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Mr. Q. is a grumpy teacher. He’s rather portly and walks a bit like a duck. This makes him a good object for baiting. “Quack, quack!” says a student behind his back. Mr. Q. turns around and tries to catch the culprit. Sometimes he catches and punishes him, but more often he does not. Usually he is confronted with a group of innocent-looking faces who vehemently deny any knowledge of who might have uttered such a sound. But just as soon as Mr. Q. gives up and turns away, somebody again quacks. It’s a frustrating game for Mr. Q.
This interaction between Mr. Q. and his antagonists is an example of the game of “baiting.” I call it a game simply because it involves competition and because each side acts in somewhat stereotyped patterns. However, the game concept cannot be taken too far. Baiting is not a game in the sense that a game is played only for enjoyment, and it is not a game in the sense that a game has a set of precise rules agreed upon in advance. Baiting is a very basic type of game. A primitive form of baiting would be that of a dog holding a bear at bay until the hunters can close in. Because of its comparatively small size, a dog cannot engage a bear directly in combat, but a dog can keep a beleaguered bear occupied and thus wear it down. Another example of baiting would be that of a group of malcontents heckling a political speaker, or that of a group of rioters harassing policemen while their cohorts get away with looting and vandalism. A more benign example of baiting would be that of a pair of rivals each “trying to get a rise out of” the other by exchanging half-serious insults. Baiting may be a good game for rivals now and then, but it is not a good game for teachers, bears, or policemen. It can be a very serious matter.
The essential feature of any game of this sort is that the offender has a hedge, a protection or some advantage that will make it hard for the teacher to correct or punish the misbehavior. If there were no hedge the teacher would simply punish the offending student and that would be the end of it. The act of misbehaving becomes a game when the culprit makes it hard for the teacher to catch or punish him. Baiters, as in the example above, usually have the hedge of anonymity. Mr. Q. can’t punish anyone because he doesn’t know just who did the quacking. In the example of the dog baiting the bear, the dog has the protection of being quicker than the bear. If the bear could ever make contact with the dog, it would kill the dog. But such a fact is irrelevant. The bear can’t hit the dog, and Mr. Q. can’t catch his quacker. So the game continues.
Baiting is quite often an individual game, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Two or more students can join together to aggravate a teacher. In my experience, one of the most aggravating forms of this type of behavior, which I call “team baiting,” is that of a group of students beginning to hum. Teaching can become very difficult when even one or two students start a low, steady hum. Words can still be heard, but listening is a strain. The strain is compounded by the fact that the attention of the class is drawn to the game. The students become less interested in learning their school work and more interested in seeing who’s going to get into trouble and who’s going to get away with murder. This puts the teacher on the spot. He has to try to deal with the misbehavior, but there is little he can do. I have been in the position of looking straight at a class of innocent faces and, with all my powers of observation, have been completely unable to say who was doing the humming. One tactic is to call on a suspected student and should the humming stop when he speaks, then he must be the hummer. This is not a sure method though, because maybe Joe stopped humming when Jim began to speak just because Joe wanted to get Jim in trouble. But this technique isn’t usually effective anyway, for very seldom will the humming stop when a person speaks. One student may be speaking at one moment, indicating his innocence, only to begin humming when I call on another student. Through this kind of teamwork, as few as two or three students can very effectively cover up for one another and thus completely obstruct the progress of the class.
To a teacher, the most important thing about any game is how to stop it. Mr. Q. would stoutly deny it, but it bothers him a great deal to have hecklers quacking behind his back. And it certainly bothers me to try to teach over a constant humming. Some games have a definite antithesis, a tactic that will reduce or even end the gaming by the students. But I know of no satisfactory antithesis to a game of baiting. There are several approaches worth mentioning however. One way to stop a game of baiting is by the use of “overkill.” By this I mean that the teacher bawls out the group of students involved with such force that they immediately cease their game. Unfortunately, or possibly fortunately, very few teachers have the aggressiveness required to do this. Teachers who do have this much aggressiveness are seldom the victims of baiting in the first place.
