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.