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Do Not Disturb!

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It would be years before I would recognize those interruptions for what they really were--and two decades before I would figure out what to do about them.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, schools are weird. Priorities are skewed. Teachers' telephone messages are shoved into their mailboxes, but students' are hand-delivered in the middle of class. Custodians mow lawns right under our windows during third period, rather than at 2:35 after classes are dismissed, and no one stops them. We constantly espouse the sanctity of the learning process, yet think nothing of interrupting the concentration of 2,000 people to tell just one that his or her parking lights are on.

Still, like most teachers, I put up with the hall-pass nonsense for years. By the time a quarter century had flown by, I had mentally divided my pass pet peeves into three major categories.

  • Administrators whose slips issued a commanding "NOW,'' rather than the kinder, gentler, "Now, please,'' or better yet, "As soon as possible.'' How many of them, I wondered, would tolerate a teacher's bursting into their offices with a demand to be heard right away, disregarding whoever was already seated or in line.
  • Office workers who took it upon themselves to hand passes directly to my students rather than to me. Some conversed with members of my class on their way in or out. Some even strolled into my class munching candy bars. How much energy, I wondered, should I devote to policing what should be a non-issue?
  • Guidance counselors who sent a fistful of passes, summoning sometimes six of my students at once. How many kids could they counsel simultaneously? Why should their lack of scheduling skills sabotage my lesson plans?

It has to do with power. Every time anyone shamelessly interrupted my class, the message was clear: "My time is more valuable than yours. Whatever you're doing cannot possibly be as vital as whatever I'm doing. You don't like it? Tough.''

I refused to argue. I stopped complaining behind their backs and took action.

First, I locked my door. Every day. Every period. Ridiculous problems call for radical measures. Now, no one gains entry without my help.

Second, I hung a sign at eye level: "Please do not knock. Please do not interrupt my lesson. If you have a pass or a message for one of my students, please slip it underneath the door. I will deal with it as soon as possible.''

Third, I ignored any persistent pounding and asked my class to do the same. (Most people think posted signs apply to everyone but them.)

What about dire emergencies, you ask? What about the student whose father has been injured in an accident and whose mother has just arrived to take him to the hospital? Good question. To which I respond: How often does that happen? Not once in my 25 years of classroom teaching have I encountered anything similar to a wounded father beckoning his child bedside.

What I've observed instead is that literally everyone who appears at my door thinks that his or her personal business, no matter how trivial, is of utmost importance. Girls drop by to visit their boyfriends for "just one minute.'' Boys drop by to let friends know where they'll be waiting after school.

My students' academic learning time, I've decided, is inviolable. It's about time I started behaving as if I really believed that. Perhaps, eventually, others will respect it, too. In the meantime, the least I can do is insist that students remain undisturbed in my class.

--Coleen Armstrong

The author is an English teacher at Hamilton (Ohio) High School.

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