Somewhere buried in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon there is an insight which I remembered every day I was in the classroom. Well, that’s probably an exaggeration, but I did remember it. The line, roughly translated, is “Zeus loves the kindly teacher,” and I did want to stay on the good side of Zeus. At times, this was difficult to remember, as some of my classes were certainly rough, but teaching is a learning experience. What made the line stand out in my mind was that with the exception of “Good Bye, Mr. Chips,” I had never seen that quality displayed in anything I had read or seen about American teachers (who were usually English teachers) real or fictive. The American teacher, when I began my career was supposed to be fair, firm and consistent, and somewhat stern. I liked the “fair” part, but stern has never been my strong suit.
Teaching is often presented in technical terms. You do this to achieve that result, and your students will learn, although there was a great deal of disagreement about curriculum and methods. I really wasn’t good at that stuff. For me, teaching was performance and magic that I had to invent as I went along, and that I couldn’t teach anyone else. I saw teaching as a seduction process. Kids would learn from me because they found what I had to say interesting, because I tried to get into their heads, anticipating their questions, and because I liked having fun with them. I think they also saw me as a reasonable role model, a rebellious adult in an often nutty environment.
I believe one of the lessons I taught them was how to circumvent the power structure without ruffling a feather.
Teachers are observed in the classroom by their supervisor. This used to happen fairly seldom, once of twice a year (now it is much more often), but it always made teachers nervous to have a supervisor sitting in the back of the room taking notes on whatever was going on. The kids were well aware of what was taking place, and were usually on their best behavior on these special occasions. Along the way, I decided to try an “experiment.” I told the class that on the following day we would be hosting an assistant principal, and it was time to have some fun with him. I told them to raise their hands whenever they didn’t know the answer to a question I asked, and that I would call on students who didn’t raise their hands. This took some practice, and we drilled for this new classroom recitation method for the rest of the period. The following day, when the supervisor took his seat at the back of the room, he was highly impressed by how well my class behaved. He was also quite impressed by the fact that so many kids participated in the classroom discussion, as evidenced by the forest of eager, raised hands whenever I asked a question. He was absolutely amazed when I called on kids who didn’t have their hands up, and obviously didn’t know the answer to my questions (or so he believed), but nevertheless answered them correctly.
I have no idea whether the adults, who were the kids in that class then, remember anything of the subject matter of that particular lesson. I do think they remember the topsy-turvy methodology I introduced that day.