I have a couple of recurring dreams that pop up with great regularity in my sleep. One of them goes way back, and it has to do with getting lost in a big maze-like house. The other one is a newer one that has developed since I started teaching. Here’s how it went just last night:
I had been asked to watch kids during a teacher meeting at Live Oak (why I wasn’t IN the meeting, I don’t know.) So I showed up to this babysitting gig with some exciting word puzzles for the kids to do. There ended up being about thirty kids total, from a couple of punky junior-highers down to some early-elementary aged ones. They were in different rooms by age. Everything was going fine until I started giving out instructions for activities. One after the other, in some form or fashion, every kid refused to do what I asked! The situation quickly escalated to complete anarchy. There was screaming, fighting, and chaos as “every person did what was right in their own eyes.” And there I was, in the middle of it all, with no power whatsoever.
Okay. The details of this scenario vary slightly from dream to dream, but the turning point is always the moment where one child realizes the power that he or she can wield by simply saying “No.” I think the reason that this nightmarish situation keeps replaying in my subconscious mind is because every day that I step foot in a classroom, this is a distinct possibility. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often than it does, especially in high-school settings. I thought about this especially when I worked at a big high school. There were thirty of them, most of them bigger, stronger, and more strong-willed than I. There was one of me, twenty-two years old, trying to make them do things like write paragraphs about poetry. How did that ever work with any success?
I actually had a class that tried the anarchy thing. Every day, they refused to do their work, and I would go home and fantasize about other careers. At the end of the year, 75% of the students in that class failed for the whole year, and I swore I would never teach again.
There is certainly historical precedent for the uneducated masses overthrowing the authorities that govern them (think the French Revolution, for example). What keeps classrooms from becoming my worst nightmare? Is it the greater system that gives authority to the lone teacher? Is it the fact that most kids are not naturally rebellious enough to actually attempt anarchy? Is it that most students are actually there to learn, and appreciate the efforts of the teacher to give them the information that they need? I have no idea. But I’m glad it works.