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Be careful what you teach for

September 8, 2023

In nine years teaching English in public high schools, I learned more from my students than they learned from me. Is it still legal to do that? Or say it?

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

For the six happiest years of my life, I taught high school English on an Indian reservation — the second-largest in the country. Ain’t gonna tellya which one. As Yogi Berra said, you could look it up.

From my third year on, after I’d scoped the lay of the land, I assigned the Bill of Rights to my classes as their first reading assignment. After we’d gone over it, with commentary by me and questions from the class — this usually took two days — I invited one of my pals at (••••••) Legal Services to talk to us.

The kids loved to see straight-talking lawyers.

This was a premeditated move on my part. I wanted to show the kids that reading, and knowing something about the law, could help them in their real lives. That reading and books were not useless fantasy, but, if for nothing else, a way to help them stay out of trouble. Or not make their own, inevitable, troubles worse.

The kids dug the lawyers’ talks way better than mine. High school kids usually prefer a new guy to come in for a day, who brooks no bullshit, especially if they can tell me later, “Hey, Kahn, that guy knew more about it than you do.”

It was all part of my master plan.

My lawyer buddies were well-read in the liberal arts, articulate, and one of them, at least, was a bit of a libertine. One evening a few days after he’d made his presentation to my sophomores he told me, over a few beers, that I ran my class “like a Nazi.”

I did not take that amiss, though my last name is presumptively Jewish. He did not mean that I preached a hateful, racist ideology, or that I was a loathsome human being. He meant that I ran my class like a dictator: that there could be no question who was in charge, and that if a kid stepped out of line … well, better not.
Totally true. By then I had taught high school for a year on the South Side of Chicago, and two years on the rez. From these indentures I had learned a few things. Chief among them was that the teacher must be in command of the class from the moment the bell stops ringing. If not, you are lost. The little bastards will grind you into the ground.

I used to do it to the subs. I bet you did too.

I loved my students. In nine years teaching high school, I had only two students I could not bring myself to like. They were both spoiled brats. In those years I found that most good high school teachers get into it because they love the subject, and if they stay it’s because they love the kids.

Same here. But I’m not going to let them run over me just because I love them. So here’s my trick.

On Monday in the first real week of school (nothing happens the first short week), I gave my students a list of 200 words to learn: I tell them they’ll have to spell five words a day, and use them in a sentence, and if they get them all right, they get 5 points.

The good students loved it. I never told them it’s gonna be A through Z. I told them to learn them all.

Now, in all those years, no student ever asked me what 5 points meant. But they all knew that 5 points sounded good, and not that hard to do, if you learn how to read.

The moment the bell stopped ringing each day I would say, softly, “avocado,” or whatever the word was. Whereupon the smart girls, who sat up front and in the second row, would whirl around and hiss, “Shhh!” to the wiseguys in the back.

Thus from the first second of class the smart girls had bossed the wiseguys in the back row into silence. And you know what? The students liked it that way.

The wiseguys did not want to piss off the smart girls, many of whom were pretty, and all of them women who would make more money by holding down a job than any wiseguy was even thinking of doing.

So I got the class to police itself — not like Big Brother — but because that’s what they were supposed to be doing: Shut up and listen, and ask questions when it’s appropriate.

Why am I telling you this? Those of you who are not young teachers? It’s because there is a growing movement today, fed by right-wing morons and the Republican Party, who presume that parents should be allowed to tell teachers what to teach, and what they may not teach — and to get teachers fired if they teach something with which the parents disagree.

To these parents, and to the Republican Party, let me tell you what y’all should do: Sit down and shut up. Let teachers, who know more about their subject than you do, do their job.

And give the kids their books back.

Any questions? You, there, in the back …

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