Who Gets to Decide? III

Buried in the middle of the agenda I mentioned in yesterday’s post was an innocuous-looking item that sparked firestorms of raging protest.  In preparation for the upcoming “walk-through” visit next month, it said, teachers were asked to do a few things:

  • Post learning goals “EVERYDAY”(yes, capitalized and typeset that way) in the mandated “I can” format;
  • Have copies of lesson plans “easily accessible” for the Very Important Visitors
  • Deal with any clutter that might have accumulated in “corners and crevices”
  • Have an uncluttered place, a cleaned-off desk or table, available for the Very Important Visitors to sit

Perfectly reasonable requests in the factory-model paradigm.  But Ms. X and Mr. Y started rolling their eyes and half-murmuring, half-shouting protests.  And I was too angry, too frustrated for my normal Monday routine.

What was going on?  Why were Ms. X and Ms. Y behaving like the “worst ever” of their “bad, lazy” students?  Like children on whom they’d want to inflict nastiest possible pain-punishment cycle?

The presenting issue was the uncluttered place.  It’s an old school building, with small classrooms, so the logical sitting place would be Ms. X or Mr. Y’s desk.  “My desk!!” they protested, “It’s mine!  I won’t share it!  And it’s my important clutter!!”  Promises of plastic storage bins did little to assuage them.

(To be fair, I spent years with a “my desk, my clutter” attitude too.  But having almost eliminated the “teacher desk” this year, I no longer feel so possessive.  Plus, in its new role as technology staging area, the desk stays fairly clutter-free … and there’s already another clutter-free table where Very Important Visitors can sit if they’d like.)

By Tuesday, Ms. X and Mr. Y had moved from hot, loud anger to cold, silent resentment – the kind that encourages what Stephen Covey called “sabotage” and “malicious obedience.”   And yet Ms. X and Mr. Y are big believers in enforced compliance … for their students.  Like the teachers addressed in this Edunators post, Ms. X and Mr. Y focus their attention on behavior and compliance.  They grew up in, loved, chose to work in, maintain a system that enforces behavioral compliance … on students.  But they bitterly resent behavioral compliance initiatives directed at them.  And they respond with yelling and labeling, with behavioral compliance demands on their students … who then come to me, upset for reasons they can’t even verbalize, and try to regain the half-familiar territory of joy, learning, and community.

OK … so that’s (part of?) why Ms. X and Mr. Y were upset, and why some of my students were upset.  But why was I so angry?  Yes, that innocent-looking paragraph sent a powerful, unintended, message about autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  But I can usually ignore such messages; my sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose mostly comes from within.

When a thoughtful friend passed this remarkable piece along, I had a sudden insight:

… there are generally three kinds of tone of voice teachers use with students and … the (hard-to-teach) student reaction to each was fairly predictable….

Disappointed Voice
It is no surprise that … teachers who used the “disappointed voice” (a tone that indicated that the teacher was disappointed, upset, or angry with the student) generated the most difficulty with students. Students who might have been calm and compliant would quickly become loud, defiant, and oppositional. Students who where [sic] already acting up generally became worse.

Interestingly, feeling angry (and perhaps showing it in your voice) is human nature when students act rudely or are persistently off task or disruptive. Wanting to subtly assert your authority is perfectly understandable…. But actually doing any of these was totally counterproductive….

Teacher Voice

It was student reaction to “teacher voice” that surprised me the most. Teacher Voice is that voice that has just a little formality in it, or says I’m the teacher and you’re the student. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the teacher voice. Such a tone seems completely appropriate, and I doubt that any principal or colleague would even notice ….

But it certainly caused problems with our challenging students! Again, it drove them to act up and be confrontational.

I think, where many children simply hear an adult tone or a formal tone, many hard-to-teach students hear authoritarianism or standoffishness (even a little “I’m better than you”), attitudes that they seem to take as confrontational and aggressive….

People Voice
It was interesting to see (and perhaps no surprise) that the teachers who seemed to have the best rapport with hard-to-teach students talked with them as people – they used what I have come to call the “people voice” (as if they were just talking with another person – I think some teacher educators call it the adult voice)….

Like those “hard-to-teach students” (Wow! What a label that is!), my colleagues and I were reacting – quite predictably – to the disappointed voice and teacher voice in that agenda item!  It seemed that The Powers That Be (a favorite Ms. X phrase) were imposing their vision of a normal and normative classroom – a clean, uncluttered one, with certain things posted in certain places.  Even though we agreed or mostly agreed with the vision, the tone left us just as “angry and confrontational” as those “hard-to-teach students” on a bad day.

Commenting on Google+, Maureen noted that

… the word “normal” reflects fixed mindset and does not reflect the evolving nature of life–wonder what terms would be better for describing the attributes of education we deem worthy and classic, and those we are reaching for when we think of a changing word as we best respond to our learner’s needs.

In a factory, The Boss decides what’s normal and normative; in a joyful community, norms emerge from the complex interactions among different perspectives, different voices, different members.  What happens, though, when you’re caught between the two?  How can we respond – and help others respond – in healthy, productive ways?  How can we put the disappointed voice and the teacher voice aside?

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Published in: on January 9, 2013 at 11:31 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […]  The end of the semester is difficult anyway, and the mandates I mentioned on Tuesday and Wednesday certainly didn’t help.  As Debbie put it in a Google+ […]


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