The classroom death spiral

I have never walked into a classroom downtrodden. When I walk in there, I walk in convinced that it is going to be a great class. Teaching is energizing for me. But this doesn’t mean the classes always go well. Of course some classes go terribly, terribly, wrong. You can see this coming well before it happens, like a doomed sailor sees the vortex before it sucks him in. Presented here is the classroom death spiral.
Before class begins you review the material. Oh boy, its a class about cupcakes and kittens. This is going to be great, you think to yourself. After all, who doesn’t like cupcakes and kittens?[1] So you feel prepared and you go to your class with all the enthusiasm in the world. You sit down with your students, take attendance, chat with them a bit, and then begin class. “Alright guys,” you say “who likes cupcakes and kittens?”
Aside from the rustle of a passing tumbleweed, you hear nothing.
“C’mon guys, let’s talk about cupcakes and kittens! Do you guys like kittens?”
“Kittens say ‘meow'” a student says, and your stupid enough to think this is progress. Here, if you look forward, you can see the vortex you should be sailing away from.
In the industry, Teacher Talk Time (TTT) refers to how much time the teach spends talking in class (bet you couldn’t have put that together on your own). The lower this is, the better. Ideally, the student should be talking as much as possible. So every unanswered question is a testimony to your own failure. Of course, the mouth-breathing troglodytes that are your students[2]are not going to talk on their own, so you need to have a bit of TTT to get the ball rolling, as it were. This is where the vortex begins to suck you in. When your questions begin to fail, you try another question. But once your battery of planned questions fail, you fire all guns at the problem.
“Kittens are great, huh guys?” “Don’t you think cupcakes taste good?”
The desperate tone in your voice doesn’t help the students comprehension either, so they continue to ignore you.g
You try everything. You dumb down the question, you feed them the answer word at a time. You even try talking about other things. Nothing helps. So you decide to soldier on, despite your better judgement. This is the equivalent of Ulysses stuffing wax into his own ears and chaining all his men to the mast; not a recipe of success.
You continue with the material despite the fact that the students are giving you monosyllabic grunts in lieu of answers. At some point you realize that you have covered a good ninety percent of the material in fifteen minutes, and that you have another forty five to go. At the point there is a mutiny on the ship, on the English teacher captain is killed to be replaced by the pragmatic business man. It no longer matters that you are done with the lesson in a quarter of the time. These students paid for an hour, an hour they shall receive! TTT? What the fuck is that. Onward, fire everything into the problem! Talk! Talk, ye dogs. About everything, about anything. If it seems relevant, they’ll never no the difference.
“Boy, I remember this one time for my birthday. There were lots of kittens there that day! And I also ate a number of cupcakes on that occasion. In fact, back in the…”
Good class? Nope, it was awful. But I remember the single piece of advice I was given on my first day as an ESL teacher, at once the worst and the best piece of advice anyone ever gets. “In the classroom, you are the only person who recognizes that you don’t know what you are doing.” This isn’t a call to faking it, though it may seem that way at first. This is recognition that, if things go bad, the only thing you can do is smile, soldier on, and live to fight another day. Tomorrow there will be other vortices, and I will not fall into those.




[1] I don’t actually care for cupcakes. I’m kinda meh about kittens too. I’m a monster.

[2] I don’t actually think my students are mouth breathing troglodytes. I like most of them. But this is the internet, and people can’t take jokes, so this is a footnote clarifying things.

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