The private school where I started my career was boot camp for teachers. We got high school aged students from public school on the way to lockup or coming from lockup back to public school. Some were bigger than me. If I could carry out a lesson plan with them, I could do it anywhere. The first thing I learned was that no matter how good my lesson plan was, it wouldn’t work unless I had control of the classroom. If I couldn’t wield authority effectively, there were students ready to take over. When I felt control slipping, I had to be conscious of one important dynamic and ask myself: “Who is responding to whom?” It was my job to enforce the rules consistently. Never bluff, never yell. Warn once in an even tone, then lower the boom. If the hooligans I taught sensed weakness, they exploited it. I could lighten up only after earning their respect. There was no other way.
After that, I taught fourteen-year-olds in a regular, public school classroom, twenty or thirty at a time for decades. It was a breeze, but they, too, were masters at sizing up adults. Many probed to see how far they could push before feeling an uncomfortable consequence. Working as a mentor with teacher interns who were weak classroom managers, I’d emphasize that the he or she had to establish clear boundaries early and administer a consequence if any were crossed. “Don’t blink,” I’d say. There were students in every class who would sense weakness and push further and further until hell broke loose. Once a teacher-intern lost control, it was almost impossible to get it back. Someone else had to step in and restore order.
A teacher must be the leader in a classroom and the President of the United States must be the leader of the free world. The dynamics are similar. There will always be malignant actors ready to take advantage of a president they perceive as weak. Unless it was clear to students who the adult was in the room, nothing else mattered. Just as a good set of lesson plans weren’t going to work unless the teacher could handle a class. A thoughtful foreign policy won’t work either unless the president has earned respect. If our community organizer president tried to work with juvenile delinquents by “leading from behind” or with his latest policy of “strategic patience,” he wouldn’t last a week. They’d eat him up.
Our president has the US military behind him. I had the backing of the owner and director of our school, Dr. Ernest L. Herrman, who had been a running back at Kansas State. If I sent a student to his office and he closed the door, people nearby might hear sounds of bodies hitting walls after which the student would emerge with a different attitude. Students had to know I would send them for therapy with Dr. Herrman after only one warning — and drag them down to his office if I had to. If malignant actors in today’s world actually believed the president would use American military force, it wouldn’t likely be necessary to do so.
The trouble is, they don’t. They sensed weakness early on and have been exploiting it ever since. If a student crosses boundaries and the teacher responds with idle threats, the student will continue pushing until the trigger is pulled. A teacher must assess the situation early, warn only once, and do something when a boundary is crossed. Our president blustered about red lines, but backed down while sketchy strongmen all around the world were watching. His attempts at tough talk ever since are seen as so much bluff and bluster.
As Iran keeps building the nuclear weapons our president said were unacceptable, who is responding to whom? As Vladimir Putin takes over parts of the Ukraine and Europe wonders where he’ll go next, who is responding to whom? Where will the next red line be drawn and erased?
Some teacher interns didn’t have to be coached. They had a clear sense of right and wrong ingrained in their personhood. They knew instinctively when a behavior was purposely disruptive and were ready to handle it. My only assistance was to walk them through the administrative paperwork and parent notification procedures for whatever action they took. Other interns lacked a strong inner core. I sensed it, and knew students would too. When those interns had to take over alone for a few weeks, I knew they’d be eaten up. I’d have to hover nearby so I could take over periodically and restore order.
Nobody is hovering outside the White House and the community organizer has to pretend he’s leading for almost two more years. The only ones who seem weaker than him are Republican leaders in the House and Senate whose job it is to keep him in line. It’s not a good situation for the United States, or the rest of the free world either.