• Josh Arnold

Confessions of a Former Teacher Tyrant

Years ago, I thought that teaching and learning in the classroom could only be done with absolute control of the classroom. Silence to me meant that all students were learning. Talking during class, unless the student asked a question about what we were learning, was a distraction. I demanded absolute power in the classroom. I jokingly called myself the "dictator." However, I may as well have been running a feudal kingdom where the students were required to pledge their loyalty to me or pay a price. Compliance to myself as ruler of the classroom was rewarded with good grades, small praise like "good job" or the currency of the classroom--candy. I bought into this system and even worse, most of my students did as well.

My authoritarian rule wasn't limited to classroom management either. The content I covered was a To-Do List of knowledge to be checked off. Covering a unit meant studying the vocabulary list of words to memorize, reading the chapter right out of the textbook in order not to leave anything out, and answering the five questions the textbook listed at the end. My own classroom tyranny was extended into a tyranny of content coverage. Many students could learn to get an "A" in this system since my tyranny of coverage rarely ran into higher order thinking. This allowed me to keep the classroom "busy" enough so that no one stepped out of line and I could make it through each 50-minute class period without having anyone stray off the page of the teacher's edition.

Occasionally, we did hands-on activities. Acting out the parts of different explorers that searched North America or coloring in maps that showed Westward Expansion. These were carefully unboxed from whatever supplemental material was available. This was done to maintain control. Keeping order in the classroom and helping to maintain the tyranny of coverage. Like the monarchs of the Western world in the 17th and 18th Century this way of running the classroom has ended.

Whole class punishment was something I did at the start of my teaching career. I had seen it in my own education so I rolled it out into my own classroom thinking it was the way things were done. It was only after I realized there was always more to the story at first glance. With a little investigation I found that often punishing the class was the result of my lack of communication with students. When I failed to convey expectations to the class of how they should behave I forced my hand into the one strategy I had seen so many times before.

Non-specific praise took me a while to get rid of as I had made it part of what I was saying in just about every student interaction. It sounds so natural to tell your students they are doing a good job. I've since changed this by offering a follow up to exactly what is good about the work being done. I have even made time to offer written feedback to students on how to improve breaking down the errors or missed learning targets to the student and offering them a chance to do the work again.

Teaching social studies can offer students a large narrative of events and people. The only way I went about teaching this was to write my own notes, place them on the overhead, and allow students time to copy the notes. This practice left out debate, making connections, and left little time for questioning what was being learned. Getting all the information copied was the learning target and once that was accomplished students would quickly close notebooks or file away the copied notes. My updated practice includes offering many different ways of taking notes. Instead of offering entire paragraphs for students to copy I focus on a few concepts and have students build their own information on these concepts. I no longer rely on just the textbook either. I find videos, make my own videos, have students ask questions and take the time to debate ideas.

As learning becomes more personalized in education having a specific set of learning goals and objectives may be the single most important thing to offer a classroom of students. It used to be that I looked up lesson objectives and kept them to myself. I never rolled out the technical aspects of teaching to students at all. This was perhaps my biggest mistake. Now I not only write standards and lesson objectives on the whiteboard but I continue to talk about and have students look at these important learning goals before, during and after a lesson or unit.

What is one teaching strategy you have discarded over the years? Tweet your thoughts using the #ChangeTheClassrom hashtag!

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