I was sitting with a bunch of TFA alums trying to give advice to a first year teacher. He’s having trouble with classroom management, specifically with one defiant boy who shuts down and gets even more defiant whenever the teacher tries to correct a behavior. As this is extraordinarily common Tough Guy behavior, all of us were full of suggestions for him.
*Give him small, specific directions. Not “Sit up straight” but instead, “You’re almost there. Can you pull your shoulders back a little?”
*Correct him privately so he doesn’t have to stand up to you in front of his buddies.
*Rather than make accusations he can deny, pretend you think he’s doing the right thing and just needs to fix one detail. Instead of “Stop sleeping”, try “If you pick your head up while you read, it’ll be easier to see the page.”
*Give a direction and then immediately walk away to do something else. It makes it seem like you’d never consider him not listening and doesn’t give him the opportunity to defy you.
*Give him some type of classroom responsibility or leadership role so he gets attention in a positive way.
Participating in this conversation, I couldn’t help but think about two things. First, we all have some pretty serious war stories from our two years. Every piece of advice being given probably was knowledge hard-earned through disastrous trial-and-error with boys more likely to throw furniture than back down. You don’t learn how to give carefully nuanced directions until you’ve already learns that kids don’t actually have to listen to your commands. You don’t learn how to have private confrontations until you’ve lost a couple of confrontations very publicly. You don’t learn how to walk away before defiance until you’ve been blatantly defied over and over. There was a nice sense of camaraderie even with these people I barely knew. “Ah yes, the good ol’ Act Clueless move. Works every time. Remember the day you learned that one?”
The other thing I noticed was that all this advice boiled down to one thing: manipulating children. It’s funny when you realize how much of behavior management is actually getting so deep into a kid’s head that the poor thing doesn’t even realize you’re controlling him. It’s not about yelling or about giving a logical explanation of your reasoning. It’s about mastering the ability to manipulate others, and it’s a work of art when you see teachers do it well. It doesn’t sound so noble, but manipulation just might be the key to this profession. I don’t think anyone tells you that when you first enter the classroom.