by James Biggs
“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” –Plato
There are many memories that I can recall vividly, but few that I can acknowledge as having changed my life. The birth of my sister, my baptism, and the death of my best friend are all days I remember that have molded my character. However, the day that may have impacted my life the most came when I was in fifth grade. Mrs. Hall’s classroom was decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars, planets, and rockets. Mrs. Hall was a fiery, little woman who embraced every day as an adventure. She may have resided in Indianapolis, but she lived in that stunning final frontier: space. An applicant to the Teacher in Space Project, she was thankfully passed up for finalist, Christa McAuliffe, to launch in the doomed Challenger.
Mrs. Hall attacked the lessons she taught with extreme creativity and originality. Once, she had my best friend stand up on a chair in front of the class and transformed him into a human globe by taping the Equator, the Prime Meridian, and all seven continents on his body. The lesson I remember most ardently, the lesson that set fire ablaze, so seemingly eternal as to make the Olympic Torch envious, centered on an unjust monarch and a group of people who longed for, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” She began social studies that particular day by distributing out an equal portion of the Mars classic, M&M’s, to each student. As the Lord had instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of the tempting fruit hanging from the Tree of Life, so Mrs. Hall challenged us to look but not eat of those gorgeous, symmetrical, colorful chocolate centered candies. A decade has passed and I still have not faced a trial of my self-discipline so intense.
She explained that she was the monarch and though the M&M’s were on our desks, they still belonged to her. She began to assert her authority by taking one M&M from half of the class and giving to the other, instantly more fortunate, half. I was engulfed with anger as she allowed a student on the other side of the room to eat the chocolaty treat that only moments before rested inches from my salivating mouth. How could she take away something so precious to me? “That,” she said, “was a tax.” It was, unfortunately not the last tax. I watched as she took the object of my desire, piece-by-piece, tax-by-tax. I was outraged: enough was enough and it was time for the leak to be stopped. I could see the same livid look in many of my classmates’ eyes. I needed to do something. Somehow, I had gleaned a vague understanding of petitions by the time I reached the fifth grade. I was not sure exactly how it worked but I knew that if I was able to get enough people to sign a paper we could change the way things were.
So I secretly penned my petition. I was fearful that if Mrs. Hall saw me writing or passing a note I would face further taxes. So with mother-like care I passed my petition around the taxed side of the room. When I felt we had obtained an adequate number of signatures I presented, with pride, the fruit of my labor to my stunned teacher. She stopped the lesson to read the note and then just looked at me. At first I was terrified. I immediately regretted my action because I was sure that I was about to lose all of my M&M’s. Then a shower of relief rushed over my body. Something in her look told me she was proud and that I had done something good.
She informed me that I had unknowingly taken a similar route as the founding fathers in colonial America. Her lesson had intrigued and captivated me to the point that I was even moved to action. It was over, that thirty-minute lesson was all it took to spark a lifelong interest in American history, politics, and education. Over the next seven years, I became more and more interested in the history of my nation and the government that ran it. I begged for family vacation trips to be peppered with stops to places of historical importance and even convinced my family to take an entire trip out to the nation’s capital. By my senior year of high school, when I decided to I wanted to attend Freed-Hardeman University, my fate was sealed. I was going to teach the subjects that amused my mind.
Fast-forward four formative years. I managed to graduate from Freed-Hardeman with a degree in both History and Education and succeeded in finishing with a minor in Political Science as well. I had been petrified to proceed in the process of filling out applications, but I was blessed beyond belief to have already had a job offer by graduation. I accepted the offer to teach at an inner city middle school in Jackson, Tennessee, before I accepted the hand of President Wiley in receiving my diploma. I graduated from a large high school in a metropolis much larger than Jackson, so I was not overly intimidated to begin my career there. If my teachers were able to inspire me and amuse my mind, surely, I thought, I should be able to inspire some middle school students.
