Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What's in a Name?

Mice will play when the cat's gone.  For schoolchildren, the cat is the teacher, and a substitute teacher is a licence to party.  I once worked as a substitute teacher.  In my interview for the position, I was asked, "What are three ways you maintain order in the classroom, and discuss each of these three ways in terms of your philosophy of education?"

"That's easy," I bluffed.  "I control the class, first, with my confidence.  If I seem to know why I'm there, the class is more secure.  Second, with my enthusiasm.  If I'm excited about my lesson, the students become excited too.  Finally, I use a pocketful of Hershey's chocolate kisses.
They hired me, but they knew and I knew that survival in the classroom requires more than confidence, enthusiasm, and kisses.  While schools have behaviour policies with serious consequences and occasional student-of-the-month type rewards, these are difficult for a stand-in to memorize five minutes before the bell.
My first assignment was a grade 8 class.  The previous sub had left at 10:30 a.m.  Much to the principal's surprise and relief, I stayed the whole day.  I survived -- but I was not pleased.  The students had a powerful tool to confound me:  they knew their names and I did not.  Much of the day had gone like this:

"You -- stop throwing those paper airplanes.  What's your name?"

There are always seating plans, but these aren't much good  when they find out there's a sub.  Not only does everyone sit where they like, but students wander in from the hall and insist they belong in my class.  I needed a strategy.  If I could address students by name, they would have to be accountable, and I'd have more control.
A week later, I was assigned a grade 6 in the same middle school.  I decided that the students would wear nametags...but what if they gave me the wrong names?  I felt doomed, but suddenly through my dark fear, a light began to shine.  I would make wearing nametags a reward!
The day began with the usual rioting.  During a momentary lull after O Canada, I said authoritatively, "I have nametags for you -- but not everyone's going to get one -- because to have a nametag means to have a real, true name -- a name of your own, a name that sets you apart from all others and declares, ‛I am me!'  What happens when you have a name?"
Someone shouted, "People know what to call you."
"Exactly.  And if they know what to call you -- they can call you for dinner.  If they know what to call you, they don't say, ‛Hey you.’  They say, ‛Gee Anna, your story is great,’ or ‛Wow, John, that's a cool earring,’ but when you have no name, your identity is erased.  You get blamed for other people's crimes.  You disappear.  When you have a true name, you are unique -- but you only get a nametag if you tell me your real name."  I held my breath.
"I'll tell you my name," a boy in front piped up.
"OK, what is it?"
"Is it?"  I looked around the class -- they're all nodding.  William showed me a notebook with his name on it.  "OK.  I believe you.  William, you get the first nametag and a Hershey's kiss.  As long as you're in my class, I want you to wear this."  I wrote "William" on the sticky-backed labels I had brought, and ceremoniously placed it on his shirt.  William was beaming.  The next instant, everyone was clamouring for a nametag.
I gave the class their math assignment and promised to visit each desk and name each one of them while they worked.  I hoped that the magic of being named would last till noon.

1 comment:

  1. "I hoped that the magic ... would last till noon." How many substitute teachers have uttered the same words. :-) Well written, neat idea for the name tags.