Monday, June 29, 2015

Setting the Tone: Consistency

I once had a Morality teacher in high school that was a dense 6’5, 230 pounds. He looked like a man who would beat morality into you if it didn’t go against the very subject he taught. Perhaps it was this odd dichotomy that allowed him play the role of “good cop/bad cop” so fluidly: he was at once adored by his students as he was the main cause for their gastrointestinal issues. 

Early on in the course, he played a rather unfortunate trick on us. He had recruited a student to show up late to class the next day. When the student showed up—ten minutes into class—the teacher started screaming at him. I think he may have even thrown a chair: he was extremely devoted to his character. While the class watched in silent horror as the student left the room, the teacher surveyed the class, daring anyone to speak up. Of course, no one did. He sat down and took a distinct bite out of his second package of Ho Hos.

Then he started laughing. The student came back inside, took a bow, and we all slowly realized we had been duped. He framed this as a moral predicament, challenging us to consider why we didn’t stand up for our classmate when he was clearly being unfair. While this elicited some pretty good discussion, I couldn’t help but think that wasn’t all that was at stake here. What was really being challenged was our will to fight the environment he had established in the classroom since day one, an environment where he was uncontestably in complete control.

I had never realized how much command, how much presence we allowed this man to have. His bluff wasn’t even a gamble: he had known from the onset that we were going to be paralyzed against his injustice, unwilling to contradict a man who had firmly established his dictatorial authority. He was asking us to oppose him as a teacher, and we cowered as students.

I feel very ambivalent towards him now. I do not know how I feel about his iron grip that he held on the class.  But I still respect his ability to set a tone and maintain it. We knew from the first day what we were to expect from him and he never deviated from it. While his method for maintaining command may have been questionable, his consistency never was: he had a class climate that was a sweltering 90 degrees and terrified six days of the working week. And no student, morality lesson, or weatherman was willing to challenge that.  

Write up by: Jon Pumper

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