As I am now nearing the end of my first year adventure into education, I realize it is much tougher than I imagined. I value my Freed-Hardeman education; it well prepared me to become a history teacher. There is, however, no education comparable to the lessons learned from experience. As far as my history degree is concerned, I learned more about the Imperial Dynasties than I ever wanted to know but was captivated by the in-depth study of American History. In any position that centers on teaching about our nation’s history I have no fears of being inadequately informed. The learning I acquired from the School of Education at Freed-Hardeman is not to be scoffed at either. Freed-Hardeman’s School of Education was recently declared the top education program in the state. While I was not as intrigued by my study of education, I had amazing professors who took time and painstaking care to teach me the science that is education.
The actual act of teaching has taught me more lessons than any university or even the most renowned educational professor could convey. The theories that undergraduates learn are just that, theories. Theoretically they should work, and probably would work in classrooms under the perfect set of circumstances. I quickly learned while taking roll my first day that if the perfect set of circumstances did exist in a classroom somewhere that it was nowhere near the classroom I was teaching. The biggest gap between the hypothetical philosophies of education and the actualities that teachers face every day are caused by the emphasis on individualism and the paralyzing enabling that exists today in our culture.
Despite the trends and fads that the majority of students follow on a seasonal basis just to remain popular in the eyes of their peers, most students want to maintain a reputation that stands out to others. Maybe it is because of their age and they want to try and begin that metamorphosis from adolescence to young adults or possibly because they are still a part of that cultural transition that is trying to get away from the “follow the crowd” mentality but they will only do things if they want to do them. It seems important to the majority of students to assure authority and their peers of their intentions. If students do not want to do a worksheet, or decide that I have assigned too many notes, they will be defiant to the point that I will have to remove them from the classroom so that I can actually get something taught.
Some student’s need to engage in a power-struggle with the teacher to appear fearless or to stand out as a strong individual has completely changed the sphere of teaching. I cannot fathom a peer having the gull or audacity to challenge or disrespect a teacher the way my students do on a daily basis. It has forced me to change my teaching style and effectively change my personality. For the most part I am laid back and easy going as a teacher. One of my two classroom rules is, “Be Relaxed.” However, after a student stood up in front of the class and very disrespectfully challenged my authority, and after a discussion with the principal, I went home and studied some R. Lee Ermey clips. For a week and a half that audaciously disrespectful student’s class reported to Drill Sergeant Biggs. Thankfully a change in my demeanor worked and I returned to Mr. Biggs after Christmas Break but there have been a couple times when I’ve wondered if Drill Sergeant Biggs needed to return.
While the emphasis on individuality is rough, the feeling of entitlement that the majority of the students have is probably the hardest part of effectively teaching. Their “something for nothing” mentality devastates and destroys any trace of internal motivation that they might have ever had. The majority of students that I teach receive government aid on a daily basis. The entire school is on free or reduced lunch and is given free breakfast in the morning and free snacks in the afternoon. In the recent election my students only concern was “food stamps” and which candidate would give out the most. While I am neither condemning nor condoning government aid programs, when combined with the No Child Left Behind Act they have created tiny entitlement monsters.
Regardless of effort or grades students are pushed through one year to the next. They never have to master any skill or even do well on any test because they know they will be shuffled on into the next grade. I have students in the eighth grade who still have not learned to read but will undoubtedly be filling a high school seat next year. When asked why they don’t put effort into their learning, students respond with, “Because it’s too hard.” Question them about what they want to do for a living and some will even respond, “Collect unemployment.” They may not try to learn much at school but they know how to work the system.
As a teacher those attitudes are devastating. How can I ignite the eternal flame of knowledge when I am working with a source dampened by an ocean of indifference? My answer after one year is very clearly, “I do not know.” I am just going to do my best to be like Mrs. Hall so many years ago and keep trying to amuse their minds. If I can have the effect Mrs. Hall had on me and on my life, then all the heartaches, hardships, and money given to Freed-Hardeman for my degree will be well worth it.