At the start of each school year, I have a tendency to reflect back on various pieces of educational advice I have received over the years--some from formal mentors or supervisors, some from colleagues or less formal mentors, and some from students. One that bubbled up from my subconscious this year is the subject of this blog post.
Gary Ross was my first supervisor. I’ve referenced him in another blog post, so this story may sound familiar; it’s not that I have a tendency to repeat myself as it is that the experience of my first year as a teacher was so impactful for me. As a bright-eyed (at least after coffee) Latin teacher at Stratford Academy in Macon, Georgia, Gary took me under his wing. He did this not because he was my boss, nor because he was feeling particularly magnanimous. Rather, Gary took me under his wing because someone had to do so. At age twenty-two, teaching a language few other than me have cared about since the fall of the Roman Empire, I was "the cool teacher," or at least that is the way I fancied myself. My classroom had a mellow, relaxed vibe. I was not one of those teachers who was all into rules. Need to say something? Don't raise your hand--just belt it out. Need to use the restroom? Just go. Your shirt is untucked, despite the school rule that says shirts need to be tucked in? No worries--I can turn a blind eye.
I thought I was doing my students a real favor. In my opinion, schools were too often filled with nit-picky rules that seem to have little basis in pedagogy or necessity. Why don't we just focus on the learning, rather than focusing on all this stuff that seems so tangential to it?
My first semester of teaching was a total disaster. Alright, maybe that's a little dramatic hyperbole; the kids did learn some Latin. However, no amount of verb conjugation could make up for the ways in which I did these kids a disservice. Maybe they could speak out of turn or get away with doing homework for another class during mine, but they were missing out on something very important in my classroom: they couldn't break the rules. That's because really, there were none.
Enter Gary Ross. Gary told me something I will never forget about middle schoolers:
"The job of middle schoolers is to test boundaries, and if you don't give them boundaries to test, they don't know what to do."
It sounds so simple, but it really is a profound bit of advice. What I took from it was that it was important to set boundaries that were one click in from the behavior I actually expected. Knowing that the kids would try to test these boundaries, I needed to be just a tad more restrictive than I actually wanted to be. I had to honor the fact that psychologically, my students needed to see limits if they were to do their job of looking beyond those limits.
Learning this during my first-year teaching is probably why I am still in this profession. If Gary had not told me this, I am not positive I would have figured it out on my own, and if I had a second year like my first, I probably would have found myself looking at a career change--at age twenty-four!
Year two was an awesome year for me. I started off the year with plenty of boundaries, both in the figurative and literal senses. I taped out lines on the floor around my desk with the words Nolite Transire, or "Do not cross," written on them. I had a poster on the wall with the steps students could take if they wanted to find themselves in detention. Far from the "cool guy" I was, I had become a total square, or so it seemed. However, the students responded as Gary told me they would. They saw the boundaries, and they attempted to test them.
I had a student named Hayes who crossed my Nolite Transire line on the first day of school. This was make-or-break time. I responded not by giving a warning, but rather by awarding him a detention. Once the students saw that I took that boundary seriously, it was not tested again. What I learned, though, was that as square as I was with all these rules and regulations, we still had a lot of fun. Jokes were still told, and laughter could still frequently be heard. In fact, my students were happier that year than in my first year, and it is because I let them do their job.
Years later, I reflect on this experience as an administrator every time we have the "rules and regulations" conversation with students. What they seem to hear is a list of things they may not do. What I know (and they quickly realize) is that they will try to do these things anyway and push the envelope, and so begins the psychological dance that occurs in middle schools everywhere. If it is the job of middle schoolers to test boundaries, it is the job of educators to create them.