Two things happened this week that I thought were positive signs. These come just two weeks before the end of our first semester. I guess that puts us at about the halfway mark. Both had to do with the nitty-gritty of the classroom.
First, if you have been following this blog from the outset, you will know that when I started I implemented a classroom teaching strategy I call “Co-teacher of the Day.” Basically each day on a rotating schedule a different student is responsible for classroom management. They might pass back or collect papers, write on the board, offer a review of the previous day, and call on other students. But they are also responsible for ensuring everyone is in dress code, checking that electronic devices are being used appropriately, and quieting the class should there be any disruptions. I wrote about this in September and explained how the co-teacher role is my attempt to find a systemic solution to the systemic problem of the use (and structurally inevitable overuse) of adult command and control strategies (yelling, detention, ISS, etc.). The problem with such strategies is that they seem work in the short term, but become addictive and require escalation in the long term.
Expecting and teaching students to manage one another and themselves and not have some grown-up manage them appears not to work in the short term. To this I can testify. As the earlier blog indicates, there are delays in such an approach. Frustrations. In the fall, it sometimes felt as if I was wasting valuable class time as a co-teacher asked a fellow student to quiet down or remove his non-dress code sweater. Depending on the students, there might be some jockeying for status or position. All the while I bit my tongue, knowing I could pull rank and just get the offending student to comply. I know that the biggest problem affecting teachers and schools is an inability or unwillingness to tolerate delays when the systems archetype in play is Shifting the Burden. Systems theory suggests working on a fundamental solution, which takes longer, rather than treating the offending symptom with a quicker symptomatic solution. But does it work in practice?
This week, I looked across the room at the co-teacher of the day and asked, as I do every day, “How are we doing for dress code?” To my left out of the corner of my eye, a student took of his non-dress code sweater unasked. He managed his own behavior. The co-teacher didn’t need to say anything and I didn’t have to bite my tongue. It just happened. I have noticed more often now that students come into my class either in dress code or getting in dress code as they sit down. I know two things: One, student-based solutions to student problems work if you have patience. Two, the delay is about four and half months.
Second, I felt like we turned a corner since we returned from the break regarding classroom discussion. I teach theology and, as you might imagine, try to have students talking frequently to one another in various pair shares, group discussions, and whole class conversations. It has been an admittedly patchy experience. Some days are better than others, some students respond more than others, some topics spark more interest than others. But the handful of times we have done this the last few weeks, almost all students seem to be engaged and participating. I don’t think the quality of my questions has changed appreciably, nor do I think the topics are of any more or less interest to students than previous topics.
If I were to articulate my hunch it is that my first year teacher trial may have ended early. I feel like they trust me more. Like I have a relationship with these students that I was in the process of developing previously but hadn’t yet attained. I have attended football games, plays, wrestling matches, and swim meets. I interact with students during lunch duty. I talk sports on Mondays and weekend plans on Fridays. I talk about my family and ask about theirs. I think they have a sense of me and I am getting to know them as individuals and not just students in my class (it’s still a work in progress with 100 students). And I think the long term payoff of that is that they trust me enough now to have open and honest conversations about theological topics in my class.
Halfway through the walk, the previous talk is paying off.