Monday, February 18, 2013

# 43 Don't Fence Me In

    Losing your temper in front of your class is one of the mistakes most teachers make at some point during their career. It's an error, not just because it shows lack of self control under pressure, but regardless of what the "experts" tell you about working with kids; most of time it's the law of the jungle in the classroom, and you are the king of beasts.

   Over the years I have asked many classes, who they prefer to have as their teacher, the one who maintains little control, or the one who establishes noticeable boundaries, and follows through with  consequences for breaching those established boundaries. Students have told me many time that they like weak classroom managers only temporarily, but in the long run, they have more lasting respect for strong leadership.

   To their credit, kids can be really patient and understanding with their teachers, but they can also be downright vicious too. Since teachers have the center stage, it doesn't take students long to figure out which buttons to press for a desired result. I confess, I am fairly even tempered most of the time, but I've lost it  the past, and it will probably happen again in the future.

   So, I'm teaching this grade eleven English class a few years ago which is stocked with rebels without a clue and in-school drop outs. I estimate, out of a class of twenty five, at least ten are not there to learn the course material.  For these ten kids (mostly boys) the behaviours are the standard passive aggressive issue: they arrive late everyday, no books, no pens, sleep, talk while I teach and generally waste every one's time.

    In response, I address the rebellions everyday, but not much seems to quell the incessant challenges. A week goes by and my patience is thinning quicker than my hairline. Then one day I am delivering a lesson on rising action in a story and the leader of the pack  says with a challenging tone, "What do we need to learn this stuff for?"  Normally, this kind of question doesn't push me over the edge, but there has been a build up in my system, and the little question has just found the chink in my armor.

    So, I turn around, look directly at him and very calmly say, "You know, I can answer that question with your help. Do you want to know my answer?"  The whole class is silent, looking at him and then me, thinking there is about to be a confrontation. So, he figures that he has got me off lesson, and he seems to relax in his desk, like he is about to watch a show. Then I say, "Can I start by asking you a question?" He says, "OK?"  I look directly at him and say, "If you have to make a choice for a second life, which would you come back as, a wild buffalo or a dairy cow?"  He looks at me like it's a trick question, and defensively says, "Sir, what's up with the random question?"  I say, "You say I can ask you a question as part of my answer to your question right? So, just think about it for a second and pick one." Reluctantly, he shrugs and says, "OK, a cow??"  So, I reply, "Well, before we get into a discussion about your choice, let me tell you what my choice would be, and then you can tell me after whether you agree or disagree, OK?"  Then, he nods for me to continue, and I know I have the floor.

    For me, the choice is simple, I would choose to be a buffalo. The buffalo roams the horizon in search of fresh food and water, always alert to potential predators. I'm assuming it's probably a pretty dangerous life. Now, the down side of being the buffalo is that you're living day to day, not knowing if it is your last day on earth. The up side is that you need to use all of your senses, all of the time and in the process, they strengthen with this constant use. The longer you live, the more you learn, and the better are your chances of survival. In essence you are forced into being truly alive, until you are dead.

   Now, on the other hand, the dairy cow doesn't need to concern himself with these issues. He provides a product for his owner, the farmer. In exchange for his service, he is provided with food, water and security daily.  He just, eats, shits, sleeps and produces milk for his owner, that's it. That is until he stops producing milk, then his owner kills him; he is of no use to the business of producing milk anymore. Now, the trade off that the cow has made in exchange for food, water and security is he sacrifices all emotional and intellectual development, he is essentially a retarded creature.  

   So, my conclusion is, I would rather live the potentially short life of the buffalo and be alive, than a long life of the cow, and be stunted.

    Now, you might be wondering, how does all that tie in with the topic I am teaching today?

   Well, school is about developing all six of your senses, or at least I think it should be. If you can make it your mission to try and expand the abilities that you now possess, then you will probably be further a head than of most of the population. Take up a sport you enjoy to develop your sense of touch, practice socializing, read, write, listen to music, smell your food and discover where and how it got to your mouth, but do something to develop your senses. Think of it as preparation for living like the buffalo as opposed to the cow.

   You need to realize that I am here at the request of your parents, who through their taxes, pay for your books, the school and my salary, just so you can have an opportunity to develop your senses.  Keep in mind, you do not have to take advantage of this opportunity. You can sit there and shut me out or you can even go so far as to become an in-school drop out.

   Once you finish here, very few people will notice what you learned in school. If you get to a point where you realize that the opportunities provided for you have long since passed, then you can always play the role of the victim, and complain about how the system failed you. But, in the back of your mind, you will know that you didn't take the opportunity I am offering you today.

    However, if you choose to follow me, you will know this fact.  I am seeking to become like the buffalo. I have known and taught many people who have chosen to live like the cow. As well, I have lived as the cow and trust me, it isn't worth it. So, if you are with me, take out your books, lets do some developing of the senses.  If you are not interested in taking the opportunity, just put your head down and go to sleep, that way the rest of us can get on with the task at hand.

   So, I finish my intense angry sermon/rant and the questioner just sits there, staring at me, with a perplexed look. I am sure he can't decide if I am really smart, angry, funny or just plain crazy, but he isn't challenging me anymore today. The confrontation is over and I have one. I know this because there were no more challenges that period.

   A lot of classroom management is about controlling situations and the people in them. There is always a constant challenge to your ability to manage the group and that takes an enormous amount of self control. Since teachers are only human and make mistakes we always need to be conscious of everything in the classroom. Sometimes you say the wrong thing and depending on the severity of the words you use, expect a response. Once you lose your self control, the fence door has been opened for students to wander away from your charge.