Friday, February 4, 2011


I wrote the following during the fall of my first year of teaching at a middle school in the South Bronx. I periodically look back on it and think about how all things come to pass, and how we can turn around in the worst of situations. By the end of my first year, kids were doing well in my class. I liked them, and many of them liked me. Most of them did well on the NYS Grade 8 state exams and the Regents exam that they had to take that June. I didn't feel like a failure. But, getting there had been really tough, and there had been weeks at a time when I got up every morning and considered quitting my job.

Thursday was a god-awful day in my last period. At some point, I sat down because I got tired of standing and waiting for them to be quiet, and it took them another full 10 minutes to stop talking. One kid raised his hand after I stood back up, to ask, "Those of us who don't want to learn, can we go sit in the back of the room?" and another kid said several times out loud, "I'm gonna switch to Ms. B's class."

It was soooo rude. After school, I had a long chat with my principal, and he gave me some advice on how to gain the kids' respect by playing hardball. So, I called some parents that very night and gave one kid a two-day gym detention (meaning he has to sit out of gym) right away. (My principal's exact words were: "Crush his spirit. Take away his gym, his lunch, and call his mother. Show him that you have the authority to make his life hell, and if you hear another word from him, pull up a desk and a chair outside of the room and make him sit out there for the whole period. I will support you if you think that one kid is causing your class to be out of control.")

Yesterday (Friday) was a better day, and I quietly stared down some of the kids until I felt them look away. I think the problem is not that I am weak -- because really I am not, and (more importantly) I know that I am not at all weaker than these kids. The problem is that I needed to convey to these kids in a way that is convincing to them that I am not weak. One of the kids whose mom I had called decided to pull an adult d***-move on me afterwards by saying to another kid (while standing right in front of me), "Remember when she cried?" The other kid stirred uncomfortably and mumbled, "Yo, she called my dad last night." And the first kid looked at me and said it again with an adult sort of malice, "No, but you don't remember when she cried in front of the whole class? That was funny."

I was pretty appalled by his utter assholeness. All rudeness aside, I honestly didn't expect these 14-year-olds to be capable of such real malice in such an adult way. But, still, I was unphased. The kid ([James]) has got to be out of his mind if he thinks he could shake me up with that statement. I admit, if I were actually a weak person, it would have been enough to shake me up. But, instead, I just looked steadily at him with a slight smirk, and lifted my eyebrows with the apparent disdain, "Is that all you've got?" He kept looking at me to assess whether I showed any sign of weakness in response to his statement, and I wouldn't let him have any of it. As he walked past me to go into my classroom, I whispered calmly in his ears, "Just so you know, since you were rude to me, you won't have gym all of next week." After that, whenever I looked at [James] steadily during class, he would get this look on his face like he's genuinely intimidated (that's also a very adult look, ironically enough), and he would quickly look away and do what he's supposed to. Same thing with his friend [Mark].

In class, I made my kids line up and sit down silently. When they talked, I made them get up and line up again outside to do the same thing over. I made them practice passing up their quizzes row by row, on the slow count of three. When they messed up, we passed the quizzes back and repeated the same procedure. I intentionally counted slowly because I knew it was driving them nuts. We did it maybe 10 times before they got it right. It was the most demeaning way of treating them, but the rest of the period was absolutely silent, and when a kid was talking, all I needed to do was to look at them, and they would stop. It was exactly like [my principal] had said: when you slow it down for them, they know that it is because they are behaving and being treated like children, and they actually fear your authority and gain respect for you. I will need to do that a few more times in the coming week, to solidify the respect, but after that, [my principal]'s challenge to me is to make the worst kids in my class love the content so much that just the threat of making them sit out of my class would be punishment enough.

Anyway, after school, I was talking with [my principal], and he told me two things: 1. When I need to get a quiet, instead of trying to talk over the kids, I should just whisper. He says that there is magic in being able to control kids with your own quietness. 2. Don't let the kids play me like a puppet. Now they know that I'm capable of running class military style, which is exactly what I needed. But, if I keep doing the same thing too many times, they'll know that they can manipulate me into not teaching, by acting out. 3. He was impressed by how I stared [Mark] down yesterday, and he told me that he has thought about this for 15 years to figure out why some teachers can have authority over hard-to-manage kids and other teachers cannot. He believes it's a combination of the kid knowing that you are smart, and their knowing that if they do something bad, you will remember and do something to them afterwards. They will not respect you the same way if they think you are stupid, disorganized, or a pushover, because they will think that you won't remember what they did and will not follow up with a clear consequence.

Everyday is a new day. It's always one step forward, two steps back. I don't expect next week to be easy, but the good news is that I'm a tough person so this really hasn't gotten to my spirits much. I have no doubt that I will work through this; it's just a matter of careful tactics, patience, and good lesson plans.

Everyday that fall, carrots flew across my classroom at other kids when I wasn't looking. At the end of class one day, kids suggested for me to adopt a bunny. Mid- that year, a kid made a racist poster against me that said, "Anti-Chinese! And yes, Ms. Yang, that includes you too!" that had broken my heart. ...And yet, now I am still here and loving every new day at work. :) So truly, all things come to pass. You have to just have faith that things will get better if you work at them, one day at a time. (I know, keeping that faith is really, really hard. But that's the only thing that got me through Year 1. So, if you're reading this out there and you feel like you're strugglin' everyday... my heart goes out to you in a very real way. But it WILL get better.)


  1. Kids are RUTHLESS. And 8th graders are at a strange point in life where they've gotten smart enough to play the system, but not mature enough to think about the consequences. Thank you for sharing your notes on that year. I'm going in to year 10 of my career, and reading your principal's advice is a great reminder to me. :)

  2. Hi,
    Thank you for blogging--I am a faithful follower.
    I am wondering how you started off the year as a first year teacher in terms of discipline. I am a 22-year-old starting my first year full-time teaching position at a brand new middle school in LA. I feel like I am completely losing control of my class and therefore, the respect of my students. It scares me that I can no longer gain it back when I finally learn how to be more organized, etc.
    I also am wondering if you designed your own curriculum. Many (but not all) of my students are below grade level, and I was wondering how you manage that.
    And finally, how can I tell if I have the skills to continue to try to be a good math teacher? I know that I am not good on so many different levels and am worried I won't improve enough in time.
    ~A struggling, swing dancing math teacher

  3. My first year was incredibly rough. To get through it, I had to find myself a mentor teacher, who could help me both with content and discipline. The two are tied, bc if the work is too difficult or boring, your kids are going to misbehave. Can yo try that?? Get another math teacher to look over your lessons and to watch your class.

    Teaching is very hard in the beginning; during the first two years it is very normal to doubt yourself!! Good luck!!!!

    1. Yes, thank you for replying! I am actually the only math teacher at my school, but the science teacher used to teach high school math. I have yet to show him my lessons ahead of time, but he has been giving me a lot of advice. However, it's the putting everything into practice that I'm struggling with.