Saturday, March 8, 2014


Thursday morning I had a visitor in my classroom, an education major from a local college who needed to rack up some hours observing teachers. Our Dean of Faculty had made arrangements for her to observe my class -- You have to go watch Fr. Al the Hotshot Teacher.

It was a very educational morning for me. First and foremost a lesson in humility. My sophomores were antsy and chatty, finding it hard to focus.

At one point I broke them into small discussion groups with a sheet of questions to consider; all went well for a few minutes until a medium-size centipede decided to join group #4. All four of the students, including one lunk who weighs about 260 pounds, jumped up and scattered, shouting in dismay. I turned to our guest and said: "and these are guys, right?" I was so angry at this point that in my best Franciscan manner I strode over and with one brutal stomp ended the centipede's life and group #4's distraction. I turned to the offenders and did one of those hoarse whisper things: "Get back to work and stop embarassing yourselves and me."

During the group work my observer and I discussed some questions about classroom strategies and so on, which I think were helpful to her. At least she wrote them down. The whole time I"m thinking to myself, "This woman must think I'm running an insane asylum." The kids gave their group reports and took some notes off of a PowerPoint presentation, with way too many side remarks for my taste. Then it was time to assign homework and call a merciful end to one of the most poorly-managed class periods I could ever recall.

My guest told me on the way out that she had learned several useful things. I was too mortified and cowardly to ask her what things she might have learned from Hotshot Teacher. Me, I had learned a lot about humility and about the undeveloped state of the adolescent prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that directs such things as impulse control and reasoned decision-making).

Next morning more lessons were in store for me. I sat down with the class and instead of screaming and verbally abusing them I decided that a better approach would be to let them first tell me what a mess they'd made of the class period yesterday. So I asked them,

"Well, what did you think of our class behavior yesterday, with that guest present?" 

One of the chief noodges in the class immediately put up his hand and offered his take.

"Well, it was a pretty lively class. Everybody was into it, not like in some other teachers' classes. You know, like in your class we can just be ourselves. And by the end we learned some new stuff about Jesus' miracles."

Another student agreed, much to my confusion:

"Yeah, it was pretty good. The time went fast."

I sat there baffled. Slack-jawed. They thought they'd done a great job! Finally someone conceded:

"Except for the thing with the bug. We were a little over-the-top about that. That wasn't so good" 

Everybody vociferously agreed that they had made too big of a scene over that, and that they knew I would have taken harsher measures if we hadn't had a guest in the room at the time. They seemed genuinely apologetic. Good, I thought, now maybe I'm starting to get through. Then another voice chimed in:

"Yeah, but she was laughing at the bug thing. I was watching her. She was laughing a lot during the class. I think she had a good time."

What was I supposed to do now? Could she really have thought this was a legitimate way to run a class? Did she leave saying to herself "Wow! That dude really is a  Hotshot Teacher! His students are so involved!"

Then I was obliged in conscience to tell them that I had seen the whole thing very differently, and that I'd been personally embarrassed by their behavior. I reminded them to be more aware of certain classroom etiquette such as raising your hand to speak and staying on task during group work. (Sometimes you just have to tell them these things, right?)

But mostly I was trying to process my surprise at this group of kids who'd seen the event from a whole different angle. Hotshot Teacher had learned a few more lessons: first, be prepared to stand in the students' shoes and see things from their angle. Second, always ask before you tell (in this case I had inquired what they thought of their behavior before telling them my own thoughts). Third, adolescent boys are a constant source of wonder and frustration at the same time -- their damned pre-frontal cortex doesn't fully mature until their early twenties!

I was left wondering what the Noodge had meant by saying that in my class I allow the kids to be themselves and express themselves. Does this mean I'm starting to lose my control over the classroom?

What all this has to do with Lent is anybody's guess. Maybe the connection will come to me before Easter.

Meanwhile I'm left wondering, What DID that guest learn from observing the most unruly class period I've taught in years? 


  1. Was it necessary to end the centipede's life?

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking question. See my post for Match 15.