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.”