|The Fates: the ultimate authority figures|
The other day, a girl who’s not in my class accompanied one of my students into the room at the start of the period. The two were sharing a fit of Thursday afternoon giggles and entered full of unexplained hilarity. Now, the culture of the school where I teach permits a certain amount of deviation from proscribed routines, and it’s not so unusual for a student to follow her friend into a classroom simply for the fun of it—and, I suspect, to see what it’s like in there. The purpose of such excursions is surely benign, but I find the loosening of structures to be a slippery slope, and I try to make sure classes start on time and start focused. In short, I wanted the interloper gone, and I knew she soon would be.
“Can I help you?” I said.
“No,” she said, giggling.
“Then you gotta go,” I said.
“Ok,” she said, still grinning but no longer giggling, and left.
The interaction was brief and apparently of no special import, but it might have gone very differently. Four years ago, the same playful incursion on my classroom would have lead to a protracted game of push and pull, of giggling students and gentle teacher, of how-long-can-we-keep-up-this-fun-before-we-have-to-do-math-or-get-lost. So what’s changed?
On one level, there were subtleties of body-language, tone, and word-choice that ensured the brevity of the interaction, that said “no nonsense” more definitively than any conscious declaration of seriousness ever could—but beneath those subliminal signs lay a change in my attitude. When the student first walked into the room, before I spoke to her, a thought had run through my head that went something like this: “this kid’s about to leave and she doesn’t even know it.” That sounds macho when I put it in words, and maybe there is a certain machismo in strong classroom management, but I didn’t think it in words, and the force of the thought was less about power than about certainty: I knew what needed to happen in my classroom and I knew it would happen. Her imminent, speedy departure was a fact of which I was as certain as I am that the next letter I type will be a “g”; all I had to do was make her aware of the situation.
That conception of the interaction is very different from one that asks “how do I make this kid leave?” or even “I’m going to make this kid leave!” Most significant, I think, is the elimination of my will from the equation. It’s not that I needed or wanted or willed her to leave—it was an immutable fact, divinely fated, that she was about to go. The psychological chicanery by which my needs and desires are replaced by a fatalistic certainty is not intentional or conscious, but it is, I think, essential to the ease that I have experienced in managing my classroom these past two months. I remember teachers from my own childhood who, though their personalities were vivid and engaging, wielded their authority in a way that felt impersonal and inhuman, as though it was not their will that compelled us to behave and attend, but some higher moral law. (See my last post, for more on the theme of moral authority).
Shortly after I began teaching my precalc class, I had a conversation was a veteran administrator at the school, a master at managing children and an old friend, in which I expressed it like this: “I know they’re going to do what I tell them, so they do it.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Once you know that, it’s easy. And there’s no way you can teach that to someone who doesn’t know it.” He’s right, of course, but the question is, where do we go from there? The answer depends on our attitude towards the intangible, a matter of such underlying significance in the field of education that it rarely gets discussed explicitly.
More on this next week.