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Thursday / July 19

Walking the Talk: Under the Hood

School Voice Chronicles

In my second blog I talked about how traveling to dozens of schools and talking with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students had, over time, aggregated into an abstraction in my head. Especially regarding collegiality and time, my new role in one concrete school, has provided a new appreciation for the particular importance of collegial support and the harried pace of the school day. But not all the abstraction that comes from aggregation is unhelpful. When my car starts making a funny sound, bringing it to a mechanic who is not hearing that sound for the first time, as I am, but has heard it hundreds of times can be quite helpful. In a way, experts are those who have aggregated many experience so that they quickly diagnose and easily solve the one experience we present to them. Mechanics. Contractors. Lawyers. Doctors. They all have done hundreds of times what you and I (if we are not in those fields) might do rarely or not at all.

One system under the hood of schools I came to know fairly well as we traveled around the country has to do with student management. Through many experiences, my colleagues at QISA and I saw time and time again the danger of using command and control to deal with student misbehavior. If you want a full explanation you can check out this video I made for one of the schools we worked with. The short version is that at the classroom and school level, teachers and administrators can become trapped in a Shifting the Burden structure that chooses adult command and control over student responsibility as a solution to students’ acting out. Schools can even go so far as to become addicted to their various command and control options (e.g. detention, ISS, OSS, expulsion). Bringing a student into line by raising one’s voice may work in the short term, but in the long run a teacher will need to raise her voice louder the next time, send the student out of the room after that, give detention after that, give an in-school-suspension after that…and on it goes. Though it appears to solve the problem in the short run, it is is ultimately a failed approach because when adults assume control for the way students are behaving, students never learn to manage and be responsible for their own behavior. Side effects in the form of mutual disrespect only reinforce this system’s drive away from student responsibility toward ever more command and control.

My colleagues at QISA will chuckle when I report that I shared this system with my students the first day of class. I did it to introduce to them my solution to this systemic problem: Co-Teacher of the Day. I explained that it was my way of working in the bottom loop of the Causal Loop Diagram and avoiding the top loop (unless safety became an issue). Students have signed up to be Co-Teacher of the Day every day we have class. In a 180 day school year, each student will have to play this role seven to eight times. This student sits beside me near the front of the room (see last week’s blog re: my desk configuration) and is responsible for all classroom management responsibilities, as well as helping out with the lesson. They check attendance, dress code, and deal with any student talking or misbehavior. When a student is acting inappropriately, I don’t look at or address that student, I look at the co-teacher to spark his need to deal with his peer. To accelerate everyone’s effort, I explained that while a typical solid class participation grade is five points a day, twenty-five points are at stake when you are co-teacher. I also indicated that they would all be sitting in that seat several times a year, so they may want to treat the co-teacher as they want to be treated. I explained that I was simply formalizing a role they play for one another all the time informally when they shush each other, point out that a vice-principal is in the hallway and should tap the brakes on the horseplay, and speed up a friend so as not to be late to class. Peers managing peers. Students responsible for the way students are behaving, not some adult. Classroom management should be student automatic, not adult manual.

I am happy to report three weeks in, so far so good. They all get it. They all take it seriously. Some students soup-up the part, relishing in their best authoritative voice the opportunity to play school and be in the driver’s seat. Others are quieter about it and hesitant, but still take it seriously. It might take a minute or two if there is a given incident (there are delays in the bottom loop…and I admit I am tempted to step in), but I become quiet, the co-teacher gets into gear and corrects the issue, and class peacefully proceeds. I appreciate the fact that I am not teaching in a school with massive discipline issues. That is not to say there isn’t a traditional command and control approach in place. CM is, in many ways, your father’s educational system–effectively performing on all cylinders. It does mean that I have made a commitment to steer my classroom into a course of student Leadership & Responsibility and not adult command and control.

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Michael J. Corso, Ph.D., former high school teacher turned adjunct professor of education and administrator, has been the Chief Academic Officer for the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) for 15 years. In that role he provided professional development and training in Aspirations and Student Voice theories and frameworks to thousands of educators and students in hundreds of schools. Out of those experiences he co-authored numerous books and articles on the subject of School Voice, including Student Voice: The Instrument of Change (Corwin 2014) and Aspire High: Imagining Tomorrow’s School Today (Corwin 2016). While he is still connected to QISA as a special consultant, he has decided to return full-time to the high school classroom. While many in education move from practice to theory or policy, Mickey has chosen to move from consulting back to the classroom. This blog is a weekly window into his journey of trying to practice himself what he has preached to others for over two decades as a researcher and PD provider.

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