Friday, January 26, 2007

Be the teacher the students need you to be

One of the old timers in the school laid it out for me today. "In order to get their respect you have to prove to them that you're the alpha dog and you're not taking any shit from them."

Apparently, the first step in establishing yourself as the alpha dog is to put your desks in traditional rows and columns and make a seating chart based on alphabetical order, except for moving a few problem kids. I'm not sure that the actual rows and columns are important, but what is important is that these kids see that as a structure with known rules, and anything more progressive is seen as a new system that needs to be tested.

Problem is, rows and columns fit me about as comfortably as high heels. At 6'2" with size 14EEEE feet, you can imagine what an awful fit that is. I spent just a minute looking at the classroom after arranging the desks and cringed. It just ain't me.

As much as I don't like this, I'm going to give it a shot. It's entirely possible that the teacher I've become so far isn't the teacher my students need me to be. And if that's the case, it's entirely possible that this isn't the right school for me. I'm certainly not giving up on this gig, but it's something to think about.

I realized recently that everything I know about teaching is based on the idea of a group of kids who are at least somewhat obedient and cooperative, if not actually enthusiastic to learn. Most of my students are in the other camp. There are a couple in each class who are enthusiastic about learning and a few more that are cooperative, but the majority are there just to get credit or because they get in more trouble if they skip.

In any case, the old dog is willing to take me under his wing and has already given me concrete advice I can put into action immediately, so I'm going to stick with his program and modify it only after I really figure out what I'm doing. Most of the other advice I've gotten has been somewhat vague, and rather than hearing "Eric, you need to do ______ to get the results you want," I hear a lot more of "maybe if you tried _____ it could help, but it might not so you might just have to figure out something else."

As the old dog put it: "Eric, first we're going to work on classroom management. Then, after you're really starting to get that, we're going to work on classrom management. Finally, after you've really mastered classroom management and you can I both think you've got it nailed, we're going to work on classroom management. You can have the most brilliant lesson plan in the world and know your literature inside out, but until you get these little bastards to jump when you tell them to, it doesn't matter because they won't hear you."

There may be more brilliant methods to do this gig without having to be the alpha dog, but nobody seems to be able to tell me what they are or how to make them work, and I know for certain I'm not going to survive if I keep trying to find them by experiment. Not with this population, anyway.

So for now, I'm going to learn to be the alpha dog.


Anonymous said...

Listen to the Old Man. My daughter, a good student, and all her friends, loved it when a teacher kept order so they could just learn and not put up with people disrupting class. You will be doing those who want to learn a huge favor. Students are obedient and cooperative when they know it is appreciated and required by the teacher. You have to lead. The only place you will see anything different is where the class is full of those eager to learn. To demand respect is part of the picture. Hang in there man.

Eric said...

I agree totally that a classroom needs order and some control, but that's not the issue here. The issue is teaching style, and rows and columns force you into one set of styles while other arrangements facilitate other styles. I'm not sure rows and columns is me.

And I'm also totally unconvinced that rows and columns create more well-behaved classes, either. It certainly makes it harder to take control by finesse. A lot of kids will sense my presence and quiet down if I just walk nearby, but in rows and columns I can only get within a couple of steps of a very few kids.

Anonymous said...

It seems like one sure way to lose the respect of students is to refer to them as little bastards in a public web space. i hope none of your web savvy students have stumbled across your blog.