Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Brief Tale of the Classroom Interloper
Ruminations on Authority, Confidence, and Intangibility

The Fates: the ultimate authority figures
(This is the second in a series of posts based on my experiences teaching a pre-calc class at a private school. See my last post for a more complete introduction.)

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.


  1. Does "machismo" mean simply "manliness" (as the OED has it) or does it mean "excessive masculinity" (per Wikipedia and others)? Is manliness itself now excessive, even if many of us first encountered it in our elementary school teachers, who were women? If machismo is a pejorative, does it become harder to maintain order in a classroom and to keep boys in school?

  2. That’s an interesting idea, hbean, but I think machismo’s not quite the issue. That word connotes something very different from manliness, and the difference is more than simply one of degree. Machismo, as I hear it used, refers to the over-involvement of the ego in negotiations of power and status; it implies an insecurity which someone assuages by pushing others around. We have all, I suspect, had teachers who seem to have an overly personal investment in their own authority, just as we have dealt with people on the subway whose sense of self seems overly dependent on their occupancy of 1.8 subway seats. Machismo is not something we would want in our teachers.

    I think hbean’s comment points towards a different, more complex issue—that of the vilification of authority. Many Romantic educators (I’ll discuss Romantic education at length in an upcoming post) seem to view all authority as malignant—that is, repressive, destructive of open discourse, maintained by force, and wielded to fulfill the psychological needs of the teacher. Such a blanket condemnation leaves no place for authority’s benevolent form—one that is impersonal, morally derived, and wielded for the good of those governed. This is an argument that goes back three or four hundred years, to Hobbes and Rousseau, but it has immediate, concrete relevance in today’s classrooms. That “macho” has become a pejorative seems to me no great loss; that “authoritarian” has gone the same way may pose something of a problem.

  3. As Max says, machismo connotes “something very different from manliness,” yet what machismo denotes, in its original sense, is precisely manliness and virility. Somehow the concept, in its transition from Spanish to English and from medieval to modern, has gone from a virtue to a fault. The qualities of character it encourages (physical and moral strength, dignity, stoicism) have been parodied into vanity, insecurity and pomposity. The “manly man” has become ridiculous. And, yes, this critique wouldn’t have stuck, if it didn’t ring the bell of truth for us. Today, we find that kind of traditional male authority not only pompous and over-compensating, but often oppressive, sexist, bullying, dictatorial and, in some fundamental way, anti-democratic.

    Yet it is an authority; it provides order (or used to), and it presents a model of human conduct in which respect is a central concept, to be both demanded for oneself and given to others. The distinction Max makes between bad machismo and good authority is nicely drawn and important, and surely we should prefer and pursue the latter. But power is rarely a subtle instrument, and modern schools are often more chaotic than medieval Spanish estates. The choice for many teachers is not between bad and good power, but between order -- achieved by whatever means possible -- and chaos. In that context, machismo, even the negative version, is the lesser evil. Nor does the process have to end there. As someone said to me recently: It’s easier to go from a tough guy to a gentleman, than from a nice guy to an authority figure.

  4. Well, I think there’s a much broader psychological discussion that you’re touching on, regarding male identity in contemporary culture—it seems to have gotten a little lost, I admit (and the question of the proper role of machismo in male psychological development is an interesting one); but that is all part of a very different conversation from the one at hand.

    As to the idea of macho authority as a passable substitute for what I have called benevolent authority, my experience is mostly otherwise. Authority that appears personal, aggressive, and insecure is not conducive of learning or even, in most cases, of order. A teacher is one person attempting to control many. Rare indeed are bullies big enough to overpower thirty 8th graders. Something an old supervisor of mine once told me comes to mind. If a student isn’t doing his work, she told me, say, “Jamal, I know you’re about to start working,” then look away, as if you’re sure they’re going to do it. This demonstrates confidence, but it also avoids a head-to-head, which is important because, as she explained it, “You can’t win a stand-off with a middle-schooler.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I’ve met plenty of middle-schoolers of whom it’s more or less true: if they dig in their heels, you’re really in trouble. And that’s just a single middle-schooler.

    The truth is that a teacher’s power—like that of any unarmed authority—is got by consensus; it can be a grumpy, mutinous consensus, but it’s got to be a consensus. If a teacher, even a hated one, manages to teach, it is because she maintains some legitimacy in the eyes of the students. You can’t bully people into learning—especially when there’s one of you and thirty of them.

    The values of strength, dignity, and stoicism that you mention are not ones I associate with machismo. Indeed, Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, from The Good the Bad and the Ugly, would probably make an excellent classroom manager. It’s not the cowboy hero that society has (rightly or wrongly) judged as macho, it’s the well-fed suburban dad indulging in the fantasy of that hero. The pejorative use of “macho” does not denigrate the characteristics of real manliness; it lambasts those who, lacking those characteristics, pretend to them. Thus, if I, sitting here at my laptop, were to write of a wayward student, say, that “she didn’t know who she was dealing with,” I might be fairly accused of machismo; after all, the expression amounts to thumping my chest over my ability to eject a sixteen-year-old girl from my classroom; it advertises false strength while revealing a real lack of dignity and stoicism.

  5. You, go, Max, I call that "butch realness"!

  6. Somehow the concept, in its changeover from Spanish to English and from medieval to modern, has gone from the virtue to some fault.