Sunday, August 7, 2016

Classroom Rules

In 9 days I take control.

I will be in charge of, at any given moment, between 10 and 28 other people. I will decide who gets to take care of their basic needs like using the restroom or quenching thirst and who gets to wait. I don't even have to justify my decisions. I will decide if what one person is doing is collaborating or cheating. I will have the power to be lenient or strict, to keep people silent with threats of punishment or allow them to relax.

We've all been students in grade school and middle school. We've all been there, at the mercy of tyrants and burnouts and earnest young adults who thought they knew best.

The difference between you and me, though, is that I became the earnest young adult who though she knew best, and then the tyrant, and then the burnout.

Classroom management. For some reason, if a teacher needs support with lesson plans or how to teach social studies to 4th graders or how to engage 8th grade boys, that support is there (in a decent school, in a decent district, of course). "Hey, how would you present special right triangles?" and the answers are available online or from your partner or mentor or boss.

But if your classroom is out of control, for some reason, there isn't much anyone does to help you. Maybe because content stuff like special right triangles is an idea a specific teacher teaches once a year and classroom management is every moment of every day, or maybe because every profession is filled with folks looking to weed out the weakest links in their ranks, but whatever the reason, if you struggle with classroom management, you are seen as a failure. Whether it is your first year or your 20th year in the classroom. If you can't control students you aren't a good teacher.

I left the classroom for 12 years, raising my kids and running them all over creation. When I got back 4 years ago, I came to the growing realization that control wasn't what I wanted.

I wanted comfort, easiness, an agreement between people--between equal partners. I teach middle school and although prefrontal lobes are still developing in my partners in the classroom, they are mostly whole people. I don't think they could handle some of the most terrible parts of adulthood, like arguing with insurance companies, but they can do most things.

They can decide when they need to use the restroom or get a drink.

They can decide if they need more help to learn something.

They know if they need to move around to keep from losing their minds from boredom (I teach math).

They like to choose things, like where to sit or what color ink to use. They like to play games or read a book or chat in their spare time. They like to be comfortable with themselves, their peers, in the spaces they are forced to spend time in.

I have really thought about my space and my rules over the last few years. I built standing desks out of crates a few years ago to increase my storage space and give students a choice to stand up or sit on a stool during class. I stopped assigning seats. I didn't control the noise level (within reason) unless we were taking a test. I play music. I show stupid videos sometimes. I make mistakes. I apologize. I let students pick informal groupings but I assign big projects so that no one feels awkwardly left out. I have a basket of (mostly crappy) leftover pencils to borrow. I have another basket of colored pencils and mismatched markers in case a student doesn't have any that day. I have scissors and rulers and calculators and sometimes I even have a glue stick. All in a drawer that I do not control. Get what you need. And they do--and they return them.

I boiled it down to two rules:

Do not keep anyone else from learning

Take care of your own needs.

And this year I'm adding a rule for me:

Do those two things and I won't let you fall.

As long as you take care of your own needs--approach me when you need help, seek me out with questions, go get a drink, pick the seat that works best for you--and you seriously do not keep other people from learning, there is nothing I will not do to make sure you succeed.

It's too late in my life to be an earnest young adult who knows best, obviously, but I know I am at risk for burnout and tyrant. All teachers are. I work with several. How do I keep it at bay? It's a question I ask myself all the time. And this is my answer for now.