Teaching Isn’t About Managing Behavior

Christopher Emdin:

In the fall of 2001, armed with an undergraduate science degree and a rushed teaching credential, I stood in front of a sea of Black and brown middle-school students in the Bronx and announced that I was their teacher. On the first day of school, I told them, “This is my class. I am going to be teaching you science and math. You will listen, you will work hard, and you will be respectful.” I had practiced these lines in the mirror for weeks. My shoulders were back, my hands were in my pockets, and my teacher scowl had been perfected. Everything I had been told about how to teach—that success was only attained in a quiet, contained classroom, and you had to be tough to maintain it—was contained in those few lines.

A few weeks later, I was walking the aisles of the classroom while my students were working quietly on math problems, when loud sirens began to penetrate the walls. Thinking it was just another police car or ambulance, I yelled at my students to focus. In that moment, ensuring that they were not yielding to distractions was my biggest concern. But the sirens persisted for longer than usual. Students looked up at me with concern; my brows tightened in a scowl that forced their eyes back to their notebooks. I knew that no math was happening, but as long as no eyes were lifted from the page, I felt successful. Then the phone rang.