Why Don't You Just MAKE Them?
"Why don't you just make them ______?"
The most adorable befuddlement comes over non-educators when the subject of student learning or behavior is brought up.
It’s completely understandable. Many of them have rose-damaged memories of their own school years – teachers wielding yardsticks, parents spanking and grounding, and a pervasive respect/terror of any and all authority figures. It's a wonder we haven't raised an entire generation of serial killers if even half these recollections are true.
Then again, it would explain a great deal about Trump’s rise to power. A wider tie and some day-old stubble and he's everyone’s caricature of “terrifying-but-largely-incoherent principal.” Generally avoided at all cost, he was just what you needed when schoolyard bullies were about to pummel you. It restored order to your universe to see his furies periodically directed at your oppressors... however similar his tactics were to theirs in retrospect.
Nowadays, though, it seems educators and pedagogical trend-setters are more interested in wooing impressionable young squirrels to daintily learn-out-of-their-hands, instead of putting on their big-teacher panties and really educating those little turds - right up a tree if need be! My god, no wonder we have a nation of wimps – we used to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic; now we just share our feelings, learn about evolution and why everyone should be gay, then go back to talking about our feelings again.
Restorative justice, expanded support services, all manner of training over different learning styles and emotional needs – it must seem ridiculous compared to hazy constructs of our own past.
Whatever the reality of your own “dear old Golden Rule days,” brute force is not merely an ethically questionable classroom strategy in the 21st century – it simply doesn’t work. We can debate it on principle, but realistically… it’s just not realistic.
Consider the things you think you found motivating as a child. Were you afraid of what your parents would say if your grades dropped or you got in trouble at school? That’s certainly a factor for some students today, but not all of them. Not always even most of them. I’ll spare you the sob stories – they tend to be outliers anyway – but life is complicated enough that “wait until your parents find out” simply isn’t a Top Five Concern for many kids. Thus, it’s not a big motivator.
So bust their little butts at school, right? Detention? In-School Suspension? Trapped in a small room with a handful of other offenders, working in dead silence all day? It’s surprising how many students actually prefer this to a normal classroom environment. That’s bad, because we can’t possibly manage that sort of student-teacher ratio throughout the school, even if we wanted to reduce education to a few worksheets and copying down a page of school policies. Besides, kids don’t really learn that way - which is supposed to be the whole point of them being there.
Of course, if they don’t do their work or cooperate at least part of the time, they’ll FAIL! That will teach them! That 13-year-old in front of you had better be making wise, mature, long-term decisions about his future. When his attention starts to wonder or his frustrations boil over, he needs to think big picture! Otherwise he’ll have a rude awakening six years from now when he can’t get into college or trade school, and then… ha! We’ll have won!
Again, not so much the goal.
So we do our best to make lessons engaging, and to adjust them each year, each week, each hour based on the students in front of us. You rarely pull them all in at the same time in the same way – turns out kids are a diverse bunch, inconvenient though that may be. Still, most of them are pretty decent people if you take the time to get to know them. Most want to do well, at something, by some standard, although what that means varies as widely as everything else about them.
It helps if you like them, although I’m not sure it’s essential. It’s useful if they like you as well, although once again the correlation isn’t as strong as you’d think – kids can adore you all year long without it dramatically impacting their willingness to take the content seriously or complete a single assignment outside of class. Maybe not even during.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I’m positive there’s some sort of memory-erasing demagnetizer mounted in every classroom doorway which wipes each child clean of everything we’ve discussed and all they’ve sworn to do thereafter, then returns only the foggiest versions of those same memories when they re-enter 23 hours later.
Some of them are ridiculously energetic, and while we don’t want to dampen their zest for life, we desperately need them to calm down a bit so we can have class. Others barely stay conscious if left to their own devices for more than a few minutes, so we try to keep them moving and talking. Lectures get a bad rap, but a good one with enough visuals and some genuine interaction can cover tons of important information in a short amount of time – at least for the three-quarters of them who learn well that way.
Group work can mean just about anything. Results regularly range from ‘shameful disaster’ to ‘best-learning ever’ – and that’s during the same class period on the same day, involving groups a mere two or three feet apart. Reading is ideal for those who, um… can read. It’s less ideal for those who can’t. Most are somewhere in between.
So you keep trying things, trying to gauge what works the most often for the most kids. It’s an imperfect science.
If you want kids to cooperate, maybe even learn, you absolutely must know your content. On other days, though, far more important that you understand the kids – or at least be able roll with their ever-changing bizarro-worlds. You have to care about them, but not too much or it will render you useless. Well, that or kill you.
You should of course adhere to district requirements and state standards, except if you do that too often, you’ll neglect the most useful, meaningful parts about your job – the stuff that make it tolerable, even in Oklahoma. You must establish that you’re confident and in control of each class, while leaving students a sense of freedom as individuals that doesn’t give them reason to resist you or deteriorate into a power struggle - which you then must win.
It’s unceasingly weird, I assure you.
You teach the kids in front of you, not just that year but that day. You woo them, you cajole them, you scold them, and yes – sometimes you threaten them. With appropriate school-ish consequences, I mean. Never with, like, painful physical mutations or twisted psychological destruction or anything. Not usually. And certainly not that anyone can prove.
Because that would be wrong, probably.
There’s a pedagogy to it, and there are better and worse classroom management techniques. But none of them – none with any value, at least – are “just make them do what you say.” I wish it were so simple.
Actually, that’s not true.
I’m really, really glad that it’s not.
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