Not surprisingly, I had no idea what I was doing when I started teaching high school 32 years ago. I had taught at college, where I began the first day of class asking students to introduce themselves. When I tried this technique with my first class of high school seniors, their immaturity was a revelation. Even though I’d had an acquaintance their age killed in Nam, for the most part, these weren’t men and women I was dealing with but children seeking attention.
A couple of years later, I taught my first AP class, and the students were so negative to each other that after a couple of weeks no one commented on anything for fear of receiving a sniper wound. When my supervisor came to visit the class, I literally started tap-dancing as a pleading ploy to get one of the students to say something, anything, even if it were wrong.
The next year, I prepared a document clearly stating my expectations, and I’ve continued to refine it each and every year. If you’re a new teacher, I encourage you to come up with one of your own. To offer an example, here’s the first page of the four page document I will give to each student next Tuesday.
We should strive to create a community of compassion, respect, openness, and seriousness of purpose in our classroom. Paradoxically, seriousness of purpose will make the class more pleasurable because we’ll learn more, and the more knowledge we acquire, the better we understand the world, and the better we understand the world, the more interesting it becomes. Developing into an excellent writer – one who can vividly and economically express ideas and images – is an enormously valuable skill in an increasingly sub-literate culture, a skill that gives you an advantage in every arena of professional life.
Here are some general guidelines. When you enter the classroom, please be on time and turn off your cell phones and place them in the basket provided. Once class begins, do not open your laptops unless I instruct you to do so. I have provided a seating chart for each class and expect you to sit in your assigned seat. Eating and drinking in the classroom are forbidden, and I, too, will adhere to that stricture. Although I realize that Gandhi usually wore a loincloth and that Hermann Goebbels never had a hair out of place, I enforce the dress code. I, myself, would rather not wear a tie; however, in the grand scheme of things, it’s certainly not important – especially compared with the privilege to teach at Porter-Gaud. By signing my contract, I have agreed to follow and enforce the rules of Porter-Gaud. If you have signed the handbook, then you have agreed to follow the rules as well. If I considered having my shirttail tucked in a grievous violation of my civil rights, I would go to another school where it is allowed.
Because much of the class is discussion, it is extremely important that we treat each member of our community with respect, even when we disagree with his ideas. Sarcasm is a particularly pernicious slayer of camaraderie and must be avoided. Ultimately, we should never do or say anything that might hurt someone else’s feelings, whether it be rolling our eyes or making snide comments. This way of taking care not to hurt others I call the Bodhisattva Ideal.
To summarize, the very best classes are collaborative endeavors in which students and faculty work together to teach each other. This ideal is impossible unless each individual respects his brother and sister. Therefore, the most important rule of Room 207 is the Bodhisattva Ideal – that we will strive to be kind to each other, to respect each other, to have empathy for each other.
This classroom is a safe haven in which individuals can express their ideas, no matter how unpopular – except in the case of bigotry, whether it be racial, religious, or sexual. Bigotry is anathema to our Mission Statement and won’t be tolerated. Nor will it be in college. Bigoted statements on social media have ended many a collegiate career. Avoid it like crystal meth.
People make impressions about you according to your actions and demeanor. One day soon you will need to ask someone to write you a recommendation for college, and not only will kindness make you a happier person, but being kind to others is in your own self-interest.
 Ed Burrows in conversation.
 By the way, irony is not necessarily sarcastic. If I say, “lovely day” during a downpour, I’m being ironic. If Bennington slips entering the room and falls to the floor, and Andrea starting clapping and shouting “I give that a ten on style points,” she’s being sarcastic.