Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 10 2011


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.

6 Responses

  1. G

    I totally agree…:D

  2. CJK

    When kids shape our behavior to get our positive reinforcement (or we reciprocate), we never call it “manipulation” (which tends to have a pejorative cast)–but I think it can help to see that successful behavior is always an effective “manipulation” of the environment and interpersonal relationships. Literally it just means “handling” something. Usually the ones we get cranky with just aren’t using popular “manipulation” strategies and they need help to learn more productive/effective ones.

  3. It was actually a cop who taught me the “taking notes while wearing a serious face” move, which has served me in good stead. I don’t know what the kids think I’m writing, but darn if putting on a slight scowl and making a grocery list in my little notebook doesn’t cause them to immediately shape up.

    • mathinaz

      haha yes!! I love that move.

  4. Lucas

    Yes! Is it a good thing that you’re getting so deep into a kid’s head that he doesn’t even realize you’re controlling him? If a kid gets used to being subtly controlled by authority in school, what happens when you’re no longer around and she has to lead her own life? If you’re the one in control, and he don’t even know that, what happens if you make a mistake, and does that cause him to doubt himself when he shouldn’t? I don’t agree that when kids influence the behavior of a teacher, that’s the same kind of manipulation as “classroom management,” because you’re in a position of social authority, and they’re not. If you can’t deal with the situation, you can quit or decline to renew your contract. They can’t. Even putting aside the question of how much they learn or don’t learn, it’s essentially your personal fiefdom, in which they’re compelled to live in on a daily basis. You may not see it that way, because you know the limits of your own power, but they don’t. If manipulation is the key to the profession, and that doesn’t sound noble, presumably because it’s not, then I think it’s reasonable to ask if perhaps the way the teaching profession is set up in our society is a noble idea in the first place, or if it needs to be structured in such a way that it’s about more than just “handling” kids.

  5. mathlovergrowsup

    Wow. I don’t think I agree with Lucas though his post is interesting. I think controlling the kids in your class is essential first move in getting any learning to happen. Once they are under control perhaps we can loosen up and more real learning can take place.
    I like the techniques you posted-I think they ARE noble.

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