Establishing chemistry

Using a rigid system of rewards and penalties, a Harlem chemistry teacher motivates students to pay attention, participate and pass advanced chemistry. Timothy Hearn spends the first week of school teaching students how to behave, says Teacher Magazine.

“The bottom line is, my system allows me to teach,” Hearn explains, pointing out that once it’s in place, he can devote entire periods to content. As a result, virtually all his students pass his classes, with half choosing to sit for the Regents exam and more than 85 percent passing on the first try, making them more attractive to prospective colleges. (This year is his first teaching the AP class.)

The behavioral problems that Hearn faces are not unique to Harlem, of course. In classrooms across the country, an undercurrent of chatter and inattention corrodes learning environments, frustrating the efforts of even the most talented teachers. “In general, students are becoming a great deal less mature, less disciplined, and enter high school with increasingly lower skills,” says Chris Abbasse, a global studies teacher at Frederick Douglass who, for 15 years, has taught students at both public and parochial schools in several large cities. “This low-level classroom chaos makes getting students ready for the Regents or other standardized tests very difficult.”

But does Hearn’s behavior-based system — applied, in this case, by a white teacher in a mostly black urban school — go too far? While those who ascribe to a child-centered approach to education, one at odds with uniforms and rigid rules, may think so, Frederick Douglass’ principal, Gregory Hodge, feels that university education programs are decades behind in preparing new teachers. “They read all this theory crap,” he says, “but don’t learn anything about the nuts and bolts of getting students to perform academically when they don’t want to.”

The system works best with the worst-behaved students, who need to be told exactly how to behave: Sit up straight, look at the speaker, always have a pen or pencil ready to take notes, ask for permission before speaking.

I like the student quotes:

“My first impression of Mr. Hearn was, like,he used to serve in the Army and participated in some of the world wars,” Isaias, whose boyish face clashes with his adult-size body, said at the end of the week. “But when he did that [balloon] experiment, I knew it’s going to be a fun class. Just imagine, he’s already set stuff on fire, so by the end of this year we’re going to know how to make C-4explosives!”

A girl says that the teacher “shouldn’t try to be our friend. We have a sixth sense and know that if the teacher isn’t on point for the first five minutes, we can get away with stuff all year.”

About Joanne

Comments

  1. “Frederick Douglass’ principal, Gregory Hodge, feels that university education programs are decades behind in preparing new teachers. ‘They read all this theory crap,” he says, “but don’t learn anything about the nuts and bolts of getting students to perform academically when they don’t want to.’ ”
    Ok, here I am again in the ed dept. of Big-10 U and what he says is all true. I’ve been hearing it for years, though, even before I made the crazy decision to teach public school. SO WHY ISN’T SOMETHING CHANGING? Seriously, why aren’t ed schools getting it? [one definition of insanity: keep doing the same thing, expecting different results].

  2. It does depend on the Ed school. The more the university rewards “cutting edge” research, the more theory will be taught. At the same time, a fair number of “second and third-tier” schools do provide nuts and bolts practical experience.

  3. PJ/Maryland says:

    While those who ascribe to a child-centered approach to education, one at odds with uniforms and rigid rules, may think so…

    I think they mean subscribe. This is from some sort of teacher’s magazine?

    On the whole, the article seems well done. The main drawback to Hearn’s system seems to be time; not only do all the behavior grades have to be tabulated each day (or at least each week), but making the notations takes class time. It would take practice, I think, to be able to take notes and pay attention to students at the same time.

  4. Mr. Hearn’s system is a good one, and reinforces an essential Truth about teaching: The teachers who achieve the most with their students are the ones who hold them to the highest standards, behaviorally and academically.
    Could Hearn’s system be duplicated everywhere? I don’t think so. To implement it, a teacher would need the full backing of the school administration, so that when disruptive students who refuse to buy into the program ask, “What are you going to do about it?”, there’s a swift and effective answer– consequences that the other kids in the class can see and appreciate.
    Also, it takes a special kind of personality to consistenly apply Hearn’s rules. Call it a commanding presence, or perhaps an especially confident bearing, if you will. I’ve known teachers who have it, but it’s supremely difficult to train others to imitate it.
    I’m not even certain that, if you found enough teachers like Hearn to serve as mentors and guides, the majority of teachers would want to run their classrooms like his. You could try to force them, but it’d be a tough row to hoe. In the meantime, God bless him and keep him… at least we know someone’s getting an education in the urban jungle…

  5. “But does Hearn’s behavior-based system — applied, in this case, by a white teacher in a mostly black urban school — go too far?”

    Patronizing. Apparently the author thinks it’s within normal social norms for people to find it scandalous that a white teacher would expect students to behave themselves, even though the students are black.

  6. Boo, it’s not patronizing: it’s a rhetorical device the author employs to show that the system doesn’t go too far. It’s a straw man. Read the whole article.

  7. “‘The blue was probably filled with nitrogen,’ Isaias Arce II reasoned, running a hand over his wrinkled brow and through a thicket of curly hair. ‘Because when nitrogen expands, like, it blows up.’

    “‘It’s flammable?’ Hearn asked, rhetorically. He then nodded heartily….”

    I’m sure he didn’t leave his class thinking that nitrogen is flammable, but I’d be a little happier if the reporter had put that part in. Okay, sorry to nitpick. It looks like a great class.

Trackbacks

  1. Parents, Get With the Program

    Parents, if your children don’t have the capacity to be self-disciplined in school, they aren’t going to learn. Children learn self-discipline from YOU. Asking a teacher to instill it means that there is less time and energy to teach content.

  2. Zero Tolerance: Death of Due Process

    Should a student violating the school’s dress code (with bare midriff and unbuttoned sweater) be hauled off to jail? Joanne Jacobs points us to an interesting New York Times article, “Unruly Students facing arrest, not detention.” Seems more and more s…