Another way to deal with a game of baiting is to ignore it and hope it will go away. This method will work at times, but it requires tremendous willpower and patience. Yet another way to deal with baiting is to try to beat the baiters at their own game. If Mr. Q. could consistently catch the culprits who quack behind his back and punish them, he would solve his problem. But that is quite a job. It would probably involve laying a trap for the baiters, perhaps with the cooperation of another teacher. This takes considerable time, effort, and ingenuity, and a conscientious teacher may feel guilty about engaging in trickery. It is not an ideal solution by any means.
I think most teachers who are caught in a game of baiting do as Mr. Q. did - they try to use all three tactics at one time. They try to bawl out the suspected students; they try to ignore the baiting when they can, and they try to devise ways of catching the offenders. Mr. Q. tried all three methods, but he met with little success. This is not too surprising since the three methods conflict with one another to quite an extent.
Tactics, then, are relatively ineffective in dealing with a game of baiting; so what is the answer? In one word the answer is strategy. In a well-run school these problems will not come up in the first place. Discipline problems will still come up of course, but they won’t turn into persistent games. But this fact is not of much help to a teacher who is stuck in a bad situation. For the moment I have no solution. Instead I will go ahead to describe other games, some of which do have solutions.
“Lining” is a game similar to that of baiting. As in baiting, the aim of the game is to aggravate the teacher without being punished. However, instead of having the hedge of anonymity, the liner has the hedge of being just “under the line.” He almost offends, but not quite. He keeps the teacher busy deciding whether to punish him or not. For example, a teacher says, “I expect you to be in your seats before the bell rings.” Joe times it just right so that he arrives in his seat precisely with the bell, but not a second before. The teacher knows that Joe is lining and wants to reprimand him. But the teacher asks himself, “Do I have a case?” and decides, “No, I guess I’ll have to let it slip by this time.” And so the scene is repeated a half a dozen times; each time the teacher gets more aggravated at the little game the student has invented, but each time decides that punishment cannot be justified.
A skillful liner can even push back the line. Joe arrives in his seat with the bell the first time, but then each time gets in it a little bit later. Each time, the teacher decides that he can’t really punish him since he didn’t punish him yesterday for the same infringement. But soon the line is pushed back by fifteen or twenty seconds, and the other students want to know why Joe is getting away with murder.
A liner forces the teacher to clearly define the line, and challenges him to consistently enforce that line. To a certain extent, this is healthy. It keeps the teacher on his toes. Unfortunately this is not the goal of the liner. His goal is to keep the teacher off balance - to keep him so busy defining the line and watching for trespasses that there is little time left for teaching.
In the example above Joe may succeed in establishing the line thirty seconds after the bell. The teacher then decides that this is ridiculous and wonders how he got in this predicament in the first place. So he decides to enforce the rule right on the bell the next day. By doing so, he soon finds he has offended the whole class. While Joe was busy pushing the line back as far as he could, the other students had decided that the bell was not that important. Therefore, they too have been a few seconds late each day and now suddenly find the teacher griping at them. “Why were you picking on us?” they say. “Yesterday we did the same thing and you didn’t do anything.” So the teacher is again on the spot. He therefore defines the line as exactly thirty seconds after the bell and finds himself completely absorbed in carefully timing that thirty seconds - another ridiculous predicament.
One way to deal with this game is again by overkill. Chew out the entire class and put an end to the gaming once and for all. But again many teachers are not very good at this sort of thing. The “once and for all” turns out to be only for a day or two and, having been once chastised, the class is ready to play a harder game. So there is not much gain in this tactic unless the teacher can make “once and for all” mean exactly that.
Another way to deal with a game of lining is to purposely lower the line - institute a new rule that is a bit stricter than the rule that was being abused. In this example the line could be lowered by changing the rule from: “Be in your seat when the bells rings,” to: “Be in your seat and have your books and papers out and ready to go when the bell rings.” This may seem like a fine distinction, but a liner pays very close attention to fine distinctions. The new rule is a setback to him, and hopefully it will motivate him to drop his game. However, this is certainly not an entirely adequate method of dealing with a game of lining since it may just start the game all over again.
Another approach is to switch from a line that is hard to watch to one that is easy to watch. Thus it may be advantageous to change the rule: “Be in your seats when the bell rings,” to “Be inside the door when the bell rings.” This is changing to a looser rule - the opposite approach to the one I have just described, and therefore it can be interpreted as giving in to the students. However, this new rule would be easier to enforce than the original rule. It is much easier to glance at the door when the bell rings and immediately know who is innocent and who is guilty than it is to try to quickly look over the entire room and decide who is innocent and who is guilty.
