The Truest Stuff I’ve Ever Watched or Written

I’ve been moving through past seasons of The Wire, as seems to be the mandatory assignment of every bleeding-heart white blogger nowadays. All these hosannahs — “… the reason Edison invented television,” etc. — have left me feeling cold, however.

I wanted to love The Wire that much, but five seasons of 24 had taught me that dramas must end on a cliffhanger, that morality is a matter of black and white, and that the bad will suffer at the hands of the good in hour-long real-time installments.

Despite its obvious quality, I never really felt The Wire until its third season, when it made one of the bravest narrative decisions a television show has ever made. I’m convinced. We’re not talking some sweeps-week-stooping Mulder-and-Scully-kiss-style nonsense, introduced in one episode and scripted away in four.

In its third season, The Wire poses a scary solution to one of the United States’ most confounding social plagues — a solution that few would imagine and even fewer would discuss openly — and ran with it for a season. I’m not sure I’m ready to cede the Best Show Ever title but no way I’ll dispute that The Wire is the single Most Important Show Right Now.

Here’s a clip I edited from the tenth episode of the third season. It’s just a brief subplot about a boxing club for kids, but it puts an anecdote to one of teaching’s recent and most exciting revelations. (This is rated R for language.)

Especially with the gooey-feeling “I’m here now” conclusion, this might just seem like a generic ode to perseverance, something straight out of Jaime Escalante’s Inner City Calculus Academy. It isn’t. It blueprints a teaching strategy that terrifies and thrills me. As much as I think it is the salvation of at-risk students, the ones with too many issues to care about school, I won’t sneer at anyone who’d say, this is too much for me.

It happens when the new boxing coach, Cutty, consults an older one. Referring to the don’t-give-a-fuck crowd of neighborhood kids, some of which seriously rattled Cutty’s cage earlier, the wiser one says, “Try as they might, I won’t let ’em fail.”

In a movie about the nobility of education, that quote would make the trailer and I’d yawn. But what seems ethereal and Zen-like just fronts a method for teaching at-risk students that’s so effective at subverting their bravado and piss and establishment resentment, it’s almost sinister.

The older coach immediately follows up with the meat of this scheme. “You do that, it messes with their minds.”

In practice, it works like this. A student isn’t doing x. You, the teacher, tell the student to get going with x. The student gives you some sort of resistance — a grumble, an eye roll, or some generic do-nothing gesture of noncompliance. In a tone that’s only a little more stern, you offer a consequence. The student says “Fine …” and then in a really low voice, but not low enough to slip past you, calls you an asshole.

“What’d you say to me?!” you ask, per the demands of some Teacher Script that no one’s received but for some reason everyone’s memorized.

Here’s where it breaks. The student either mutters, “Nothing,” and backs down, in which case, congratulations, hot shot, you’ve managed to push a submissive kid back in line. In the case of the at-risk youth, though, he says, “Fuck this shit, man!” and you tell him to go outside.

Ask ten teachers how they’d handle this situation now. Accustomed as they are to embedding logical mousetraps in their own hypothetical situations, I’m not sure how honest they’d be. I do, however, know how nine of them would handle the situation in practice: they’d write up an administrative referral, send him off, go back inside, and control the damage.

I sympathize with those nine teachers but I revere the one.

He walks outside smiling. The student sees him smiling and immediately, and most crucially to this sinister discipline scheme, doesn’t know what the fuck is going on.

The teacher further disorients the student by opening with a genuine laugh and asks, “So what happened back there?” The student doesn’t say anything here.

“You having a bad day or did I just come at you wrong?” Again the student says nothing.

“Look,” you say. “I’m not sending you out today. You do too much good work in here to lose you.” Even if this is an enormous lie, the teacher tells it anyway and sells it because he knows from experience that beneath their ugly surface, these moments are the difference between sturdy, functional teaching and perfect teaching.

He continues. “Before you come back in, I need you to know that no matter how heated you get, that kind of language isn’t going to fly in my classroom without you and me having a conversation outside.”

The teacher waits just a moment.

“You understand that?”

The student is still playing hard at this point and doesn’t say anything.

“Fine. That’s fine. Just take some time out here to get right. I’ll come back out in a second and see what you think.”

Throughout all of this, the teacher has to balance fifty different tones against each other — compassion, understanding, disapproval — but sarcasm has absolutely no place here.

That teacher also understands that more than any possible outcome here, the student wants to be kicked out. If the two of you reconcile, it means the student has to face his classmates’ silence when he comes back in — a silence, which to him, means they think he’s soft.

Also, and most important here, the at-risk student wants to believe his teachers dislike him. The fact is: the majority of his teachers do dislike him. He has to alienate the ambivalent minority, then, because the possibility that a teacher might like him, value him, or even respect him, is too confusing to deal with.

It’s a class management system that says, no matter what, I’m going to keep this student in my class. It’s counterintuitive, scary as all hell, and offers the teacher a million opportunities to flinch and say, “Alright, go work out your attitude with a principal.”

Just like the student, the teacher knows that readmitting a verbally violent kid to class means that he looks soft.

