When Trouble Comes Knocking

When trouble comes knocking, I’m paid to answer the door! Not only do I teach chess and coach junior chess teams but I deal with the problems that sometimes come with the students I teach and coach. What kind of trouble could possibly occur when your career is teaching chess to young people? Let me tell you a story that occurred last week. It’s straight out of a movie, kind of a cross between To Sir With Love and The Blackboard Jungle (both dealing with unruly teenagers).

Year after year, I teach and work with the same groups of students from approximately ten schools. My schedule remains constant and rarely waivers. However, every once in a while, I am suddenly transferred to a school. When I say suddenly, I get 24 to 72 hours notice. I don’t ask why I’m being transferred because I already know the answer: There’s a problem that could seriously jeopardize the chess program at the school in question. Sometimes it’s as simple as the chess teacher or coach isn’t getting results or not maintaining proper classroom management. Worse case scenario, the students have frightened off the chess teacher. Again, I don’t want any information prior to entering the problem school because the information is often either second hand or skewed due to the emotional state of the former teacher. I need to determine the problem myself. It should be noted that the best teachers can sometimes not resolve issues with problem students.

On the day of the chess class’s new session, I arrive at the school, go to the office and pick up forms and any payments. I notice the office staff looking at me sympathetically. This is a good indicator as to the problem, unruly students. If you teach chess in a school, always make friends with the office staff because they can get you anything you need. I then leave the office and proceed to walk down the hall towards the class which is located around the corner from the office. When I turn the corner, I see a gaggle of parents and school staff who make a fast run towards me. One parent asks, in a loud voice, “is my son going to be safe in there?” Obviously, this group of students isn’t going to be easy for anyone who shows any signs of fear. A few teachers start telling me to use the intercom system if I find myself in any trouble. Really? I get that same line when teaching in the prison system! I gather the parents and teachers in a circle and tell them the reason I was sent there is because I’m the guy who deals with the worst behaved teenagers. I start to walk through the classroom door and notice the entire group of teachers and parents following me in. “Where do you think you’re going,” I say to them. Apparently, they wanted to make sure I’d be alright. Both parents and staff were extremely unhappy when told to go someplace else because they were not allowed in my classroom. In I go to my waiting students.

One of my new students stood up and said “who the F#^K are you?” This is the, and I mean “the” defining moment when it comes to what I do in problem classrooms. This is the moment that makes or breaks me as far as respect from my students goes. The reason I do not allow parents and faculty into problem classes is because I use some unorthodox methods that the school staff doesn’t need to see (nothing bad, just unorthodox). They simply need to be happy with the results. When that student stood up and said what he did, I was extremely happy because I just found the Alpha-male or leader of the wolf pack. Break the leader and you tame the pack. Of course, I don’t mean physical actions in regards to breaking the pack leader. Words and street psychology are my weapons of choice and I know how to use them with great accuracy. Here’s what I said. “You must have me confused with one of those idiots that’s either a teacher or a parent on the other side of that door (I point at the door). Let me tell you something and I’m only going to say it once so close your mouth and open your ears. Do not mess with me. I know you ran the last chess teacher out of here but I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to give you a choice, a one time only deal. You can either get with my chess program and learn something or I will make your life in this classroom a weely nightmare.” Needless to say, he backed down and his friend who also was a problem said. “I kinda like this guy. He doesn’t take any…(fill in the blanks)”

They all wanted to know why they should be stuck in the chess class, which was a fair question. Often, parents will sign their kids up for chess classes to keep them busy and out of the parent’s hair for an hour or two. Some of these kids were enrolled even though they said they had no interest. So I answered the question. I told them that chess makes figuring things out (problem solving) much easier. Fast problem solving gives you more time to enjoy life as opposed to being bogged down by life’s problems. I then told them how much money Magnus Carlsen made last year. I know, it’s a cheap trick but it worked because teenagers love the idea of making money doing something they mistakenly think is easy. I also told them that people who are serious about chess get a fair amount of intellectual respect and respect is a critical issue for teenagers.

It turns out that some of the students actually had a real interest in the game. The biggest surprise of all was that the rudest kid in the class had some great chess skills. I played them all at once on separate boards and beat them at their own trash talking game (they like to talk trash to their opponents which is something I’ll be eliminating in the upcoming weeks).

I needed to find out exactly what they did to run the old chess teacher out of the school which meant gaining their trust. I told them (honestly) that anything they told me would not be repeated to anyone outside the classroom. I also told them there was to be no snitching by anyone in my chess class, explaining that snitching on someone can have very bad repercussions for the person doing the snitching (being a tattletale or informant). They finally told me some of the stunts they pulled and I’d run out of there if I were that teacher as well! Fortunately, I’m not and, I can’t tell you what went on because I made a promise to them not to snitch. We did agree that if someone was going to do something dangerous, then telling someone about that person’s intended actions was more akin to saving their life and not snitching. It turned out to be a pleasant afternoon as far as I was concerned.

My goal is to get these kids into shape on the chessboard and get them to be a top ten team in the Bay Area within 18 months (I better make it happen because I have a sizable bet with another chess coach regarding the matter). When it comes down to it, these kids aren’t really that bad, they’re simply teenagers who (like all teenagers) learn about social relationships and life in general by testing its boundaries. The school did send a teacher in to check on our progress toward the end of the class, using the excuse that she forgot some papers, and she surprised to find my new students sitting quietly behind their chessboards.

I don’t suggest employing my methods when dealing with an unruly group of students. It works for me but might not work for you. The one piece of advice I can give on this subject: You have to be the alpha animal, the pack leader in this type of situation, which requires a lot of inner confidence and strength. If you can do this, you can accomplish the task. If you can’t, find someone who can because you don’t want to have a dreadful experience. This class is a fascinating group and I suspect I’ll be reporting on their progress. I’m hesitant to tell them I’m writing about them because I suspect it would go to their heads and I don’t need another inflated ego, other than mine, in the classroom. Another potentially bad situation made good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).