Another approach to dealing with a game of lining is to hand out reprimands and punishments less discriminately than one would like. With this approach, the teacher will not hesitate to reprimand Joe for being in his seat five seconds late today, even though Joe got away with being twenty seconds late yesterday. A liner is banking on the teacher being hung up on fairness and consistency. Fairness and consistency are important, but there are times when they are not as important as regaining control of the class. A liner will try to impose an obligation of absolute consistency on the teacher, but this should be resisted. Once a rule is made it should be enforced, but an unreasonable degree of consistency in its enforcement is destructive. A teacher should freely admit to his class that he is only human and will make mistakes at times, but just because Henry got by with breaking a rule yesterday is no excuse for Joe breaking the rule today.
It’s hard for a teacher who has never been in the situation to realize just how aggravating a liner can be. “Draw the line and stick to it,” says my colleague Mr. M. “That’s all there is to it. Be fair and you won’t have any trouble.” Unfortunately that is not all there is to it. My colleague is on about the eighty-fifth percentile of aggressiveness and therefore has an advantage that I don’t have. The phenomenon of aggressiveness is so important that I will devote a full chapter to it. Mr. M. can handle a multitude of discipline problems with a simple display of aggression - overkill again. To his credit, he uses his aggressiveness skillfully and only to worthwhile ends. But is he more fair or consistent than I? No, he is not. In fact he is less fair and consistent than I. He doesn’t have to be consistent to the point of perfection because he is not bothered by liners. He is not bothered by liners because he is aggressive. His students don’t want to tangle with him. Fairness is good, but it will guarantee success to a teacher no more than it will guarantee success to a businessman. Fairness is important, but classroom control is more important.
Lining and baiting are different from each other in one important respect. A liner works in full view of the teacher, whereas a baiter usually works under the cover of anonymity. I think this makes lining easier to deal with than baiting. However, lining and baiting are like each other in another important respect. They both indicate deeper troubles. They both occur when the teacher does not have the respect of the class. I have tried to give as many tactics as I know of in dealing with these games, but it should never be forgotten that the best approach is strategy. Run a good class and have an administrator who runs a good school, and these problems seldom arise.
A third game, and perhaps the most common one of all, is that of “debate.” In the purest form of this game, a student throws out a blatant offense and then tries to talk his way out of punishment. However, much more commonly, the game is not started for its own sake by the student. Rather it is a game resorted to when the student is already in trouble. Either he neglected to do his homework, or spoke out in class once too often, or couldn’t resist the temptation to play a practical joke on his neighbor; he may be a liner who misjudged the line or a baiter who got caught, or he may have fallen into one of the multitude of other ways in which a student can get into trouble. The debater depends very heavily on one fundamental rule of spoken interaction - a statement deserves a reply. Basically then all a debater has to do is ask one more question, make one more point, go off on one more tangent until he can chip away at the teacher’s defenses and win his case. I will give an example from my teaching experience in a prison school. One of my duties was to get the students from one of the dormitories and march them down to the school. One morning I had to “write-up” Jackson for not following directions. He came to talk to me about it later. As well as I can remember, our conversation went like this:
1. Jackson: Mr. Rude, why did you write me up last Friday?
2. Rude: Well, you were supposed to go outside. You didn’t do it.
3. Jackson: But I couldn’t. Kelsey and Lawson were in the way. That’s what I said at the time.
4. Rude: Well you didn’t even make any effort to do so.
5. Jackson: But they were in the way. If I had butted through them they would have started a fight and you would have written me up for that.
6. Rude: That’s possible, but I doubt it. At any rate you didn’t even attempt to go on past them and go outside like I told you to.
7. Jackson: But I said I would. I didn’t want to get into a fight.
8. Rude: Well that’s not quite how I saw it. It looked like you were purposely stalling.
9. Jackson: No, it may have looked that way, but I wasn’t.
And so it would go as long as I permit it. I made the mistake of saying it “looked” like he was stalling. This was an open invitation for him to keep debating. I didn’t let him go too far with this however. Jackson’s strategy is to put me on the defensive, so that eventually I would give in. And he knows that the longer he can keep me involved, the more I will lose the debate. A debater has the advantage of lying whenever he wants to. With very few exceptions, it makes no difference toe problem is solved. That’s the end of it.
