Acknowledging that classrooms are abnormal environments

Schoolklas begin jaren '50 / Dutch classroom a...

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In a discussion with colleagues today, we concluded that most teachers start off with the wrong premise and that is why so many are disappointed, or frustrated, or furiously angry when students do not “behave” the way the teacher expects them to.

What is the premise teachers seem to start off with?
It is this: School is a wonderful place that children should be eagerly seeking. They should be grateful for the opportunities to learn and should realize how valuable an education will be in the future. They should value their teachers, follow the rules, and work as hard as they can.

If students really felt this way about school then teachers would be correct in having certain expectations for behavior. But teachers seem to be continually surprised that so many students do not behave according to these expectations – instead they behave “badly.”

What are these “bad” behaviors? They are called by various names:
disruptive, disrespectful, loud, lazy, non-compliant…These labels
refer to things like not doing homework, not paying attention, talking
to the kid in the next seat, using bad language, calling the teacher
names, refusing to work, etc.

Why all these “bad” behaviors? Well, the premise must be flawed: perhaps students are not eager to come to school, drink up all that knowledge, and believe everything their teachers tell them.

What premise do we start with then? It is this: the majority of students do not want to be in school!

It is time we acknowledge that it is not normal or natural to force a bunch of kids to be in a room for hours a day, day after day, for 12 or 13 years – a place that provides very little freedom, very few choices, and hardly any movement. Humans are not made to function in this way. This is an artificial environment that is imposed on students without taking into account developmental needs and brain research about how people learn. Then when they show any emotion other than blissful happiness – such as fear, anger, frustration – they are labeled and punished for their “bad” behavior.

Actually, we ought to cheer for those who act out or speak up. While it is true that students need to learn better ways of expressing their feelings and needs (and who will teach them that, by the way, if not teachers who welcome input, and power with instead of power over?), to me it is a sign of life that they are protesting the conditions that have been forced upon them.

A classroom is an abnormal place and most students do not want to be there. Even I, the straight A student all through school, suffered immensely trying to get through the endless days. I played the game and suffered quietly. Not all are able to suffer quietly – the hurt and depression they are feeling is too much, goes too deep. They are struggling to survive, they are literally crying out for help.

When I really think about it, it seems to me that it’s a miracle that classrooms function as well as they do – that for the most part, kids comply. But it comes with a price, as the classroom is not a place where the human spirit can soar, and too many students leave defeated.

What would happen if teachers were truthful with their students? Hey, kids, I know you don’t want to be here. I know it’s unnatural to be crammed in here all year together. I know it would be much more fun to be free to do the things you like, to build a castle, or climb a mountain, etc. And you know what…we’re in this together, and I’m here for you. Let’s figure out how to make the best of it. I want to make this the best situation possible for you. I want to know what you need and when you’re feeling bad or excited or happy or upset. We have these rules and there are things I’m supposed to teach you and not all of you are interested in this subject. But I will do my best to make it as interesting as possible and I want your ideas and let’s see if we can incorporate something that is of interest to you in these topics.

This is the first step. If we can acknowledge that classrooms are abnormal environments and students do not want to be there, then we can look at our students with compassion rather than disapproval, and begin coaching them for success rather than failure.

2011 by Willis & Hodson, Reflective Educational Perspectives LLC

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