A teacher gives herself a tough assignment

As a high school teacher, I was always trying to "build in" student cooperation. Why, then, did I drop something that was seemingly successful? Let me explain.

The warm winds of spring had blown across our campus, reminding girls that there were guys out there! Reminding guys that there were girls. The wind's gentle touch put smiles on their faces, edged them hesitantly toward each other, and brought their hands together in tingling clasps. Its frisky breath set young men to challenging each other, trading insults, and squaring off to prove who was best.

Suddenly, students weren't hurrying along, heads bent against a chill wind. Instead, they were lollygagging – drifting about campus on the gentle breeze until compelled by someone in authority to head indoors.

The warm winds had whispered a different message to me: "Hurry, hurry!" they said. "The year will end before you cover the subject!"

Thus, I was not happy when bunches of pre-algebra students wandered in late. I wanted to teach, not spend my time changing absences to tardies.

Hadn't I emphasized, repeatedly, the importance of punctuality? Hadn't I phoned parents? Threatened to send repeat offenders to the office? As student after student ambled in the door, my lesson plans went out the window. Striding to the chalkboard at the front of the room, I wrote in large letters: "Open your books to page 1 and begin copying."

Students looked from the chalkboard to my set face, reached for paper, and began to copy. I grimly revised the absence list.

Ten or 15 quiet minutes later, a girl timidly approached my desk. "Mrs. Flower, I've finished copying page 1. What shall I do now?"

"Go to page 2," I said evenly.

But the spell had been broken. Taking a deep breath, I stood and directed students to pass their papers forward. Class had begun.

The end of the day found me still at my desk, head in hand. I didn't like to become angry. I didn't like to punish an entire class for the misdeeds of some. I didn't like to waste class time. But what to do? My students, chastened, would arrive on time for a day or two, but it wouldn't last.

Slowly, an idea began to take shape. By the next day, it had jelled.

"Class," I said, "each day when the bell rings, you'll have the chance to add to your bonus points. Each row gets a quick problem. If anyone in the row comes up with the right answer, everyone in the row has a point. No right answer, no points. No second chances and no pencils! This is strictly mental."

We had memorized squares for the numbers 1 through 25, and cubes for 1 through 10. We'd used them in problems. Now, I was adding competition.

Making up problems as I went along, I began. "Start with 11. Square your number. Add four. Take the cube root. Double your number and square the result. Now, tell me your answer."

"Tamika ... Anthony ... Sue... Josh ... José." Listening for "100," I called out names rapidly.

Down each row I went, reeling off problems, calling names, marking points on my clipboard.

Complaints ensued. "Mrs. Flower, you're going too fast!" "You always give our row the hardest problem!" "Don't start with this row! You started with us yesterday!"

Complaints, yes. But results, too. Students hurried to be on time. They fussed at anyone in their row who arrived late. They cheered wildly when a row mate came up with the right answer and were surprised to discover that it wasn't always a student with high grades.

Results were far better than I had anticipated. And, it was fun! But I never did it another year. Not at the beginning of class.

Who was the one person who always had to be ready for the bell? Me. I began to wonder whether I'd outsmarted myself. When class started, I couldn't be writing on the board, conferring with a student, or talking to an administrator. If I wasn't ready to call out problems immediately, the effect was lost.

It was a demanding role I'd assigned myself, and I had to stick with it, no matter what. Cold weather returned ... true spring arrived ... hotter days settled in. Through it all, I was up front, calling out numbers and names the second the bell rang.

No, I didn't repeat it. I didn't assign copying pages from the book again, either. I went back to my old method of holding individual students responsible. I even, occasionally, made allowances for weather. Especially when the first, warm promise of spring blew across the campus.

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