Jackson took the offensive for the first nine statements. On statement ten I attempted to correct my mistake of statement eight. I gained the offensive in statements ten and twelve. In statement seventeen I was again about to be put on the defensive, so I at least had sense enough to stop the debate. Statement eighteen is the real antithesis of the game. Simply refuse to debate. Notice that I did not respond directly to statement seventeen. Instead I decided that we talked enough, and so I refused to continue. Yes, a statement does deserve a reply, but not interminably. If you have good cause to apply a sanction and the authority to do so, then you have the power to end the debate. The defendant will cry foul, and to an extent he must be listened to. However when it becomes apparent that he has begun a game of debate, then the sooner he is cut off the better.
Of course our conversation has not convinced Jackson of anything. He’ll keep his version of the story and that’s the version he’ll tell his friends. This is unfortunate, but predictable and unavoidable. What really counts is that I managed to end the debate. Like a player of “stepped on,” of which I’ll talk about shortly, the debater will do his best to make me feel guilty. This is no problem if I do my soul-searching in advance - if I have gone over the facts carefully and know that my actions are justified and necessary. But if I do not prepare my case carefully so that I can feel sure of my actions, then Jackson will indeed make me feel guilty.
Debate is an openly antagonistic game. Another game, which I will call “conference,” is very similar. However in conference the offending student takes great pains to maintain the fiction that he is not being antagonistic. Instead he wants to “get the matter cleared up,” or to “establish better channels of communication.” The basic principle is the same as in debate. The student relies on the rule of courtesy that a statement deserves a reply. Therefore he keeps bringing up one more point, one more question, until he can elicit concessions to win his point or get himself out of trouble. He will try to maneuver the teacher into a corner, all the while keeping a pretense of cooperation and courtesy. In this next example, Skaggs, another student in the prison school, was trying to get me to concede that he only needed one half credit of math. This was not really my decision, so I told him he’d have to talk it over with the principal. Apparently he didn’t want to do this, probably thinking I was a much easier mark.
1. Skaggs: You see I already have a half credit of math back on the street. So when I get a half
credit here will I be done with math?
2. Rude: Well, it depends. Probably not. When you leave here we just send your grades to your
hometown school. Your principal or superintendent there will probably look at your record and decide that the half credit of math you finish here is just a repeat of the half credit of math you already have there, which it actually is. It’s best to do the whole credit. Then there won’t be any doubt about it.
3. Skaggs: Ya, but I already have a half. This will make another half. That’s a whole.
4. Rude: Well it may look like you just repeated the first half of General Math again. I don’t know. It’s not my decision. Go talk to the principal about it. If he wants to put you in another class after a half credit here that’s fine. I don’t run the school. But you’ve got plenty of time to finish a whole credit. So I’m not going to tell the principal that it’s time to transfer you.
5. Skaggs: I see what you mean. You’ve got a good point there, Mr. Rude. But let me explain my situation. You see I want to make the best use of my time here. I want to improve my mind. I want to take advantage of the opportunities that are provided me, and get all the credits I can. But I’m not sure I would be making the best use of my time by doing a whole credit in math. You see my counselor back on the street said I only need a half credit in math. I know how we can straighten out this whole mess. If you would go to the principal and ask him about it . . . .
Rude: No, I don’t think I should do that.
7. Skaggs: But my counselor told me I only needed a half a credit. But I guess if you don’t believe me . . . .
Skaggs did his best to put me on the spot, or at least to wear me down. He and I both knew that the principal was not interested in all the bothersome details. The principal wants to know when a student finishes math and should be transferred to mother class. Skaggs wouldn’t last ten seconds in conference with the principal. So Skaggs is right in one respect - I am a much easier mark than the principal. But I held my own and soon I ended the “conference.” Again I had prepared my case. Every time I get a new student I look in his record folder to make sure that he doesn’t already have a credit in math. If he does have a math credit then usually he needs an English or history course more than he needs another math course. So before Skaggs ever came to “confer” with me, I had looked closely at his record and decided he needed a full credit in math. Having done this homework it was not really hard to stick to my position.
