Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 05 2012

Strategic Insanity

I was trying to explain to someone what the “Careful, Your Teacher Has Gone Absolutely Insane” emergency discipline response is (see my last post), and was reminded during my storytelling of why it is my absolute favorite when all else fails. It was my second year of teaching when I first (accidentally) tried it successfully:


There was a kid in our school who was an absolute nightmare (see this post, about trying to punch the assistant principal and later getting taken out of middle school in handcuffs.), who we’ll call J in this entry. J was not normally in my class, but ended up there for a little while while after the handcuffs incident. I had worked for months to build a good classroom culture, and my kids were generally good listeners and hard workers. J, on the other hand, was not interested in listening or working. Instead, J was very interested in causing a scene and trying to get all my kids against me. There was a day when I got angry and announced that anyone who didn’t want to learn could leave the classroom, and J actually got up and left, making an enthusiastic announcement on the way out that was along the lines of, “Guys, did you hear that? If we don’t want to be here, we can just leave! No one wants to learn! Let’s GO!” To their credit, every single kid looked at the door, looked back and me, and stayed in their seats, but I realized I was cashing in a lot of my hard-earned goodwill in that moment. At that rate, it was obvious I wasn’t going to have all of them on my side for too much longer.


The next day, I was trying to teach a lesson on the Pythagorean Theorem. My kids were paying attention and actually pretty excited about what we were learning (let’s not lie – the Pythagorean Theorem sounds cool). The one exception was J, who was brainstorming how to ruin my life. The clear way to start that process was to flip the worksheet (which I spent two hours designing) upside-down and start slowly blackening the entire thing in forceful, LOUD, pen strokes. Step 2 was to give me an “I dare you to say anything to me – watch how disruptive I’ll get then!” stare across the classroom.


Remember all the context with this kid, remember what had happened the day before, remember how fiercely I protect my classroom culture, and remember that I am human. Then imagine how incredibly infuriated I got in that moment. But also remember that this kid just sneers (and maybe swings) at discipline attempts, and was also trying to get my whole classroom against me. I walked over there, beyond myself with anger and absolutely clueless about what to do. Seriously, how are you supposed to react in that moment? It was my second year teaching, and I had absolutely no idea.


So I did the one thing I could think of – I stalled. Without a word, I sat down in the next desk and took the worksheet into my hands. Since I needed something to do while I counted to ten (or fifty, or a thousand) in my head, I slowly started doing origami. I folded a triangle, gently tore the paper into a square, and then proceeded to slowly and carefully make a paper crane. I didn’t look up at the kids, didn’t address J, and didn’t say a single word. I just sat there, staring at the paper, peacefully doing origami and calming myself down. Every single kid just stared at me, silent, waiting to see what I could possibly be doing.


When I finished, I pulled apart the wings and set the crane down on the desk. I looked at J and just said, “If you’re not going to use the worksheet, then at the very least we need to do something productive with it.” Then I stood up, entirely calm, and went back to teaching my class as if nothing had ever happened.


The kids were terrified. They had zero idea what I was doing, zero idea what was going through my head, and zero previous experience with this. They knew I’d delivered a really good retort to J, but they were too perplexed to even “ooooooooooooooooooooh” after my words. In that moment, they figured I had completely lost my mind and they were unwilling to take any bets on what I might do next. They definitely weren’t about to join up on J’s Team if it meant putting their lot against Crazy Me. I was cheerful, calm, and entirely back to normal as I went back to teaching, but that frightened them even more. They sat there with perfect behavior for the rest of class. Even J realized that I had won that round and sat there, worksheet-less and obedient, for the entire period. I didn’t get much trouble after that.


You can’t go off your rocker very frequently. But when you save it for just the right moment, it can be the perfect response when everything else is failing.


Plus, the kids’ faces are hilarious to remember afterward.


4 Responses

  1. alwaysawildcat

    This is awesome, and I hope to someday be able to employ that strategy.

  2. Amazing! I remember I used to have a huge issue with kid’s whistling while I was teaching. I could never tell who it was so they always got away with it and as soon as a few got away with it everyone wanted to do it.

    When the whistling started up again in 7th period, I decided to say, with no premeditation on the consequences or forethought “I know I’m fine, but you don’t have to whistle.” The class was just dying! And nobody ever whistled again. It was a moment of pure, insane, teacher brilliance.

    Your story cracks me up.

  3. Love it! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Nikita

    As an incoming 2012 CM who is going to be teaching middle school math, that story absolutely tickled me, thanks for the share :)

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