Monday, October 6, 2014

Instead of Seeking to Control...

Many teachers don't understand the difference between being in control and controlling. As a novice teacher, I clearly didn't know the difference resulting in poor classroom management, student-teacher conflict, and student learning suffered. Seeking to control, I became controlling.

During my first year teaching, I had one particularly challenging class, one that consisted of some of the school's best and brightest students. Yet every day represented increasing conflict, so I sought my administrator's advice. Failing to see the root of the problem--students weren't challenged and I was over-controlling--we developed a system to monitor and hopefully change their behaviors.

I created a spreadsheet with each of their names and various symbols. Every day they earned or lost points based on their effort, behavior, preparedness, etc. After all, I needed to show the class who was in charge.

An example of my ineffective classroom management tracking tool.

For a day or two it worked beautifully. Slowly though, power struggles materialized. Then total combustion.

A student, I'll call him Devin, approached me at the start of class and asked to go to his locker for his textbook. But since the bell had rung, I told him he would be marked tardy or unprepared.  The eighth-grader judiciously offered a reason for not having his textbook, but I stood firm. Rules are rules. I'm in control.

Begrudgingly, he took his seat while mumbling under his breath. I turned to him and told him that he was being disruptive and duly noted such on my spreadsheet. More points off.

I was winning, right? 

About halfway into class, I directed students to get their textbooks out and begin an assignment. A conscientious student, Devin began working with a classmate, so in no uncertain terms, I told him that partner work was not permitted.  After all I needed to control this situation and teach him responsibility.

Devin quipped, "Well how am I supposed to learn then?"

I countered, "That's not my problem. YOU need to come prepared. That's your problem."

Sensing the opportunity to escalate the situation and make his point, Devin immediately retorted sarcastically, "You're the teacher and it's not your problem that I'm not learning?!"

The power struggle was on. I felt 25 pairs of eyes on me. I picked up the clipboard and deliberately added another mark next to Devin's name to which he bluntly stated, "You've already taken away all of my points for the day, so what? I'll just sit here for the rest of the class."

He was right, but I couldn't cede control with the entire class bearing down on me. We went back-and-forth, each seeking the last word. After exchanging a couple of quips and barbs, I'd had enough--meaning I'd lost control and was backed into a corner--wrote a referral for Devin and sent him to the office. I had gotten in the last word. I was in control.

But in actuality, I had lost and I had lost control long before sending Devin to the office. Sure,  Devin demonstrated some disrespectful behaviors, but much of the escalation was caused by me. Everything from poor lesson planning to not listening to him to seeking to control Devin. Along the way,  I humiliated and degraded Devin in front of his peers. My actions placed my needs ahead of Devin's. I escalated a simple situation (Devin not having his book) and attempted to control the situation using grades, embarrassment and punishment.

So let's rewind. What should I have done? What should all teachers aim for?
  • Treat students with respect
  • Always consider the student's perspective. In the above scenario, I shut Devin off by not allowing him to get his book. We've all forgotten something, had I simply allowed him--trusted him--to go get his book, none of this would have transpired.
  • Avoid systems, like the demerit system in the above, that lead to power struggles. 
  • Give students options and allow them to make choices. The students in this class were high-achievers. They had a desire to learn and succeed, but I sought control. My lessons and their assignments--sadly, lots of worksheets--were highly scripted.
  • Allow students to work with each other. We can't expect students to sit quietly at their desks for an entire class period and if I had simply trusted Devin and his friend to work together, the situation wouldn't have escalated.
  • Instead of grading students, provide feedback and allow them to assess their own learning
  • Celebrate students for their differences and their strengths. 
  • Provide students with a challenging curriculum, but ensure each student can be successful by providing the necessary support through individualization, personalization, and differentiation.
As educators we toe a thin line between being in control and controlling; let's aim to "merely" be in control.

1 comment:

Amy Smith said...

I love this honest reflection. As a young teacher, I probably would have engaged as well. Fortunately I learned quickly that grace wins most often. Thank you for speaking honestly and sharing your reflection.