Skaggs threw in a few statements to show his courtesy and cooperation. In all other respects we were in a game of debate. The antithesis of conference is to refuse to confer, just as the antithesis of debate is to refuse to debate. I think it is only sensible to be as tactful as possible, for a game of conference is usually more pleasant than a game of debate. When a student knows the teacher well and can take a hint, it may be very easy to stop the game. But when the student is new and is pushing for limits, then it’s best to set the limits clearly and firmly. Either way, the antithesis is to stop conferring. A statement deserves a reply, but not interminably.
The three basic games are baiting, lining, and debating, with conference being a variation of debate. These three games probably account for ninety percent of the classroom games that I have been subjected to as a teacher. For the most part, the competition is out in the open in these games, and the goals are relatively clear. The offender is seeking to aggravate the teacher or to get himself out of trouble. The teacher is trying to maintain discipline so he can teach something. There are other games which are more subtle or which occur less frequently. I will discuss some of these as I have observed them. Of course there could be many others which are not so easily labeled or analyzed.
Elliott, again a student of mine in the prison school, has been playing a mild game of “Look how hard I tried.” He goes ahead and does his lessons in advance which I approve of; but, of course, should he do a lesson wrong or skip one, I have him go back and make the necessary corrections. My students are generally hesitant to do too much work when they are not sure of what to do. They come up and ask me about it before starting. Elliott does not do this, and therefore he sometimes does things wrong and I have him back up. He then gives me this slightly hurt and resentful look, trying to convey the message, “But I try so hard, and you just don’t help me. I did what you said.” Of course, he can’t come right out and say this, for I wouldn’t allow it, nor can he even hint at it too strongly. Yet he can display a few mannerisms to get the message across.
The object of his game is to put me on the defensive by making me think that I’m being unfair. I am supposed to feel guilty, for when I feel guilty I can be much more easily manipulated. The antithesis to this game is for the teacher to do his own soul-searching before a student does it for him. A teacher cannot be made to feel guilty if he has carefully considered his actions and has a purpose in mind for everything he does. With Elliott I just have to remember that I am not giving credit for effort; I am giving credit for achievement. My job is to assist in that achievement and that is exactly what I do. When other students have to back up a step they don’t complain; therefore I will not allow Elliott to complain. Further, I take steps to avoid the situation in the first place. I make sure each student is working at his own level at all times. I am careful not to make fun of mistakes, or in any other way profane the face of the student. I take the initiative to check each student’s progress every day or so. In this way I can hold mistakes to a minimum and keep accomplishments at a maximum. When I fall short of perfection, I don’t feel guilty about it.
“Stepped on” is a game similar to “Look how hard I tried,” but it is a little cruder. The player does not prepare his case by putting on a good show of effort. He simply gives a sigh and a hurt look whenever he is asked to do anything or is given any correction. He goes around feeling sorry for himself, and he lets the world know it. When chastised for a poor attitude, he starts a mild game of debate ending with a “stepped on again” expression.
The antithesis to this game is to not feel sorry for the gamester, or at least not to show it. Instead sanction any expressions of defeatism. “Smith, are you trying to get sympathy from me? Then you’d better quit giving me this ‘stepped on’ look. You’ve got better things to do than to go around feeling sorry for yourself.” There are times when you would feel genuinely sorry for him, but it is seldom constructive to show it. I felt sorry for many of my students at the prison school, but I always knew that good teaching would help them infinitely more than could a bit of sympathy. Just how blatantly you can sanction an attitude of defeatism depends on many factors. In the prison school I could be quite blunt. But for a spoiled kid in a public school such a blunt sanction might be only an invitation to tangle with an irate parent. Sometimes there is no antithesis and the game must simply be tolerated.
