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Feature Stories

Back To School: So You Think You’re Tough?

This is an excerpt from my recently published book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education. I taught English in a South Bronx public school I call Latinate Institute, which fashioned itself a model of “school reform.” One of the hard-and-fast rules of the principal was that any disruptions, problems or behavior issues in the classroom had to be handled by the teacher — and only the teacher. Don’t even think of calling in the assistant principal or dean, and forget about sending a kid out of the classroom.

My colleagues recommended that I rein in the students by being a “badass.” But, as I say in the book, “I’m not a high school Dirty Harry. I’m enthusiastic.” And most of the students were wonderful kids who responded well to my enthusiasm. But there were others, too. In this passage, I try the “badass” approach with the worst of the classroom miscreants.

Anyone who thinks that eighth graders are just elementary-school kids in a closer-to-eye-level package hasn’t spent much time in a classroom. Or considered the effect of surging hormones. And those who believe that “eighth grader” and “cuddly” belong even in the same thesaurus haven’t contemplated students on their second or third tour of eighth grade. There might be no human being alive with more of a “nothing to lose” attitude than an eighth grader who has repeated English twice already.

One of the biggest, meanest, and most outrageous of the permanent eighth graders at Latinate was 16-year-old Africah. From the start, she did what she wanted as she wanted when she wanted in my class. She was all of the worst of my worst tenth-grade girls in one kid. Early on in the school year, in the middle of my lesson, Africah noisily got up and opened a locker.

“Please close the locker and sit down, Africah,” I said.

She ignored me. I repeated myself.

She continued rummaging through the locker. I could feel the eyes of the class going from her to me. Her to me.

“Please close the locker and sit down,” I said, walking toward her.

She turned and snarled. “Back it up, mister. Back it up.” She wanted a fight.

The eyes of the class were going back and forth like at a tennis match. I couldn’t back down. But I couldn’t fight, either. Obviously, there was more to classroom management than just a badass attitude. And badass wasn’t working here. I was on my own to come up with Plan B.

“Back it up?” I said. “Who did that song? ‘You’se a big fine woman, when you back that thang up. Call me Big Daddy when you back that thang up.’”

Huge laugh. Africah and the kids suddenly started rapping Juvenile’s 1999 hit…

Girl, you workin with some a**, yeah

You bad, yeah

Make a playa spend his cash, yeah

His last, yeah

Hoes frown when you passed, yeah

They mad yeah

Couple thousand on your bag yeah

 I’m Big Tymer playa, yeah

Money flipper yeah...

A minute later, the locker was closed and Africah was in her seat, yelling at the other kids to “Shut the &#@% up! He’s trying to teach.”

From then on, whenever she said, “Shut the &#@% up! He’s trying to teach!” I told the class, “That’s why I love this woman.”

John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers. Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education, is available at booksellers everywhere, Barnesandnoble.com, which also has a NOOK edition, and Amazon.com, which also has a Kindle edition.