The new young teacher was crying after school. All of us gathered around her.
“The students won’t listen,” she told us, “the whole class is noisy and out of control.”
Poor dear; we’ve all been there. It’s hard to know how to manage a classroom when you’ve never done it before.
The teachers offered advice: Give more recess. Give less recess. Pass out detentions. Carry a rosary. Pass out candy.
I told her to go play tennis.
The other teachers rolled their eyes and walked away. Humph. Not a sports fan in the bunch, I guess. Oh well.
Alone with the new girl, I asked if she owned a racquet. I told her to go find a wall and play against it, and she’ll learn everything she needs to know about handling a class.
Racquet back, bounce, hit. Racquet back, bounce, hit. She’ll find there’s a rhythm to it.
Tennis is about ball control: Swing the racquet hard, and the ball comes back at you hard. If you try to smash the ball, be ready to duck…you’ll get what’s coming.
The same is true with a teacher’s words. Every new teacher tries to be tough. They look at the 25 grinning faces in front of them, and they get scared. They want to keep order, but they’re not sure how. They hesitate to laugh or smile, for fear the room will erupt.
A teacher doesn’t have to be tough all the time, there’s a rhythm to it. A good teacher is strict when she has to be, but she doesn’t try to be the greatest enforcer of rules since Sister Henrietta Henry ran Saint Penelope’s Women’s Lockdown Prison. That approach doesn’t work.
Children are little backboards – they return whatever’s been hit their way. If the teacher speaks softly, they’ll speak softly. If the teacher is kind, they’ll be kind. If the teacher reflects the joy of school, the class will play right along.
The best teachers lead gently. They manage the game as a smooth back-and-forth. They know that a group of happy children will do whatever you need them to do. They’ll follow you anywhere, they’ll want to please you and make you proud. They’ll return your love with love of their own.
The tough teachers don’t last very long. They spend a few years swinging hard at the backboard, then they wonder why children are awful, and they go get a job at Starbucks.
Sooner or later, every teacher figures out it’s smart to keep the class on your side.
Think of it this way: Suppose you have a little girl named Venus in your classroom. In the seat next to her is Little Serena. Do you really want to talk tough to those two? Are you sure about that? They’re so pretty, and they’re sitting so nicely and quietly. Would you really want to serve up an ace at one of them?
Not I. I’d be as sweet as I could be…or else look out for the return.