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Teaching Opinion

Controlling Teacher, Out of Control Classroom

By David Ginsburg — December 10, 2011 1 min read
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Great teachers maintain control of their classrooms. They do not, however, control their students. In fact, show me a teacher who tries to control students, and I’ll show you a classroom that’s out of control.

One way many teachers try to control students is through disciplinary rules and punitive consequences for breaking those rules. Yet just as harmful as teachers’ efforts to control students’ behavior are their efforts to control students’ thoughts. Some examples:

The early childhood teacher who told a student to redo his drawing because "this looks nothing like an elephant." The science teacher who insisted on being a fountain--rather than a facilitator--of knowledge, and wouldn't let students form hypotheses, let alone test them out. The math teacher who told students, "You could do it that way, but the way I showed you is much better." The art teacher who cultivated conformity rather than creativity by telling students, "Everyone's should look like Angela's--it's awesome," as they made models of dinosaurs. The special ed teacher who persisted in giving students clues despite their protests that they didn't want any help. The literature teacher who shot down students' answers after asking why they thought the author chose a particular setting. (The same teacher later admonished students for not participating in the discussion: "How come no one is raising their hands?") The social studies teacher who twisted students' comments during a discussion of the pros and cons of different forms of government, so that they were aligned with his views. The 2nd grade teacher who refuted rather than respected students' complaints that a book she read to them was boring: "It's a great story. You must not have been paying attention."

And fifteen minutes or so into each of these classes, most students had either checked out or were acting out--as I expected, since these teachers told me ahead of time that they were having lots of behavior problems. But most of those problems disappeared once teachers saw the connection between their efforts to control students’ thinking and students’ misbehavior. (This happened for me as a teacher too after I made the same connection based on students’ feedback about my chaotic first-year classroom.)

Does this mean refraining from trying to control kids is all it takes to maintain control of your classroom? Not at all. There are several components of classroom management, and a breakdown in any one of them can cause classroom chaos. But no matter how organized and efficient you are, sooner or later students are going to withdraw or be disruptive if you try to control them in ways like I’ve described above.

Make no mistake: great teachers provide students the structure they need to thrive. But they also give them room to be themselves and think for themselves within that structure. In short, great teachers empower children rather than overpower them.

Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission

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