I talked about the power struggle between students and the school system yesterday, but I didn’t take the time to discuss the role of parenting in that post. If I get the opportunity to suggest to parents the best way to help their children as students, it’s usually centred around their own power relationships with their kids. From my experience, both as a parent and teacher, I can say that children who don’t have consistent limits at home are the ones who have the most difficulty working within the school system. The school, as a social agency, has to have parameters for student behaviour. My point about the role of the school is not to overpower the students with inflexible rules, but to provide structure that can be adaptable enough to support students, while guiding them toward functional adulthood. Parents, then, must also be “grey”, rather than black and white. Students who rarely hear the word “no”, seem to grasp for control everywhere in their lives. The opposite approach has the same effect. Students whose parents assume complete control over them also fight to find autonomy. It’s the “Grey Parents”, whose children are most successful in school, and, generally happiest. This is something I have observed over and over again, and I always wish I could have helped out sooner. It is very difficult to have this discussion with parents at the high school level, because family patterns are already set by the time I meet their children. I can, however, hope that my observations will be accepted as support, not criticism of any parents, because I have seen the pain that a lot of families go through when their children cannot work within the current structure of the school system.
I have just read an article by Diane Conrad from U of A about the issues behind youth incarceration in Canada (2006.) I have taught many students who were considered to be “at-risk”and I am continually trying to find ways to help them. I have looked for one key sign to watch for in students before they start to “derail”, hoping to intervene before it’s too late. Some of the issues posed by Conrad were the ability of schools to create welcoming, relevant environments, the attempts of schools to normalize behaviours,and the distribution of power within schools. It was this third issue, of power, that resonated with me when I read this article. I have actually seen one consistent factor behind students who do not succeed in school, and overall, it’s non-conformity. I have taught so many students who have significant learning issues, yet, if they work to the best of their ability, they get through school. With the right support team, it is possible for a child who can barely read, to complete high school. I know, this raises many issues regarding special education, but please stay with me on the conformity issue. I am not worried about the desire of special education teachers to do everything they can to support their students. The students who are most seriously at-risk, are the ones who have a need to resist the conformity required to be a student. I have had students who will hang on to a self-destruct position of resistance as if their very survival depended upon it. I’m not talking about abused nor neglected children. These are children from a variety of backgrounds who fight an inner battle on a daily basis to resist the expectation to follow the rules of school. I have seen the resolve in their eyes: If pushed, they will face any consequences, rather than give in. I’m talking about a minority of students in my own experience, maybe about 5-10% of the population, but this is the common trait I have seen in each of them. It has become so obvious to me now, that I can spot the students who aren’t likely to stay in school beyond grade 9 within one or two meetings with them. Conrad refers to Scott (1990) in a history of subordinated peoples using subversive acts as their only protest against oppression: “Youths’resistant behaviours”, says Conrad, “can be seen as responses to relations of domination and subordination.” She then goes on to define a “curriculum of conformity”, and I know that Conrad understands these kids that I’m talking about! If justice is based upon consideration of individual needs, rather than a system of rules, then the power imbalance that these students are so strongly resisting will dissolve from schools. This is exactly what I speak of when I describe classroom management, and I try to acknowledge the voice of students. I applaud the strength of character it takes for students to stand up for their rights, and I think that as teachers we have to commit to finding ways to create a balance of power in our classrooms.
In fairness to Diane Conrad, her article can be found in the Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies (4-2) 2006.
I read an article last week on the high attrition rates of new teachers and although it is a sad reality, it doesn’t surprise me. Beginning teachers face an overwhelming list of challenges. There are many elements a teacher can work on in their own professional development, over time. The other challenges can be multiplied on an exponential level (approx. 30 students per class to the exponent n!) OK, I’m not really a math teacher, but my point is, there are infinite possibilities for challenges in classroom management so there is absolutely no point trying to solve all of them. There are, however, some things that every new teacher can tackle. If you’re reading this as a new teacher yourself, then you’ll only have time for one tip, so I’ll try to make it useful.
Your students have to be able to hear and see and work-obvious, of course, but this isn’t easy to accomplish. This is where the idea of a performance comes in for teachers. I speak from the perspective of a high school teacher. I have taught in elementary school too, where classroom routines are established and important to the children, but teens are my current focus. You have to find some way to captivate and engage your students’ attention when teaching teenagers. If you let anyone take over your “show”, it’s very difficult to regain your momentum (insert in your mind here, any class clown, squabbles between students, chatting, etc.) It’s difficult, but not impossible. In fact, the way you respond to interruptions is key to the way your students will react. Tactics that don’t work include: blowing up, getting angry, or making an example out of the trouble-makers. Instead, there is a way of taking charge while remaining fair and rather matter-of-fact, or neutral in your approach. Just as the elementary teacher sets up consistent rules for young students, the high school teacher also has to be consistent and, most importantly with teens, fair. If your students feel unjustly treated, they will rebel. Listening to them and reacting in a fair manner is just modelling the behaviour you want to see in them. I think it’s also matter of timing. If a student takes over the lead role for a minute, go along with it, then redirect the lesson. I guess, following the performance analogy, teaching is actually more of directing than acting. A good director can lead the activities without needing the attention, but rather, by instilling it. My point, and there really was just one, is that leading a classroom requires taking the time to think through your own behaviours. Luckily, as a new teacher, your students will give you many opportunities to practice this. (Just remember to have fun!)