“How Long Does It Usually Take You to Settle Your Class Down?”
I should have taken the question as a warning, instead I just treated it as a question from a curious middle-school student.
It happened this past summer as part of a day long boot camp for students from low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia who were interested in entrepreneurship. The students would be running their own businesses later in the summer, and Villanova had developed a partnership with some community groups to teach the students some basic business concepts.
I had been asked to give a 45-minute class on how they could use business tools such as break even analysis to help them manage their businesses as well as how a simple accounting system could help them keep track of their sales and expenses.
The students were organized into two groups by grade level. One group would be high school students and the other group would be middle-school students. Every student was also given a calculator as part of the bootcamp, which we thought would come in handy for some of the hands-on exercises.
The first group I taught was the high school students, and I thought it went quite well. We managed to get through most of the items I had planned to discuss, and the students were engaged the entire 45 minutes (as were the chaperones who had accompanied them), asking some great questions and answering the questions I asked of them.
(The only negative aspect of the class was my apparent ignorance of how much some things cost. I was using an example of a lemonade stand, and going through the list of supplies they would have to purchase to get started. I mentioned that they would need to buy a pitcher to mix the lemonade in, and I mentioned that such a pitcher would cost about $20. I might as well have said $2,000 based on the students and chaperones response. They started asking me if I had ever heard of a dollar store or a thrift shop. I then went on to mention the need for paper cups, and so I said let’s assume you buy 100 cups for $30. The bursts of laughter came even faster this time. I made a mental note to do a little basic research next time…)
Following that first class, there was about a 15-minute break while the students switched classrooms, had a snack, and we got ready for the next session. And despite my ignorance of how much things cost, I must admit I was feeling pretty confident, given the success of the first class.
While the students were filtering in, I tried to talk with a few of them, asking them who their favorite Philly sports team was and if they had any ideas for a business yet. As I was talking to one of the middle school students, he casually asked me “How long does it usually take you to settle your class down?”
Now I must admit that has never been a issue I have had to deal with, in fact it is a question I never even thought about. My first thought was that he just wanted to learn a little bit about how college works, since this was his first time on a college campus.
I explained to him that college students come to class ready to learn, and as soon as class begins every one quiets down. I asked him if getting his class to settle down was an issue at school, and he replied that it was sometimes, and I saw a few students around him nodding their heads in agreement.
I told him that we wouldn’t have to worry about it for our class. After all, I thought to myself, there was no problem with the first group, there would be chaperones present, and I was apparently a master teacher who commands instant respect and has never had a problem getting a class to settle down (hubris is a wonderful trait )
I realized later (too late) that he probably wasn’t really asking a question, but issuing a warning.
I also realized a college professor is no match for a class of middle school students.
I knew I couldn’t deliver the same lesson to the middle school students I had given to the highs school students, and I thought I had adjusted my expectations accordingly.
I wanted the students to get some practice with the calculators, thinking this would get them involved with the lesson and keep them busy. So my first question asked them to calculate what the cost per cup is if they bought 100 cups for $30.
It was at that point that things started going downhill, and quickly. The students felt no need to raise their hands to give an answer, preferring to just shout out responses.
I heard one student yell “$3,000”, and I could see how they got that answer, and explained what his mistake was. Another student said $3, and once again I was able to explain what her possible mistake was. But when one student yelled out $7,000, I wasn’t sure if I was dealing with someone who didn’t know how to use a calculator, someone who did not understand basic math concepts, or a class clown.
Anyway, what I thought was a simple question that would take less than 30 seconds to answer turned into an almost 10 minute discussion. But we got through it, and I tried to move on.
It was about this time that the first student got up to use the restroom. Since I had no true authority over these students and didn’t want to prevent a student who actually had to use the restroom from doing so, I said nothing. I also thought that monitoring such behavior was more the role of the chaperones. I then looked around the room and noticed that there were no chaperones for this class. Where had they all gone? Again, it should have been another warning sign.
It was just a few minutes later when I lost complete control of the class.
Apparently one of the chaperones had fallen out in the hallway, and several members of public safety had rushed over to see if she was OK and what help she needed. Now I’ll be the first to admit that someone dressed in a police uniform and carrying a nightstick and a walkie-talkie is a lot more appealing to a 12 year old (OK, to anyone) than accounting, and so it did not take long for all of the students’ attention to be drawn to what was happening out in the hallway. Suddenly, almost every student needed to use the restroom.
That essentially brought my class to an end, and when I looked at my notes, I realized I had accomplished nothing that I had planned to do.
It had taken less than 45 minutes to bring me back to reality, to bring me down from the high I had experienced from teaching the older students to the outright failure I experienced from teaching the younger students.
But all was not lost. I learned one important lesson – there can’t be many jobs tougher than being a middle school teacher, so a tip of the hat to all of you for a job well done. You have my utmost respect, and I will never complain about my job, or my students again.
By the way, the cost per cup in my example was 30 cents per cup. A few days later I was walking through Walmart and found a pack of 100 cups for less than $6. Lesson learned…