Removing Ego from Classroom Management
...I absolutely understand the irony of this post, published on a site called mrkarpie.com, replete with an image of my snarling face directly to the right of the text at all times.
With the new, high-accountability for teachers, no accountability for students culture of education, I’ve noticed that teachers will always lovingly take credit for successes. “My students are great at insert random skill here because I make sure to use my insert exaggeratedly perfect procedure every time.” This blog is an illustrative example of such a mentality. Teachers will usually argue just as ardently that any of their students’ weaknesses are not the teacher’s fault. “There’s just nothing you can do to motivate these students to run the mile. It’s a cultural problem. I can’t defeat an entire culture in 40 minutes per day.”
I’m not saying that there aren’t elements outside teachers’ control. I am saying that I’ll accept the opinion of teachers who accept no credit for students’ academic and behavioral accomplishments and failures. I’ll also accept the opinion of teachers who take total responsibility for students’ academic and behavioral accomplishments and failures. We can’t have it both ways though. You can’t claim that you taught your students everything good that they know and do, and then say that everything bad that they know or do is not your fault.
With classroom management designed to avoid arguments and explosions, it’s best to avoid this debate entirely by removing your ego from the classroom equation.
This is easier said than done.
Teachers are fiercely loyal to their students. I might talk badly about my sixth period, but I will move Earth and Heaven to rain brimstone down upon any teacher in any other district who would dare say anything bad about my kids. I’m not alone in that feeling. How then, when building strong relationships with students is so important, can you leave your ego at home when managing a classroom of people you grow to care so much about from September to June?
It’s not easy.
First of all, remember that while your class is the most important to you, it is only one of 8-10 classes that your students attend each day. Throw on a sports team, play practice, church group, and family dinner, and you start to realize how little you matter to your students.
“Brad! How DARE you imply that teachers don’t matter to students! I got into teaching to change students’ lives, and I am actually one of my student’s godparent!” I’m not saying teachers don’t matter at all. I’m saying that students enter our classes in the center of their own life, and we play a small part in that life. Perhaps a brief anecdote will clear it up for you.
I Didn’t Need to Change Mr. Jackson’s Name for this Anecdote, because Mr. Jackson Wasn’t his Name:
Mr. Befuddled came into a busy teacher’s homeroom one morning looking downtrodden. The teacher, busy though she was, asked what was wrong. Mr. Befuddled sat down and looked out the window, and said that he had worked so hard with a student for the first ten weeks of the school year. The student had walked out of school three times in the first five days. Each time the student came back, Mr. Befuddled poured his ego into the student, asking questions about the student’s life, sharing important parables from his own life, and building the connection that research told him was so important when crafting student behavior.
After all those important and meaningful conversations, when Mr. Befuddled asked the student to complete a homework assignment, the student threw up a single-finger salute and marched right out of school again. Mr. Befuddled was confused because he had such a great relationship with this student. How could the student do this to him? He understood why the student would walk out on other teachers who didn’t have the same special bond with him. In order to preserve that special bond, this behavior too was let off with a "warnin'."
Mr. Befuddled shook his head and left the busy teacher to her work. Later that day, the teacher was in the lunch line to buy some delicious nachos when she overheard the student in question talking about Mr. Befuddled.
“Yea, that Mr. Jackson is such an idiot. He keeps talking and I totally stop listening, but I know if I nod every now and then he’ll let me off the hook for skipping class.” Naturally, the teacher is curious, so she asks the student who Mr. Jackson is. The student described Mr. Befuddled to the last detail. The teacher didn’t have the heart to ever tell Mr. Befuddled that the student he felt such a strong connection to didn’t even know his name.
I’m not saying students never learn their teachers’ [or hypothetically, in this case, their assistant principal's] names. I’m not saying teachers have no effect on students. I am saying remove your ego from your classroom management if you want to avoid explosions. The above anecdote has future explosion written all over it, because Mr. Befuddled has built himself up to such an emotional high that any misbehavior by the student will result in an ego-licious meltdown followed by major bitterness, and the traditional expectation of a "pound of flesh" kind of punishment.
Let’s look at a few classroom situations and examine how an ego-full teacher would deal with them, how an ego-less teacher would deal with them, and the results each approach yields.
Notice that the ego-teacher always assumed, and acted as if the students’ behavior was a personal affront? This is not uncommon in classrooms, and when people blatantly do the opposite of what you, as a human person, tell them, it’s real easy to fall into the trap of assuming students are purposely out to get you. The problem with assuming students are behaving against you is that the responses are very personal, and they develop a very “me vs. you” discussion that is useless for everyone else in the classroom. Also, creating any kind of “versus” situation just begs for explosions and arguments. If you talk to a student as if they are attacking you, they will naturally feel like you are attacking them, and that is no bueno for classroom management.
Instead, look at the responses of the ego-less teacher. Notice that the responses are not contrite one-liners; they all have an action attached to them. This is how we move toward silent classroom management. The responses also place the emphasis back on the students. I don’t care that students talk while I give directions; it’s their prerogative to fail. Their classmates deserve a silent classroom to listen to the directions in, and as such, to serve the students better, I have labeled desks “Giggles” and “Chuckles” and created a new seating chart.
Also notice how the responses devoid of ego open up the door for lasting management tools? Once you have a “Giggles” seat, it opens the door for a “Grumpy” seat, or a “Sadness” seat. Before you know it, $0.60 worth of index cards and Sharpie ink has given you a better incentive program than infinity pizza parties or prize boxes ever could. I’m not even lying. Kids will work their butts off for a seat labeled “Lumpy McGrumperson” if you establish it as the “best.” (This will work best if the seat is 1) the best or 2) actually the worst. “Lumpy McGrumperson” should be a throne or a soggy rag. Either way it can work as an incentive.)
Researchers could never recommend to send a student to a desk of sadness. Wow! That’s so politically incorrect. Real life students will love having a desk that expresses their feelings -- even bad feelings. Who develops a better relationship with their students? Mr. Befuddled, who talks about everything and pours his ego into the outcome of a student’s behavior plan? Or the ego-less teacher who whimsically comes up with some fun actions that drive students’ behavior for months? Or maybe the actions make no difference, and guess what, that’s fine too, because when your ego is not attached to your teaching decisions, then improving students can be the sole purpose behind your actions. When one of your ideas doesn’t work, who cares? Try something else. There are lists of specific, silent classroom management ideas in this blog. Don’t complain in the faculty room at lunch until the “everything” you’ve tried includes all the wacked out ideas included there.
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So much of the writing published about education is published by people who don't teach. I figured it was time for a teacher to write about teaching. I've been proud to teach 8th-grade ELA in Dunkirk City Schools since 2007, and to serve at Fredonia State University as an adjunct professor, teaching educational technology since 2017.