent to the school which was said to be rife with drug dealing. He would tell students, “I know what happens in the park. You’re not going to the park.” He also said, “I was running them streets before your Momma was born, there’s nothin’ you can do, I haven’t done.” In a city plagued by violence, I felt that the school was safe and that Mr. Jenkins was the reason why.

I was also scared of Mr. Jenkins which thus led me to my classroom management philosophy: Do not let my incompetence make his job harder. So, while the school policy was to write referrals on misbehaving students – referrals which went to Mr. Jenkins – I took the opposite approach: never write one. Instead, I mostly ignored misbehaviors. That often worked. If it didn’t, I simply asked the student to leave.

“Where?”

“Anywhere. You just can’t be here, you don’t want to do math.”

“You gonna write me up?”

I never answered that question and students would leave (it helped that I was in a building at the back of campus where they could slip out, yes, into the park). When they returned the next day, nothing was said, math business as usual. It actually worked quite well except for the one student who left and never returned (I still feel guilty about him).

 

One day, my system was tested. S stood up and proclaimed that I was a “white motherfucker.” This was half true as I am white, but it didn’t seem like the time for that math lesson. I was stunned as was most of the class. She stared at me. “Take a walk” didn’t seem appropriate so I went to my desk and got a referral form. I filled it out and told her to take it to the office. She laughed at me and walked out, but, not before telling the class, she’d be back with her grandma who’d set me straight. I walked the referral to the office at lunchtime, sliding it in Mr. Jenkins’ box without him seeing me.


The meeting in Mr. Jenkins’ office lasted maybe ten minutes and I wasn’t required to speak. S and Grandma came in glaring at me, when they started to speak, Mr. Jenkins silenced them with a look. He explained that such language wasn’t tolerated here. By the end, he and Grandma were friends. S was suspended a couple days, returned to class, and it was okay.


I muddled my way through the rest of the year with no referrals. I asked fewer kids to leave and I kept track of days without disruptions in any of my classes. I had a streak of 20 once.

Graduation at Camden High was amazing. Seniors and faculty started at the school and marched through the dreaded park to a pavilion where the ceremony was held. Families cheered along the route. I hadn’t wanted to go to my high school graduation, having felt that I’d accomplished nothing, but for these kids, it was a different story. They’d overcome many obstacles to make it to that day. I felt emotional knowing that I’d decided to move away from the area and wouldn’t be returning to the school.


After it ended, I was invited to join other faculty members for drinks at a pub which sat on the border of Camden and the affluent suburb of Cherry Hill. We toasted the end of the year and made light chatter. I spotted Mr. Jenkins at a nearby table drinking with people I didn’t know. I turned away too late, he called me over.


His companions turned out to be former students, most decades older than me. They’d laugh and he’d say, “Yeah, I threw you out and your cousin too.” I sat hesitantly. Mr. Jenkins flagged a server and bought me my drink of choice. He then told the table what a good teacher I’d been and that he was sorry to see me go. I drank stunned, smiling and nodding as appropriate, and glad I’d only written the one referral.


A few years later, three weeks into my second teaching job, this one a sabbatical replacement at a middle school, the principal called me into his office and threatened to fire me. He said I’d lost control of my classes and that parents had been calling. I didn’t believe in control and knew nothing of the calls. He gave me some VHS tapes on “assertive discipline”, told me about his teaching days in the riotous ‘60s, and concluded by telling me that I needed to learn to be the “bastard in the room.” I knew he was wrong but kept my mouth shut. I didn’t watch a minute of the videos but did implement a “names on the board and checkmark discipline system” which was bullshit and lasted three days. At the end of the year, the school had a permanent opening for a math teacher. Both the principal and I agreed that I needn’t apply.


I taught middle and high school for twelve more years and never developed a classroom management system. I firmly believe all that’s needed is to teach in a way which keeps students engaged – that’s my whole manuscript on the subject, feel free to steal and publish it. I got decently good at that. Teachers never need to be the bastard in the room, but it is okay to throw in some toughness accompanied by a healthy dose of love.


Mr. Jenkins taught me that.


Camden High School, "The Castle on the Hill" as I remember it in 1988. I was happy to learn that it was demolished a few years ago and replaced with a new state of the art facility.



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 FRANCOIS BEREAUD teaches and writes in San Diego.

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