“Prima donna” is an unfortunate game that can cause no end of trouble in certain situations. The prima donna is a student who makes himself or herself indispensable to some school activity, such as a class play, a musical program, or a ball team, and then threatens to drop out of the activity or to sabotage, in some other way, the group’s efforts unless certain concessions are made. This game is blackmail, pure and simple. It is a game engaged in only by someone who is at least a little bit spoiled. It was a basketball player who first introduced me to this game. This occurred during my first year of teaching and I was still fairly naive. I had Clarence, the star of the basketball team, in my algebra class. He caused trouble now and then and I sent him to the office several times. One day I figured I had put up with enough and that it was about time to boot him out of class. At that time, I’m not sure that I was even aware that he was on the basketball team. I certainly didn’t know that he was such a valuable player. I expected the administration to back me up regardless. “Well it doesn’t make a bit of difference that he’s on the ball team,” said the principal, “he’ll just have to straighten up and fly right, like everyone else.” “Yup,” said the superintendent, “he’s no privileged character. He’s going to have to mend his ways.” We then discussed the matter at length with Clarence, who was amiable enough, but hardly repentant. Somehow we just never got around to suspending him from class. It took me a year or so to fully realize that Clarence had been the beneficiary of a flagrant double standard. He was indeed a prima donna. He had subtly, but effectively, blackmailed us all. He got special treatment because the principal and superintendent didn’t want to lose a good player from the ball team. It is appalling that he could get away with it, but he did.
The antithesis to this game is simple - call off the show. This is hard to do when the rest of the group badly wants the show to go on, but it must be done. In the case of Clarence, the principal should have suspended him from class for at least a week. I suppose this would have removed him from at least one basketball game - an act which is far preferable than having a spoiled brat in class or on the ball team.
I ran across a mild game of prima donna when I was teaching music. As the spring concert approached, several of the better singers in the girls’ chorus began complaining about what the group was to wear while performing. As I remember I gave in to them. I was still rather new to teaching at this time, but I did have an uneasy feeling that I was being manipulated. Looking back on it, I don’t know whether I did the right thing or tot. I don’t think a teacher should take the attitude that he should never accede to the wishes of the students. In a very mild game of prima donna I think one might as well compromise hit on principle and go on with the show. However, with a hard game, there is no question - call off the show before making any concessions.
“No rule against that” is a rather unsophisticated game that I came up against now and then in my teaching. Eddie starts pompously clipping his fingernails, attracting attention to himself by intermittent, well placed clicks. I tell him to put away his clipper and pay attention. He says: “What did I do? I was trimming my fingernails. No rule against that is there? You never told us . . . .” He’s right of course, there is no rule against that. I have always tried to let my students know in advance just what rules I expect them to abide by, but I can’t cover everything. “Okay, then,” I say, “I’ll let it go this time, but from now on no fingernail clipping in class.” The peace is short-lived though if Joe observes, that I’m a sucker for this game and promptly starts drawing circles in the air, giving me a look that says “no rule against that.”
The antithesis of this game lies in the discretionary power of the teacher - in his authority to respond to a situation even though the situation has never arisen before and no rules cover it. If it is clear that Eddie and Joe are simply pushing for limits, then the solution is to reprimand them - no debate allowed. One way to make this easier is to have a few blanket rules, I always let my classes know that anything that detracts from learning is out of bounds. In this way I can claim that I warned them, that I’m not being arbitrary. But to make this method work requires determination on the part of the teacher. A blanket rule will not inhibit debate; if anything, it will encourage it. The only real solution is to have sufficient discretionary authority and the will to use it.
The next game I will describe is sometimes amusing, but it can become serious. I don’t really have a good antithesis for it. I call it “bathroom.” Carl comes up to me and says, “Can I go to the bathroom? I gotta go real bad.” This puts me on the spot. If I say, “Sure, go ahead,” I may be just setting myself up as a soft touch. If I say, “No, you know the rules. You’ve got four minutes between classes,” then I may be just asking for a debate and I may be putting Carl through a real hardship. The unfortunate truth is that for most students there is no way of knowing where truth ends and fiction begins. What do you do when you have ten people going to the bathroom in one hour, and you figure at least seven or eight of them are outright liars? One approach is to make a flat rule: “No more bathroom, go between classes!” But it’s pretty hard to make this stick when Carl says he’s about to bust and will probably go in his pants any minute. A time or two I have had to tell a student, “Carl, I don’t believe you, and I won’t believe you until you start dripping on the floor.” This is treading on dangerous ground though. Things can be very unpleasant if Carl goes home and tells Mama, “Mr. Rude called me a liar today.”
