Sunday, January 17, 2016

Gentleness in the Classroom

There are three articles tabbed side-by-side on my browser this morning, and both deal in their own way with classroom management.

The first is by Michael Linsin, a classroom management guru out of San Diego. He has apparently taught for twenty-five years at just about every level. His piece, which has been traveling around the interwebs this weekend, is entitled "Why Gentleness Is A Strong Classroom Management Strategy"

In it, Linsin responds to the classic notion that to manage a classroom, you must throw your shoulders back, use a booming voice, and swagger like a first-rate Alpha Dog. But he notes "while classroom presence is important, it isn’t born of overconfidence, forcefulness, or aggression." It comes from gentleness. The piece is short and clear and worth your time to read, but here's his list of arguments in favor of gentleness in the classroom.

Gentleness is respected. Gentleness lowers stress. Gentleness curtails pushback. Gentleness builds rapport. Gentleness feels good. And most importantly--

Gentleness isn't weakness.

Weakness is when you lose emotional control. 

It’s when you lecture, berate, and admonish students instead of following your classroom management plan.

It’s when you take misbehavior personally.

Gentleness, on the other hand, is strong. It’s capable and confident. It says that you’re in control and that your students can relax and focus on their responsibilities.

And boy-- that all sounds just about right to someone who spent many years early in my career getting all that to really settle into my head. I have watched a few teachers over the year absolutely lose control of their classroom and the respect and cooperation of their students by insisting on what I call Cartman Rules, rules that have no purpose except to make it clear to students that they had damned well better Respect My Authority.

Which brings us to tab #2. Today's New York Post has an interview/promo piece with Ed Bolland. After twenty years of lucrative work for a non-profit, he had an "epiphany" about becoming a teacher, about lifting a classroom full of poor, downtrodden students up. He lasted a year, but he did land a book deal to write about that year, a "memoir of his brief, harrowing tenure" in the classroom -- what he describes a year of terror and abuse.

But even this very friendly interview gives some hints about what some of Bolland's problems may have been.

A teenage girl named Chantay sits on top of her desk, thong peeking out of her pants, leading a ringside gossip session. Work sheets have been distributed and ignored.

“Chantay, sit in your seat and get to work — now!” Boland says...

Chantay is the one that aggravates Boland the most. If he can get control of her, he thinks, he can get control of the class.

“Chantay,” he says, louder, “sit down immediately, or there will be serious consequences.”
(Emphasis mine)

Look, I don't want to sit here in my comparatively comfortable small-town teaching career and in any way minimize the challenges of working in a tough, poor, urban school. But if your theory of classroom management is that you must get control of your students, forcing them to comply with the rules, and only once you have beaten them down, overpowered them, and gotten them to respect your authority-- only then can you start teaching.... well, you are doomed to failure no matter where you teach. The only real question is just how spectacular that failure is going to be. As a commenter on facebook put it, "If you think it's a war, you've already lost."

But Bolland is pissed. He talks repeatedly about the kids he hates. Never expressed, but there behind his words, is that liberal savior anger that he has brought these poor, downtrodden kids the hgift of himself, and they are rejecting it. Doing this was supposed to feel great, but instead it makes him feel terrible.

Make no mistake. The students are at times brutal to Bolland, making him the object of behavior that nobody deserves. But it is clear that nobody ever taught him how to manage a classroom (a critical piece of training for any business executive type transitioning to a classroom because, guess what, these students are not your employees and they are not paid to treat you with deference), and it is clear that he has no idea of how to be truly gentle or truly strong. He takes it personally. He demands compliance. And he ultimately decides that his failure is the result of a terribly broken system and unsalvageable kids. Of course, he's got a book deal and I'm writing this blog for free, so who knows.

At the end, he asks his sister many questions, including why he can't "break through" to these kids, and I'm thinking his very choice of "break" shows how very ungentle and counterproductive his image of teaching is. She tells him there are no simple answers, and that's true, but her answer threw me back to the first piece I read this morning-- the third tab.

That was an opinion piece in the New York Times by physician Bob Wachter about how the cult of measurement has failed both the medical and education fields. The piece is worth reading, but what stuck with me was the story Wachter closed with:

Avedis Donabedian, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, was a towering figure in the field of quality measurement. He developed what is known as Donabedian’s triad, which states that quality can be measured by looking at outcomes (how the subjects fared), processes (what was done) and structures (how the work was organized). In 2000, shortly before he died, he was asked about his view of quality. What this hard-nosed scientist answered is shocking at first, then somehow seems obvious.

