Nobody Told Him How to Take a Cellphone Away From a Kid

Nobody Told Him How to Take a Cellphone Away From a Kid
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Ed Boland was an executive at an education not-for-profit. He says he wanted to be an urban hero teacher, just like the ones he saw in the movies. Boland was recently featured in the New York Times, the New York Post, and on National Public Radio. He was promoting his book "The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School." After all, Boland must be an expert on the problems facing urban schools. He was an accidental tourist in one for a full school year while he was researching his book.

Boland says he became a teacher because he "wanted to work on the "front lines." He was going to "turn a kid around." But it sounds like from the interviews about his book that he gave up after day five.

Who does he blame for his failure? Not the students. They are victims of poverty and dysfunctional schools. He was a victim of graduate schools. According to Boland, "Of all the hours I was at graduate school, I don't think there was an hour devoted to classroom management . . . I just wish somebody told me how to get a cellphone out of a kid's hand."

My fear is that this will book will be used as another weapon in assaults on public schools and teacher certification programs. I have no question there are public schools that are not functioning and should be closed, although it would not be fair to make a judgment based on Boland's report. Boland says he is in no way blaming the students, they are the victims of poverty. He claims the book is about his personal catharsis and is an indictment of the conditions that produce this kind of student behavior. But that is not how it comes across in interviews or what sells books. The focus in "The Battle for Room 314" is on the horrors Boland feels he experienced because of the students and he offers a detailed description of their behavior, at least as he understood it.

Boland has a BA in Literature and Art History from Fordham University and earned an MA in Education from the City College of New York. He was hired to teach in an "autonomous" inner city public school because operating with Gates Foundation money. Because of the Gates affiliation the school had flexibility in how it was structured and curriculum, which probably meant it had neither structure nor a curriculum. Boland got the job because the principal liked that he had taught English in China. But he was definitely unprepared for this school and student population.

From 2000 to 2005, Boland was the Director of Development & Public Affairs at Prep for Prep overseeing development, communications, and alumni affairs. After his brief "teaching" sabbatical, he returned to Prep for Prep as its Vice President for External Affairs. And now he has his big book. It is not clear if his former students have anything.

As a teacher, I learned a few principles that would have helped Boland and definitely would have benefited the students he was assigned to teach. Here are Alan Singer's ten teaching tips. I hope other teachers post their ideas as well.

1. Organization and relationship. If your classroom and lessons are well organized and you develop a relationship of mutual respect with your students, ninety percent of the problems described by Boland do not happen.

2. Planning. Lessons must start from where the students are, academically and in terms of interest, not based on what interests you as a teacher. When students are balling up activity sheets and throwing them at each other it is because they cannot figure out what you want them to do or cannot understand what it says.

3. What happens in the classroom stays in the classroom. If you can settle issues in-house without referring students to the dean for punishment, students begin to respect that you are not out to get them. Students are not disrupting your teaching; they are disrupting learning by other students. Involve students in maintaining a positive learning atmosphere.

4. School rules. Everyone in Room 314 knew the school rules - except for Boland. By high school, most teenagers have spent more than a decade in school. They know what they are supposed to do and what is inappropriate. They took advantage of Boland because he didn't know the rules.

5. Realize that the only person in the room you can control is yourself. You cannot "manage" students. They must be persuaded. Part of that means developing a sense of humor about yourself and not taking student comments personally. They don't know you, they are just trying to push your buttons.

6. Everybody has a bad hair day. A student may be responding in class because of an argument with a parent, a fight with a friend, or perceived harassment by a school security guard. Sometimes a teacher has to just let something go. Remember what the Beatles said, "Let It Be."

7. Operate as if you are going to reach 100% of your students each and every day and recognize that this is totally impossible. You will end up being surprised at how many you do reach. Remember the scene at the end of "To Sir with Love" when Lulu leads the class in a farewell song to Sidney Poitier.

8. It takes three to five years of hard work to become an effective teacher. At the end of student teaching you are only a certified beginner. Boland gave up before he learned anything.

9. Never get in a pissing contest with a student. I know I didn't answer Boland's question yet. How do you take a cellphone away from a kid? The answer is that you don't. A teacher should speak with a teenage student like you are the adult and they are another human being who you care about. You approach them and ask them to put it away. And then you leave it. When it remains out, you return and ask again, this time reminding them it is a violation of school policy. And then you leave it.

10. You can always suck your teeth or shrug your shoulders, and walk away from a situation. Almost every student will have put it away by now, but if this one doesn't you return again and explain that you are not happy with how this has progressed and that if the cellphone is not put away there will be consequences, unstated, unspecified consequences, and then you walk away again. After the class, later in the day, find the student, pull them out of another class, and privately, with no student audience for them to impress, tell them you are not happy with how things went. Ask them what we can do so this does not happen again. What we can do! My bet is you will have a classroom ally who will support you in the future.

You cannot learn how to take a cellphone away from a student in an education class even if someone tells you. Defusing a situation this way requires years of experience, a lot of patience, and the willingness to treat students who are acting out against the school, society, and their teachers as if they are youthful human beings with the potential to learn and make better decisions.

If you are interested in more tips I wrote a book called Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach. It is based on my fifteen years in the classroom in schools with students similar to the ones in Room 314 and twenty-five years as a teacher educator. I think I could have helped Ed Boland, if he was really interested in being a teacher.

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