The essential feature of this game, “bathroom,” is that there is no way in the world to know the student’s truthfulness. The students want credit for the unknowable. I ran into the same type of game when teaching chorus. A girl would come up and tell me that she had a sore throat and that she didn’t want to sing that day. As a general rule I would allow it, but now and then I would have too many invalids. Their throats would be too sore to sing, but not too sore to gossip and carry on with their friends. I call this a game of bathroom even though there’s no bathroom involved. The hedge is the same - I have no way of knowing whether or not the students are telling the truth. Like the original game of bathroom, it’s pretty hard to fight.
One antithesis to this game is to pass the buck. Had we had a school nurse, I wouldn’t have given the sore throat excuses a second thought. I’d have passed them on to the nurse. Of course we had no nurse, and I never found a good solution to the sore throat game.
In one school where I taught, a student who wanted to go to the bathroom was given a pass and then had to have the pass initialed by the principal before returning to class. This was passing the buck to the principal by taking the responsibility from the teachers. But it didn’t cure the problem by any means, for the principal was not much better than anyone else in detecting fakers. At best, this rule inhibited only a few of the fakers.
Another antithesis to the bathroom game that can sometimes be arranged is to give the student a free choice, but a choice that is undesirable to him and at the same time defensible by the teacher. This was partly the idea behind having the bathroom passes initialed by the principal. The student had the choice of either staying in class and holding out until the next break, or of approaching the principal. I could have done something similar with the sore throats in chorus if I had the cooperation of a mean study hail teacher. I could have let the invalids go to study hall with the assumption that if they really had a sore throat they wouldn’t mind the mean teacher - they could always stay out of trouble by just minding their own business. However, if they were just faking and wanted to aggravate me, they would not want to go to study hail and hence would not give the sore throat excuse. Unfortunately I had no such arrangement.
An arrangement something like the one I have described worked well for me in the prison school. If a student said he didn’t feel well, I would allow him to put his head down on the table and rest for the hour. I would make it clear, however, that he must be either up working on his math or down with his eyes covered - nothing in between. This worked well, for the student who really felt bad was glad to do this, but the student who just wanted to cause trouble had no desire to have his head down on the table for the entire hour. In the prison situation I had small classes and each student worked individually. This made the plan workable. I do not know if it would work as well in a regular class.
So far I have presented games as if they occur by themselves. It is more common, however, for several games to occur together. The offending student baits and lines for a while until he is put on the spot. Then he tries to debate for a while. During all of this, he will use whatever teamwork he can with others. Whenever the opportunity arises, variations of these and other games will be employed. The most extreme example of combined games results in what I call “massive obstructionism.” In this game a large percentage of the students in the class offend constantly, and they take their punishments constantly. They bitterly resent the punishments of course, but they also bitterly enjoy destroying the teacher’s efforts. This is a very difficult situation because of the large effect of what would otherwise be small offenses. In a well-run classroom a girl’s giggle calls for no more than perhaps saying, “Pay attention, Susie.” In a class afflicted with massive obstructionism the same giggle can assume momentous proportions. The giggle was not an innocent spontaneous expression of amusement. Rather it was Susie’s bit part, a part that took only seven seconds from the class perhaps, but, after Ronnie takes twenty seconds from the class and Joe takes thirty seconds from the class, the time wasted all begins to mount up. Soon five minutes have passed in nothing but this kind of fighting, then ten minutes, then twenty, then an hour. It doesn’t take too many hours like this for a teacher to get to the end of his rope.
I have been in this situation more than once in my first years of teaching. The only antithesis that I can see is outside help. It’s time to admit defeat and ask for help from the principal. This help may or may not be forthcoming. The principal may be a principal mainly because he wanted “out” of the classroom, and he may therefore have little help to give. However just his presence will stop the gaming for a while and that’s worth something. If massive obstructionism continues for any length of time, then the parents, the school board, and even the entire community will soon know about it. It’s better to ask for help early than to wait.
I may have seemed rather cynical in describing these games. I did not mean to be. Quite the contrary. Having acquired a bit of control over such things, I can afford to be much more sympathetic to students. A knowledge of gaming does not at all prevent one from looking for deeper causes of discipline problems than simple human cussedness; nor does it prevent one from realizing that at any one time the majority of the students in a class are not gaming. My point is simply that such gaming exists; therefore it ought to be understood and dealt with. To do any less is simply poor teaching.