Prior to becoming a teacher, I harbored some doubts about assuming the role. Most of these were typical for someone on the cusp of the field, such as fretting over how I would juggle responsibilities. Less typical was my apprehension about asserting a commanding presence in the classroom. I feared my short stature would undermine my ability to elicit respect and establish poise. My interest in teaching in urban schools fed this fear. I pictured students simply laughing at the little man struggling to get their attention.
I tested the educational waters before starting in earnest by taking a student teaching assignment at a large urban high school. The students in this school were poor and ethnically diverse. They didnt look like me and I couldn’t relate to them. Many had emotional disturbances and budding criminal records. Importantly for me, at least half of them were taller than me.
I anticipated all of this. I was 23 and 5’5”. Some of the students I’d teach would be just a few years younger than me. Being a teenager would be relatively fresh in my memory. My size would make me appear younger than I was and possibly diminutive. I needed to assert myself or these kids weren’t going to take me seriously.
To start, I figured I should look the part as much as possible. I donned a shirt and tie, even though most of my colleagues dressed more casually. I’ll admit sporting a dress shoe with a slight heel, figuring I could use the extra lift. Although I wavered about this, I went for a clean-shaven look. Facial hair may have aged me slightly, but I thought I could better cultivate a professional look through sharp grooming.
I visited the school before I started my assignment. My plan was to familiarize myself with the building and meet several teachers. Falling in with them early was going to be important, as I was going to need allies. I wanted to look the part, but also I wanted to be accepted as a professional peer. Being firmly entrenched on this team would help my cause.
By the start of my assignment, I had adopted a professional appearance and established connections with colleagues. Now, I had to make my first impressions with students. On my first official day, I stood outside the classroom as students shuffled by me. I tried to identify which ones were destined for my classroom. The students were boisterous and physical, shoving one another and cursing loudly. Being a student teacher, I lacked the authority to break up scuffles. I was relieved not to see any serious ones that first day. I made a point to make eye contact with several regardless of what they were doing. I offered a firm “Good morning!” to a few even if they didn’t reciprocate.
A few hesitant students approached, confused about why I was standing by the door. I greeted them as their new student teacher and offered my hand. Most played along, so I gave each a firm shake while maintaining eye contact. I didn’t know at the time that eye contact could be threatening to some, but it didn’t seem to cause any initial problems. A few made smart remarks and refused to enter, but this didn’t have to do with eye contact. Rather than chase them, I cut my losses. Again, without any recognized authority, I wasn’t going to get anywhere pursuing students and attempting to wrangle them.
When the first group had entered the room and seated themselves, I introduced myself rather than allowing my cooperating teacher to introduce me. Prior to the assignment, I arranged through her and my supervisor to begin teaching the first day. This was highly unorthodox and not condoned by my program. However, the assignment was brief and I assumed Id need ample time to develop a presence.
I started by insisting they call me Mr. Hartman rather than Mr. H. or the much more common Mister. I told I was going to learn their names, so they could learn mine. I shared some of my background and gave them a chance to ask questions about me. Most didn’t bite, but a few asked questions about whether or not I’d be tough on them. I told them they’d find out. After they had their chance, I gave them a survey through which they could tell me about themselves. I wanted to show I was interested in them. We discussed results as they finished. Before starting the first lesson, I reminded them that while I was with them, I had all the authority any other teacher in the building had. This was a stretch, but I stuck with it.
As I began interacting with students, I refused to use their vernacular. I assumed they’d see right through this rather than appreciating the attempt to identify with them. I didn’t ask them to participate. I called on them, not allowing anyone to drift. When a kid got off-task, I moved closer or lowered my voice to grab attention. Proximity helped, but I was somewhat conscious of how I appeared standing next to them. I knew I wouldn’t appear intimidating, but I didn’t crave that. I didn’t shout. I didn’t get into power struggles. I used a firm voice, I soldiered on with lessons, and I addressed disruptions without giving signs they had angered me.
My strongest asset proved to be an odd combination of novelty and routine. Being new and young won me some points. I was someone different, so I milked that as long as I could. This was an English class for struggling readers. I had the freedom to choose materials, so I selected topics of relevance to them, often letting them select. I kept my wit about me, quipping back at their smart remarks without seeming threatening and without interrupting the pace of my lesson. My ability to jab right back without cracking a smile impressed them. The routines I established helped much more. They knew what to expect out of a period with me. We worked nonstop every period, which required intense preparation on my part. Keeping them busy helped keep me in control. They knew they didn’t have time to slack. I offered what rewards I could for keeping pace.
Not everything went smoothly. I won over enough of them to survive the assignment, but a few weren’t going to cooperate no matter what I did. Unfortunately, a culture of disrespect and antagonism was rampant in the school before I started. I wasn’t going to overcome that in just a few weeks. I lucked out in that some of the rowdiest students didn’t bother attending. My initial poise and continuing persistence helped me with the regulars. I had a professional appearance and demeanor, but I showed them I could keep up with them without losing my control. We all got to know one another better, and soon they forgot about my height and I forgot about their attitudes. I was their teacher rather than their short teacher. They were my students rather than the troubled kids I had to teach. It worked well enough.