But the boxing coach is right. You mess with their program enough, and “pretty soon they run out of their little bag of tricks.” After you show them that profanity doesn’t surprise you, that sexual vulgarity doesn’t scare you, that everything else in their little bag of tricks is nothing new to you, it’s magic from there.

The student decides to do a little bit, maybe raise his hand on a problem. Even then you’ve got to be vigilant because you’re still being tested. The nearsighted teacher overcompensates for a semester of under-performance, and spouts praise like, “Good job, Dontae! I knew you had it in you,” and embarrasses the hell out of the student. He’ll try again next semester, maybe.

The teacher we’re talking about plays it down. Maybe gives a quick “nice …” sans exclamation point and moves on quickly. This is how the at-risk student learns to contribute.

I could go on but any more of this strategy-talking’ll just make me wish I was in a classroom right now.

Watch the very start of that clip again, where instead of separating the kids who were tussling and maybe trying to impose some preschool time-out on them (worst play) or maybe launching into some Laurence Fishburne-esque tirade about how “blacks got ENOUGH to worry about without killing each other,” (a little better) Cutty tells one of them he’s “dropping his right.”


He wants to teach the fighters to fight?!?!

But it perplexes the kid. And just like the best teaching starts by perplexing the student and making her question for one second that she knows everything, I’m nearly positive that the best discipline starts by taking the obvious prescription and heading as fast as possible in the opposite direction. And then watch how in the end your class is the only one the student doesn’t cut.

Raise your hand if you wish you were back at Florin right now.

I’m raising my hand.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Dan – having worked in high school for 17 years, I can attest that you nailed that conversation. The best teachers don’t let that kid “play” them into a trip to the office. Good teachers win the mind games with patient understanding, sincere converstaion, and no sarcasm.

  2. Hm. Good to hear that these strategies have been time-tested. At this point, just a baby teacher, I still have too much ego to maintain that sort of level head on any consistent basis. But I know what I’m working towards.

    Not hijack my own thread, but I think if I was ever in charge of teacher education anywhere, I’d begin the credential year with a lot of introspection. In my own practice, and in that of plenty of colleagues, I see too many people with unresolved issues putting themselves in psychologically complicated situations like the above.

    I’m talking about macroscopic issues of confidence — e.g., why do I feel threatened by this kid who said the eff word? why do I feel like I have to assert my authority here?

    Also, though, I’ve had to sort through some microscopic baggage. Like how in high school I was 6’7”, rail-thin, and caught tons of grief from jocks. I’ll admit that my first year teaching I treated a lot my good football players like second class students because I hadn’t, ugh can’t believe I’m saying this, learned to love myself, and really loved finally having authority in that relationship.

    Ugh. Terrible. These insecurities resolve themselves before the seventeeth year, right?

  3. Man… I am all over this post. Especially, Dan, your candid response about insecurities. Being 24 and new to the teaching game, I have a lot of the same sentiments. Now that it is summer and I have a bit of time to read, I’ve been finding your blog very helpful. I appreciate it!

  4. I know am late to this post but it is relevant to my experience. The past two years I have been teaching Algebra I repeaters. Kids that many love to hate and for the most part these are my favorite kids. Once you get to know them and they trust you they will “yours” forever.

    However, last semester was anomaly for me. I had the most difficult class in my 6 years as a teacher. My strategy worked for most of the students. But as you said, many teacher don’t like the difficult students which caused them to miss my class due to suspensions and ISS. which can be the kiss of death as far as understanding. In a class of 31 students I never had more than 25 present at one time and it was a rotating roster. Never the same kids absent or present.

  5. I can tell you that I am on the receiving end of many of these referrals and all most of these kids want is to be talked to with some respect – even if you think they don’t deserve it. In fact, the less you think they deserve it, the more they probably need it.

    I’ll withhold further comment until the next video comes out…

  6. You know what… one thing to add… sarcasm *can* have a place there. As long as it isn’t *at* the kid. There’s nothing wrong with a well-placed, “Because I know this is really where you want to be…” comment. Laugh at the situation. Here you two are, sitting in the hall, and neither of you want to be there.

    I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with kids (because I’m the one they get sent to) where that works… and it works because it’s true.

    The other thing about confounding their expectations is that they will take any moment to try to put you back in that box of the other nine. One of my favorite moments then is to ask them to take a look at the dynamic. “Am I yelling right now?” “Is anyone talking about some kind of bad ‘or else?’ or are we talking right now?” The great thing is that it’s win-win. If you aren’t doing what you think you’re doing, they’ll tell you. If you are doing what you think you’re doing, it’s another one of the moments where you’ve forced them to admit that you’ve confounded their expectations.

    I don’t mind that some of our most at-risk kids ask to get sent to the principal’s office, not because they think I’ll let them off the hook, but because I’ll listen. I’ll call them on their behavior — which is what happens when you’ve got that trust built up. And they know I’m going to back up my teachers. But they also know I’m going to give them my time so that they can see where I’m coming from, where the teachers are coming from… and how they can learn to navigate that world. That only happens after you’ve made them realize that you see them for real, and you aren’t going to just give them what they want at first — which is to give them an excuse to give up.

    Great post.

  7. as danny’s going back to school to become a teacher, i’m so glad to have a consistently great commentary on teaching to throw his way…