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When I started teaching in 2007, I came in with very democratic ideals. I wanted my classroom to be a place where kids’ voices were honored. But as a first-year teacher with just seven weeks of training to prepare me, I was totally unequipped to make this vision a reality.
At the end of that year, I looked back at all the yelling, arguing, and wasted instructional time, and I vowed to never let it happen again. I realized that my goal of a student-led classroom could never happen without providing students consistency and structure.
Over the years, classroom management became one of my strengths and one of the easier parts of the job. But lately, I’ve been spending more and more time rethinking classroom management as community building.
Part of this evolution stems from my move to a school founded on a progressive education philosophy. That has meant leaving behind a semi-behavioralist system of management where student behavior was reinforced with table tallies, raffle tickets, and a prize box. The transition was rocky at first, but I believe it’s made me a stronger teacher.
However, I’m also increasingly driven to rethink classroom management by my work as an aspiring social justice educator. As I try to learn and grow about social justice, it’s impossible to ignore the role of power in the classroom. The fact is, children are the most oppressed, disenfranchised group in our society. If I am someone who believes in dismantling all forms of oppression, that has powerful implications for my role as a teacher and how I wield my power.
Too often, teachers are encouraged to expect and create classroom cultures based compliance. “Learning” is characterized by productivity and output, less than actual student engagement in a topic of interest. “Respect” is often unilateral, as teachers are allowed to shame and berate students, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. Meanwhile, students are expected to never talk back or argue.
This tension came to a head for me this past week, when one of my students had a bit of a meltdown. We were playing a math game to warm up for the upcoming lesson. He decided he didn’t want to participate. I did not feel the game was optional. This student, particularly stubborn, got quickly frustrated by my interference before he finally yelled an expletive at me, shocking me and his classmates.
In several conversations that followed with the guidance counselor and parent coordinator, I heard variations of, “I explained to him that you are an adult and he’s a child. You’re the teacher and he has to do what you say.”
While this logic may prevent future outbursts (it probably won’t) it makes me deeply uneasy.
First of all, if the only reason a student is expected to respect me is because of my age or my title, then that respect doesn’t mean much at all. In fact, that’s not respect at all, it’s just obedience.
When I was in grad school, I took a course taught by Monica Higgins called Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Learning. One lesson that stuck with me was on the different types of authority. There are three main types of authority that leaders can hold: relational, positional and expertise. Which of these do you think is the weakest?
Expecting a student to follow my directions, simply on the basis of my position (adult, teacher) demonstrates little to no respect for them as an individual. It offers nothing in return. Unfortunately, this is the default logic underpinning much of our discipline in schools. We don’t offer students autonomy. We don’t offer them a way to hear their voices heard. Naturally this leads to a disinvestment in the educational process. At this point, all we have left then is our positional authority. “You can’t talk that way to me, I’m a teacher!” Have you ever heard this? Have you ever said this?
Of course, it’s not surprising that so many teachers go this route when they themselves are disenfranchised from the process. In many schools, teachers don’t get to shape the curriculum they teach, and they have little voice in decision-making processes at the school, city, state or federal level. But at the end of the day, we’re adults. We make a choice to be in that classroom. Students don’t have that same freedom.
What is the alternative then? Teachers must work to leverage our relationships with students and our expertise. These are the kinds of authority that are really meaningful. When someone cares about you (and knows you care back) and they believe in what you have to say, it’s much easier to lead them.
I seek as much as possible to develop a classroom culture predicated on respect for all, by all. That means when I mess up, I apologize. I think this can be confusing for my students at times. I don’t think they’re used to feeling adults be accountable to them. This can cause challenges for me because it makes me self-conscious about appearing weak. But ultimately I have to weigh that risk against the consequences of managing my classroom as a hypocritical autocrat.
Ultimately, relationships and expertise won’t erase all conflict, though. The student who cursed at me last week is a sweet kid who knows I care about him. And I know he cares about me too. But he’s nine. And he hates math. So, he’s still going to get frustrated and act out sometimes.
That means what happens next is really important.
For this student and all my students, the message “Do what I say, because I’m a(n) adult/teacher,” has been and will be repeated for years. So I can’t pretend that doesn’t exist. I have to be honest about that message so that my students know when and how to resist authority. Their educational success and even their physical safety could depend on understanding this.
But that doesn’t mean I have to perpetuate that message myself.
Instead, I have to keep working towards that classroom I imagined as a new teacher. Sometimes sharing power with my students means working harder to create a curriculum that builds on their interests. Sometimes it means I have to take the extra time to explain why we’re doing something. Sometimes it gets messy, and sometimes it means getting my feelings hurt (yes, even by a kid). But I think it’s worth it if it creates a more truly democratic classroom.