Friday, February 8, 2013

# 40 Tending to the Flock

     I have owned some really great dogs over the years, most of them good looking mutts. The last one was a Labrador Retriever who was better at herding than retrieving. At the doggie play group, she would round up the other dogs, using her eyes and occasionally nipping at their heals to get them into formation.  At the end of her busy day, she would try to herd everyone upstairs to bed, like it was her last important job of the day. Most people, including myself, seemed quite amused with her uncharacteristic desire to herd people and animals. I thought it an interesting quirk for a retriever, but I understood the behaviour better than most. After all, most experienced teachers have well developed herding skills too.

    Teachers are legally responsible for the safety of all the kids in the school and especially their own students. Consequently, they develop the ability to use body language and especially their eyes to constantly scan the flock and the immediate environment for irregularities. Regardless of whether I am at the front of the room or in the hallways, it seems, I am always scanning. It has become a such a reflexive behaviour for me that sometimes I catch myself doing it in the grocery store or in other public places. On more than one occasion I have been asked "Who are you looking for?" or "Are you a cop?"

   It starts in the classroom. Attracting the attention of kids can be as simple as enticing rabbits to a lettuce garden or as difficult as herding squirrels. In order for any teacher to accomplish the task of imparting knowledge they must first secure the attention of their audience, a must for the success of anyone standing in front of people for living. It seems I am always scanning the classroom for students who are not paying attention, and then I address the behaviour quickly. I use my eyes first, voice second and periodically walk down the isles for physical presence.

   In spite of the fact my hearing is not what it use to be, I still use it to my advantage. I watch facial expressions and sometimes will hear a couple of important words in a whispered conversation at the back of the room. Then, I comment on the conversation like I have heard everything. Rather than express resentment that I have infringed on their privacy, they seem amazed that I can hear so well. In teaching, being socially invasive isn't a behaviour that you want to be as much as something you need to do. Everything is geared to managing the flock.

   The other day I escorted each one of my classes to the library for a session on how to use the facilities. Similar to a sheep dog herding the flock, I let the class go ahead of me and I lagged behind them, shushing chatter in an effort not to disturb other classes. Each class herded had at least two or three members who, somehow, wandered away from the flock into the washroom, up the stairwell to another level or somewhere else. When we finally reached the library, I waited for them to return, scanning both directions for my lost sheep.

   Fire alarms and other emergencies are exercises in clearing the building and requires some pretty refined herding skills. Once the alarm goes off, I remind the class which exit to use and clear the room. Then, I stand in the hall looking for stranglers from other classes. Kids often feel invincible, and some do not understand that clearing the building means there is potential danger. Most kids just follow the crowd out the doors and look for friends to grab a quick conversation.

    Among the many field trips I have participated in over my career, I would say the key tool teachers use to make the experience less stressful for everyone is to herd the kids from one spot to another. I did four field trips to N.Y.C., and on one trip, I remember carefully herding kids into a theatre on Broadway. As I stood on the sidewalk, I met a fellow teacher from South Carolina who smiled at me and complimented my herding skills.  Apparently, the previous year he lost a couple of kids from his flock, and then had to spend an evening searching Manhattan, only to wind up at the police station for late night paperwork and collection.

    On field trips to far away places, there is always the danger of kids wanting to escape for purposes of shopping, drinking or partying. For this reason teachers always need to remain vigilant. On one such trip, a colleague came up with the idea of taping kids in their rooms. A curfew was set at 11 p.m. and then a piece of masking tape was placed across joint between the door and the door frame. If anyone left their room in the wee hours to roam the streets the broken seal was a give away.

   Herding the kids out of the building during a fire alarm or a big field trip is always the same, you stand on the outside of the flock whenever the group begins to move, and even when you are inside the group to give instructions, your eyes are always scanning for kids who wander off.  In these situations it is body language and eyes more than your voice that keep the flock together. They must know that you are always watching, even when you aren't. If you lose one from your flock, it is like losing one to the wolves.

    My neighbour has a real sheep dog, you know, the small black and white ones. They are exceptionally intelligent herding animals and consequently, many experts recommend that you don't own one as a pet. I've watched them herd sheep and believe me, they have earned their reputation. They hunch down, using their eyes and body language to move the flock in any given direction. I don't think I would ever own one though, mostly because it would be too much of a competition to see who could herd the best.