Saturday, March 2, 2013

# 47 The Benevolent Dictatorship

   Today, my grade 12s want to vote on the date for the end of unit test. About half, choose Wednesday, the rest are choosing Friday, so, it looks like my opinion is tie breaker. What they don't know is that long before I entered the room today, I already decided the test will happen on Thursday. In addition, I have already anticipated the current situation too, and have a plan to move the outcome in my direction.

   I want them to think they are voting for a group consensus, only in an effort to get everyone involved in the notification of the test, it is just a ploy. After the vote, I explain my reasons for doing the test on Thursday, I tell them, "Thursday can accommodate people who don't show up on Wednesdays because there is a test, and Friday is often a bad day because many grade 12s skip, because, well, it's Friday."  They get this reasoning, and become more sympathetic to my idea. While I have swayed the majority toward agreeing that my plan makes the most sense; I do have some dissenters, but I know they will back down because of the resolve in my voice.

    But, in an effort to placate those discontented voters, I explain some key advantages of doing things my way, "This way, if you skip Thursday's test, you have another opportunity on Friday morning at 8:30. However, keep in mind, if you avoid this one, you will have earned a zero." Then I add, "Another benefit of this plan is that, if you follow my suggestion, you will have the whole weekend free of studying and homework."  It's a little sampling of classroom politics. Contrary to what many people think, some teachers included, classrooms are not democracies, they are dictatorships, and for very good reasons.

   Theoretically, in a democracy, everyone has an opportunity to cast an opinion which can potentially influence the direction of the larger group. It is a great idea, but it has its drawbacks. For one thing, the change can be very slow, and believe me, kids are brilliant at derailing, avoiding, and generally usurping situations for their own benefit. After all, we only have 75 minute classes, if there is a discussion about the direction of each class, very little curriculum will ever get completed.

   Consequently, as a teacher you need to recognize that you are in fact a benevolent dictator. I realize that dictatorships have a really negative connotation in our culture, we tend to think of them as evil despots. However, imagine a dictator who is just, and kind. Positive change can take place at a quicker pace under this style of leadership.

   The very first responsibility of a teacher is the safety of every student in the room, and the second is the delivery of the curriculum. It is a common mistake new teachers make, they forget or avoid these priorities. Sometimes, a teacher will be on quest to acquire the love of their students, and falsely feel they are being productive, but this is such a shallow way to lead the room. They are demagogues, and dare I say, usually irresponsible leaders. I have seen these guys in action many times, their marks are usually skewed, and the learning environment is thin. In addition, most students will tell you that they don't like these kind of classroom managers for more than a day or two. As teacher friend of mine once told me, "If they love you, it's a bonus, but if they don't respect you, you're fucked!"

   As the leader of the group you must learn to exercise your power wisely. Keep your message simple, let them know through your behaviour that you believe in what you are doing, and that you will defend your position. My advice to anyone in a leadership position is to be firm, fair and friendly. Never take your responsibility as the leader of the room for granted, and always try to demonstrate the same respect for your charges that you expect for yourself. Keep in mind that you can’t control kids, you can only manage them. If they start to rebel, you need to own their respect, otherwise, they'll walk all over you.

   Students need to know that they can trust you to act in an appropriate capacity at all times. If you set the rules, and then allow students to step too far outside the boundaries, then you must be prepared address the issue appropriately. For example, they need to know that when faced with confrontation, you are always prepared to take the challenge to a level to which they are not prepared to go. It's a classic case of power perceived is power achieved.

   A common question most teachers ask each other in the first week of a new semester is How are your classes? Most of us say something like Oh, they're great! Personally, I always say "It's too soon to tell."  Most classes I have taught are pretty well behaved for the first two weeks, and then someone will want to test the rules, and my resolve to enforce them. This is a pivotal moment for your leadership. The way you handle this first situation is an advertisement of your metal. The kids will sit back, and watch how you deal with the challenge, Does she lose it?, Will he back down? etc..

   I have a system I follow, and always recommend to student teachers. When, I experience challenges to my authority in the classroom, I do this: acknowledge the infraction with my eyes, and facial expression, then three calm vocal reprimands, then I ask them to leave the room in an effort to remove their fuel source. Once I have them in the hall, I calmly dissect the nature of their infraction. If we resolve the problem here, I insist on a hand shake to solidify the deal.

   If the challenge escalates, I send them to the office to dealt with by a V.P. (some V.P.s have stopped doing this part of their job.) If the problem persists, I will call home, and ask for parental support. If this doesn't stop the problem, then I fill out the government created reporting forms for behavioural infractions. Each step requires that the student understands, you will take it to a place they don't want to go. Believe me, the way you deal with these situations hits the airwaves in a hurry, and your reputation is known through out the school within a very brief period. Bad new travels like a wild fire, and good news travels slow.

   As a classroom teacher I have learned some very valuable lessons in politics of leadership. The first is that you are in charge of the room, and almost every event in it. Consequently, you need to exercise your power with decisive, and balanced speed at all times. If students think you are not in charge, your leadership is under threat, and so is the safety of your students. You need to understand the idea that power perceived is power achieved, and once you have that power, act in a firm, fair and friendly manner. You can teach the democratic process to your class as a lesson, but in the end, even that lesson is usually a product of a dictator.