306. When the Cat’s Away

A teacher named Jill or Jim is headed back to her/his second grade classroom after having gone to the office to take a phone call. He/she has spoken with his/her class about what should happen when no adult is in the room, and most of the children know what’s supposed to happen. Even most of those who are chasing each other around the room know. And the teacher knows they know.
When the teacher is about fifty feet from the classroom, he/she sees a child’s head quickly move a little bit past the doorway and then move back into the room. The teacher hears, “She’s/he’s coming!” There are some whispers and some scurrying sounds. And these children are not about to throw a surprise party for the teacher. They have been taking advantage of the teacher’s absence to do what they’d rather do than what the teacher had told them to do.
One child, who doesn’t like chaos, has been spending the past three minutes trying to get the rambunctious ones to stop it, forgetting that trying to control other children’s behavior was not part of the teacher’s instructions, either. Everyone was supposed to be sitting down and quietly doing some assignment.
When the teacher gets to the room, of course everyone is sitting quietly and working (or at least appearing to be working). The teacher may or may not scold the class for the misbehavior that had been going on. Not everyone in the class had been involved, and some children take group scolding so personally: “I wasn’t doing anything! I was just sitting here doing my work!” And that may be true of some children.
Teachers aren’t supposed to leave classes unattended. There’s always supposed to be an adult in the room to keep things safe, orderly, and productive.
But that doesn’t always happen. Teachers have legitimate reasons to leave the classroom when no adult is available to take over. If a child is ever badly hurt when no adult is nearby, there may be a legal battle that results in all kinds of unpleasantness. But the odds against that happening are pretty strong, there often aren’t enough adults to go around, and there really is an occasional legitimate reason for a teacher to leave a class unattended.
All I’ve done in this article is describe a problem. I don’t know what can be done about it. We could fund schools so that there are always two adults per classroom, but I’m pretty sure that won’t happen right away. Sometimes a teacher asks a colleague to “keep an eye on” her/his class, but that isn’t an ideal system; teachers have enough work to do with their own classes. Some teachers have ways to keep everything going smoothly even when they’re out of the room. As a teacher, I tried to use these teachers as models, but I never learned how to do whatever they were doing right. Most teachers I know haven’t, either.

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