This will be the first post from me, Wizard. I have been wearing my Sensei mask a lot recently, but there are some problems (soon to be told) which Sensei is just plain stumped on. So I decided today to look at the same issues from the perspective of the Wizard and see what else shook loose. What follows is a stylized internal dialogue I hosted today between two very different parts of myself
SENSEI’S PROBLEM: In my current job, my 7th grade students are responding wonderfully to both reward and discipline, but my 8th grade students pretend I don’t even exist. I spend most of my time in my 8th grade class periods just shouting for quiet. I can’t even get them to a place of learning. They hate the novel we are working through, 85% of them are failing the class, and they seem almost unionized in their resistance of authority. They don’t want, much less seek the rewards I offer, and they could care less about the discipline.
SENSEI’S DESIRED RESULT: The result I desire is to have the students learn the material, do well on examination, be prepared for the communication challenges life will throw at them (particularly formal or academic challenges), and that they will rekindle their own belief in themselves that they are capable of succeeding in school.
SENSEI’S OUTWARD OBSERVATIONS: I notice that the class responds almost instantly to any “down time”. When I give them busy work, I can get them to quiet down (though often not to work), but if there is any discussion or transition time the class dynamic slips almost immediately to a “lunch room” vibe with heavy social conversations and non-school related activities like giving each other “pen tattoos”. Students feel they have freedom to shout out answers, to move about the room as they please, and to ignore specific simple instructions like “get out your books and turn to page 72”. Often, when disciplined, the students response is to smile and act very happy about being called down. They don’t seem to want to make fun of me, so much as they want me to join them as a peer. I feel constantly as though they want me to just “hang out”, or “be cool”. They are somewhat engaged with the material. There are three groups of four students each, which form the social skeleton of the classroom, and these three groups are consistently disruptive. There are many “on the fence” students who will participate if in a strong structured activity, but who will also fall into the “lunch room” moments just as easily. There are also about seven students who are display anxiety at this non-productive behavior, who are uncomfortable displeasing authority or are very interested in learning. These students often attempt to shush the class or otherwise self-police their peers.
SENSEI’S INWARD OBSERVATIONS: I notice that when the classes noise level rises I feel itchy inside. For some reason, volume level with this particular group of students, causes irritation and anxiety for me. I am sensitive to infractions, and often focus on the trouble makers over the ones who are doing as asked. I feel like I am on the defensive, and while I do not show outward anger, their mockery of my discipline (high fiving when they get a violation, cheering when they have to stay after class) really gets me pretty heated inside. I want to find something that they crave, and something that they fear, so that I can control them. I need a carrot and a stick! I realize now that I have been informed that this class is a remedial class (something I did not know before), that a lot of my baggage at having been in remedial education may be at play. I used to be one of the seven shush kids, and now, I am trying to control the “troublemakers” like I shouldn’t have.
WIZARD’S PERSPECTIVE: Well, it seems to me that you hit on something when you talk about your goal being to control the troublemakers. That does seem to be your true goal. Your goal is not to educate, your goal is to control. You can hear it in the way you just wrote both your observations. This class is able to “phase shift” you in your own personal timeline, back into bad memories. You are not present to them, you are present to what went wrong in your past, and you are seeking to right it using your new position. Of course, typing that out it makes it seem immediately absurd. The first thing you have to do is realize that your desired result is education. Education is two pieces: The first piece is to know where you are guiding your students, whether it be in math, science, or language arts. The second piece is to be able to meet your students where they are at currently and move them from where they are to where they need to be. Right now, the person you are meeting is your own inner child, not the actual children in your classroom. So, the result you desire is to prepare your students. The first step in doing that is to stop resisting your students.
WIZARD’S RECOMMENDATION: There is a policy in Buddhist thinking called non-resistance. This may seem obvious on the surface, but the practice is actually quite complex. The basic idea is that to resist anything wastes energy. You may have seen physical representations of this in martial arts such as Tai Chi or Judo, which rely upon flow and the redirection of force to overcome opponents. Right now, Sensei occurs to these students as a wall. Now, Sensei is a wall trying to convince everyone he is a door, but he is a wall in fact. The Students are a flowing water, contained but unchanged, like tea poured into a saucer, and when they leave, it is Sensei who is left wet and altered. If you are going to teach them, you must first accept them completely, just as they are, with all of their resentments and resistant techniques, all of their idiosyncrasies fears, and hopes. If they hate your curriculum, accept that they hate your curriculum. Then, you must free yourself to move around them just as they are. Imagine yourself not as a structure to contain them, but as a single drop of red paint, dropped into their white bucket, able to change the entire pool just by the smallest instance of your presence. If their noise is a rock in your path, do not smash the rock, merely flow around it. If their interests are not in your teachings, flow about them until you find what their interest is. It does not matter if they learn the basics of argumentation through celebrated authors or schoolyard gossip. Use what they give to you. Become the argument for argument. If you teach that persuasion is all around you, then find it where they are, instead of seeking to bring them to you. If they overflow your bounds, trust the environment to correct them, trust administrators and parents. But do not resist them. Find the flow within the current they provide and see what change is possible there.
SENSEI’S REACTION: I think that this will work. Obviously, I have to balance what works for my students with what works for my learning environment, but seeking to meet my students where they are, and to let go of control and embrace education, seems to me to speak of mastery rather than dominance, and I prefer those methods. I feel encouraged, but also a little daunted about what this looks like “in reality”, but I think it gives me a new perspective from which to approach the class tomorrow. I will try it out.