correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Cinque Henderson worked as a full-time teacher before becoming a substitute. Henderson became a full-time teacher after working as a substitute.The text here has been corrected.
Melanie McCabe is an English teacher at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., and the author of “His Other Life: Searching for My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams.”
The massive teenager loomed over the substitute teacher and challenged him with a stream of salty invective, refusing to yield to the teacher’s efforts to assert control. The other students leaned in, eager to see where this confrontation would lead. The setting was Countee Cullen High School in the heart of South Watts. And it was Cinque Henderson’s first day as a sub in the Los Angeles County school system.
The life of any substitute teacher is a precarious one; each new assignment is fraught with the potential for disaster. Prior to my teaching career, I, too, subbed for a time. Some assignments were dream jobs. But others were nerve-racking tests of my composure. One job left me so shaken that when I got into my car at the end of the day, I leaned my head against the steering wheel and sobbed.
Teachers value good substitutes. And judging from Henderson’s account, that is exactly what he was — motivated and responsible — despite what one might surmise from the deliberately provocative title of his book, “Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free.” He believes that his year of subbing, from the San Fernando Valley to Compton, in troubled and thriving schools, both public and private, provided him with a breadth of experience that qualifies him to analyze and offer solutions for what he feels is the biggest problem in our nation’s most imperiled schools: student behavior.
Henderson noticed that in schools with few behavioral problems, a system had been firmly established to deal with troublemakers. However, that was not the case in schools where there were many insubordinate students. In examining why these schools fail to deal effectively with student behavior, Henderson explores a number of social conditions and education missteps that he believes have led to the crisis.
He points first to the crack epidemic that crippled many poor neighborhoods and upended young people’s respect for authority. Henderson also disparages the trend toward championing “kids’ rights” at the expense of enacting sensible repercussions for bad behavior. He sees a need for a return to the more stringent measures of detentions, suspensions and expulsions as a means of teaching kids that their bad actions have consequences, though he is quick to add that he is not discounting other solutions, such as mediation and anger management.
Many of the ideas Henderson espouses are sound ones — that children should be taught impulse control; that charter schools are “a boondoggle for the rich” that siphon money from the neediest schools; and that more emphasis should be placed on middle schools, where behavior problems are likeliest to emerge. His interest in finding solutions to these challenges, and the evident concern and affection he shows for many of his students, are engaging and draw the reader in. His lively re-creations of conversations he had with kids over the course of his year subbing are realistic, human and often funny.
At times, however, he ventures into areas that may strike today’s reader as too hard-line. Henderson, who is black, focuses in one chapter on what he perceives to be black boys’ need for a physically strong — even intimidating — male authority figure. This reader was taken aback when he began relating a tale of two middle-schoolers discussing their fathers keeping them in line through physical violence. One tells how his father punched him so hard in the chest that it knocked the wind out of him. Henderson writes: “Substitutes, as I understand it, are not mandatory reporters of child abuse, but it didn’t matter. Even if we were, I wouldn’t have called the authorities. Despite the fearful talk, I was actually charmed.” He goes on to tell of another father who hurled a knife at his son when the son was deemed disrespectful. Henderson seems to feel that such assertions of physical dominance from an adult male are what is missing in the lives of too many young black males in single-parent households.
He spends many pages on an analysis of how gangsta rap and Mariah Carey contributed to fetishizing black males. It is a lengthy, somewhat convoluted argument that made me wonder if I had wandered into an entirely different book. He follows it with an assertion that in predominantly white schools with small black populations, most of the black boys, brought up on society’s elevation of white beauty, are going out with white girls, while the black girls have no one to date. Though this may be the case in some schools, it is by no means true across the board. It is not true of the school where I teach.
When I told a colleague that the book I was reviewing was written by a sub, he raised his eyebrows. Many educators have a similar reaction. They question whether a substitute could possibly have the depth of understanding of the school system that a full-time teacher would have. This makes all the more curious why Henderson does not disclose that after this year of subbing, he worked as a full-time teacher in a Los Angeles middle school. As he has made clear in a story by Jay Mathews in The Washington Post and his own online post , it was a hellish year in which he struggled to deal with a demanding, seemingly irrational principal. As a first-year teacher, he exhibited perseverance, resourcefulness and a great deal of creativity that was not valued by the school’s administration. That experience might have enriched his arguments in this book, but he does not discuss it at all.
If teachers struggling with classroom behavior problems pick up this book in hopes of finding practical strategies, they might be disappointed. Henderson’s prescription for troubled schools is not written for teachers so much as for school system administrators and lawmakers. He concludes with a brief chapter titled “What Can We Do Now?” that lists 10 suggestions. Only two of them are within the power of a classroom teacher to enact.
His ideas are provocative and champion a return to more traditional values. Some of them may indeed be wise moves, but those in a position to follow through on them are a fairly narrow audience.
By Cinque Henderson
St. Martin’s. 240 pp. $27.99