Cultural engagement was the only reason I survived my worst class as an instructor early in my career. In the past I have made reference to the issues I had with classroom management during my first years teaching, and this specific group was the quintessential struggle.
Four weeks in I had already become a victim of the tail wagging the dog. It was difficult to even get through an entire lecture in the given 50 minutes class time. A group of young men who I had from a previous fundamentals course, already aware of my weaknesses, went out of their way to keep me off task. Annoying to be sure, but the hit on the head literally came the day I pulled down the projector screen only to be showered in a rain of sharpened pencils.
I have no idea how long it took them to do it, and it was only well after the fact I found out the specific mastermind, but it was a low point in my teaching career. I felt embarrassed, incompetent, and to be honest, slightly enraged.
The real tragedy was this was a very intelligent group of students; witty, calculating, even thoughtful if properly provoked. My reaction, post a stern lecture after class, was to invoke my syllabus clause on classroom etiquette and make direct reductions to their final point total.
After that day there were several in the group that started to arrive late. They lost interest and motivation, and the classroom environment took a 180 from circus to jail cell. I finished my lectures with twenty minutes to spare and found getting responses to questions was like pulling teeth. The previous relationship had been unhealthy, but the current disconnect was equally detrimental.
The day soon came where I questioned one of the students why the others were late. He informed me they were busy playing Magic the Gathering in the commons area. Without hesitation I made a quip about them “tapping out” in order to get to class on time. I was familiar with Magic from my own High School and College days, and although a bit removed at this point, the terminology must have been exclusive enough to pique his interest, and the interest of the others.
The next day they arrived early, they questioned me if I still played, and if I had any old cards I wanted to sell. Thankfully, my “No and No” response didn’t deter them from being engaged throughout class. I had stumbled on a bond, I had unwittingly admitted to being a member of their small cultural niche (albeit in ages past).
Not long after, at their behest, I started to come by the commons area and watch them play. I’d ask questions about rule changes, comment on their play style, but mainly engage as a simple observer. The more knowledge about their favorite pastime I displayed, the more responsive they became in class.
I am not going to claim that it ended up being the best class I have taught. However, it was the best I have ever made of such a bad start to anything. The class found a happy middle ground between circus and prison. In the end, we all made it through a little wiser than when we had begun.