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Natural Born Teacher

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I recently received the greatest and most unexpected compliment of my teaching career. Before class, one of my more problematic students approached my desk and abruptly announced, "You're a born teacher.'' Or was it, "a boring teacher''? Either way, it got me thinking: Is there such a thing as a born teacher? And if so, am I one?

My first experience as a disciplinarian came when I was 5 years old with our family dog, Smokey. Each time Smokey urinated on the living room carpet, my father dragged him to the yellow puddle and swatted his nose. Then I went to Smokey and patted his head, telling him he was a good boy. As a result of my sympathy, the dog vandalized our home for years.

I commanded a schoolroom only five years later, in the 4th grade. My teacher placed me, the class treasurer, in charge when she left the room. Her instructions were simple: While the class worked on a math assignment, I was to write down the name of anyone who talked. Five minutes after she left, a boy called me to his desk. "How do you do this one?'' he asked.

While I was helping him, two girls began talking. I speedily wrote their names on my snitch paper. As soon as one of the girls noticed, she protested. "If you write our names, you have to write his name also,'' referring to the boy I was helping.

"It's different,'' I said. "He was asking me for help.''

"Well, I was asking her for help,'' she responded. "It's the same thing.''

Several others entered into the argument. The consensus was that I should either write all three of their names on the list or none at all. I said I would put down all of their names, including the newcomers who spoke in their defense. They argued, then, that my name should go on the list, since I was talking, too. I was unable to respond to such logic and wrote down my own name. When the teacher returned, I sheepishly handed her the list and went back to my seat. My name's appearance on the list invalidated its credibility. No one got in trouble.

I began my student teaching in the summer of 1991. Having heard how difficult junior high students could be, I requested high school. My training assignment, however, read "Henry T. Gage Junior High School.'' I optimistically hoped that this was a high school named for the son of Henry T. Gage. But it was, in fact, a corral for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

My mentor teacher was Ms. Branch, a strict disciplinarian. Her strategy was to train her students like dogs. I, too, treated them as dogs--like Smokey. When Ms. Branch yelled kids to tears, I patted them on the back and told them not to worry.

In front of the class, I didn't have many discipline problems. If the kids got out of hand, I merely said, "I'm telling Ms. Branch.''

At my going-away party, I received an honorary diploma, followed by an ovation by the kids. Ms. Branch then screamed at one girl for cheering too loudly. Consoling the crying student was my farewell gesture.

Six weeks of student-teacher training didn't harden my classroom persona: I was still a marshmallow. And, like many marshmallows, I was about to be roasted.

I was hired at Deady Middle School in Houston, where I was screaming by the end of the first week. My requests for silence went from "Please be respectful of others,'' to "Please be quiet,'' to "Be quiet.'' Later I tried "Shhh,'' or "Shush,'' then "Shush up,'' and finally, "Shut up.'' The complete metamorphosis took less than a month. In a last desperate effort, I warned them, "I'm telling Ms. Branch.''

In my second year, I learned valuable lessons. A blanket threat, such as, "The next kid who talks is getting detention,'' is trouble. The quietest kid in the class will surely be the first to break the silence, putting the teacher in an uncomfortable dilemma. I now know it's safer to say, "The next bad kid who talks is getting detention.''

I also learned to make a student's punishment more meaningful by relating it to the crime: If they throw paper, I make them clean the room. If they are late, I make them stay after class. If they talk too much, I make them an appointment to meet with the mutual funds salesman who frequents the staff lounge.

The battle I wage to overcome my inborn weakness toward discipline is proof I am not a born teacher. I would have shared this insight with the student who issued the proclamation, but I didn't want to wake him up.

--Gary Rubinstein

The author lives in Boulder, Colo., and is currently writing a book about his experiences teaching secondary school.

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