“The secret of quality is love,” he said.

I'm not fuzzy-headed enough to think that Bolland had walked into the classroom filled with love and gentleness that all the challenges of teaching in a tough poor urban school would have suddenly melted away. I would never advise a beginning teacher, "If you walk into a classroom loving your students and armed with gentle strength, you'll be able to reach and teach them all." But I can't think of any way to teach truly effectively that doesn't have such an approach as its foundation.


  1. I like pretty much everything you write, but this is my favorite. It really speaks to something few people who ostensibly instruct teachers have even the remotest notion of. It's so important, and almost utterly neglected.

  2. Dear Mr. Peter Greene,

    I like pretty much everything you write but this is probably my least popular. I have always been a short woman teacher. I always have to struggle. This article seems to be directed to the male teacher, who is male and maybe has a deep voice, and maybe depends on those things always working for him, but you aren't saying that. Boo. Hiss.


  3. When the kid who called you every name starts telling you how excited he is to come to school, you know gentleness won.

  4. Teacher Tom's most recent post about Martin Luther King is also about love being the ultimate answer.

    I don't know if I would use the word "gentleness". My daughter's first teaching job was in junior high. She was very gentle but these kids didn't know how to respond to it. (I subbed for two weeks in a junior high and I think it's the hardest age to teach. At the high school level a glare can work wonders but it doesn't faze this age kid at all. They can't be still at all. I had a friend who was a very successful teacher at this level; I think her secret was that she did lots of hands-on stuff where they could move around.)

    My daughter refused to act, in her words, as a "policeman". It's just not in her nature. She got through the year somehow, but she would come home and cry every night because the kids were so mean. Now she teaches at a credit recovery high school. Most of the kids are single moms or gang members. They've been thrown out of lots of schools and have never experienced anything but failure in school. Many of them are ADD or ADHD but don't take medicine, either because they don't have healthcare access to it ot because of side effects (I think too high of doses are prescribed for this.)

    Other teachers think these kids are either lazy (ADD) or troublemakers (ADHD). My daughter treats them all with respect. She adjusts the horrible curriculum so it makes sense to them. She listens to their problems. She teaches them what their strengths are and how to learn. She works with community organizations to get them involved in things that help people in the community, which gives them a feeling of empowerment. She can do this because in this school she can work with them individually or in small groups. She loves them and thinks they're all wonderful, sweet human beings. They love her because they know she cares about and respects them, and they work super hard for her. They would do anything for her, and they're learning.

  5. As I say, with a traditional, large class, I don't know if I'd say "gentleness." I had to learn to be a lot more assertive than I naturally am. But you have to care, and you have to always treat them with respect, even if they don't treat you that way. With someone like Chantay, I would look her in the eyes and say, "Chantay, could you please sit down now so we could all get started on learning?" If that didn't work, I would explain why what we're going to do is important and how it will help if she follows directions. If she's intent on not letting learning take place that day, I would calmly explain that if that's her intent, I would have to send her out so others can learn, and then would do that if necessary. I taught at one school where I felt I had to send at least one student out on a disciplinary referral in almost every class for the first two weeks. (The administration was very supportive of the teachers and did not get upset about this.) After that I never had any real problem the rest of the year.

    I try to teach in a way that makes sense to them, try to be fair at all times, see each student as a unique individual, and do all I can to facilitate learning. It takes time, perseverance, and lots of patience to establish a rapport and a community within the classroom. Once you do, it's easy to be gentle about defusing situations. The most important thing is to treat each student with respect; that way they will come to respect you and each other.

  6. Bollard's first mistake was underestimating the ability of his students. They sensed his inferiority. They are tougher than he. His lack of understanding what the students would think of him is a classic error. Like anyone new in a business, he was on the bottom rung. You gotta work your way up. It's a public school. You work for the students.

  7. Absolutely love the insights offered here. I'm a second-year teacher and I feel like I spent much of my first year trying to be the tough, forceful personality in the classroom as a way of "proving myself" or compensating for my own feelings of weakness of inadequacy. This year, I've been making an effort to try to remain calm in all that I do. (Honestly, using Pres. Trump as a negative comparison has been really helpful to me. However I imagine would react to a situation, I try to do the opposite.) And I have seen a big difference so far not only in my own stress levels but also in the amount of respect that my students actually have for me.

    I am interested, though, by the comment above that mentions the role gender plays in all of this. Is this a specifically male phenomenon? Do women have to work harder not to be seen as weak, whereas men tend to err on the side of aggression?