Picture it: Sicily, 1948. Okay, I’m not Sophia from The Golden Girls, but I do want you to picture a certain time and place so I can ramble a bit and demonstrate an important lesson. The scene: two middle schools within a few blocks of each other in the same Bronx neighborhood in New York City.
The stairwells at School A are littered with trash and students race down them at dismissal, yelling profanities and occasionally stopping to urinate in the corner. Teachers struggle to get through a lesson in School A. Every few minutes, several students spontaneously burst out in off-color song or rap, stomping on the floors, thumping pencils and books, and dancing…in the middle of what should have been an engaging, collaborative, technology-infused, hands-on activity. They shout random insults to one another and conduct loud conversations across the room as the teacher darts around, trying in vain to focus the class. When corrected for their disruptive behavior, a riotous chorus of protests erupts. “I ain’t say nuthin! You always picking on me! Man! I ain’t do nuthin to nobody!” Anyone who works at School A will tell you the kids are out of control.
Five blocks away in School B’s stairwell, the middle schoolers file wordlessly into their classroom as the bell rings, the girls in plaid knee-length skirts and the boys in dress pants. They sit down immediately in the desks arranged in neat rows and listen for directions. The teacher sits at her desk and instructs the kids to take out a textbook and answer questions from it. Every student in the room does exactly this for forty-five minutes. The teacher addresses ‘misbehavior’ with a sharp look and firm directive: “Are you talking? This is independent work. Be quiet. And tuck your shirt in.” The students accept correction without as much as an eye roll. Penmanship is of equal importance as the content; messy papers with incorrect headings are trashed. Students use rulers to make chart lines straight and erase mistakes unprompted until their papers look perfect. At the end of the day, 100 middle schoolers walk in complete and total silence down six flights of stairs, a single teacher leading the way.
I assure you that School A and School B are each a sight to behold for their own unique reasons. And beheld them I have, because I’ve worked in both. These descriptions are no exaggeration; they show exactly what I experienced each time I stepped inside their doors.
Which school embraces better pedagogy? Which school is trying to train students to be 21st century global citizens? Undoubtedly School A (a public school under the DOE’s control) has embraced the latest educational trends. But there is no learning taking place because of student behavior. School B, which is a private Catholic institution, still embraces instructional methods from the 1950’s…but the learning environment is orderly.
The students in School B outperform the students in School A by double digits in every subject area. And that’s with large class sizes, a total lack of technology (even overhead projectors are unheard of), and few best teaching practices in place.There’s nothing innovative about School B: just worksheets and textbooks and round robin whole-group reading.
Which school would YOU say is more effective? I believe it’s School B, not just because of test scores, but because it produces students who have the ability to demonstrate self-control. This is the “X factor” that the Powers That Be refuse to acknowledge: students with the self-discipline to apply themselves to their school work will usually be successful despite the type or quality of education they receive.
You cannot learn unless you can discipline yourself to sit still, pay attention, read, converse respectfully, concentrate, THINK. And teachers all across America are shouting from the rooftops that most of our students aren’t demonstrating those basic, fundamental skills. Our achievement levels are being compared to Asian countries in which respect, compliance, and the good of the group are valued within the culture. No new DOE-sanctioned curriculum map or standards or ten-point rubric will fix that discrepancy.
So how do we instill self-control in our students? Do we need a complex set of lesson plans and activities, or a systemic movement to change the popular culture and home environments of our students? Both sound complicated and time-consuming. Let’s just start with classroom management. Let’s train students in routines and procedures that support positive learning habits.
Classroom management has been, and will always be, one of my top priorities. Not everyone understands this, especially when there’s so much testing pressure and so many competing agendas. Why do I insist on total quiet when I take my class to lunch? Why do I take the time to model and practice and reinforce clean desk procedures over and over? Why do I wait for every student to have their hands folded before I give directions? Why do I create routines for the classroom library that ensure every student has exactly five books in their reading boxes and every book is returned to the correct genre bin with front cover facing out, right-side up?
Because I want them to develop self-control. I’m teaching them to value the qualities of being detail-oriented, disciplined, orderly, and respectful of everything and everyone in their learning environment. The whole premise of The Cornerstone classroom management is to construct a self-running classroom that frees the teacher to teach. Self-running means the students are able to manage their own learning routines without constant direction from a teacher. I don’t want to control students; I want to train them how to control themselves.
I don’t buy the argument that teaching self-control will produce students who are better prepared for a rote-type factory job than a complex 21st century career in innovative fields. Why are people worried that expecting students to conform to teacher expectations will somehow produce robotic learners who obey every command without critical thought? We are in no danger of producing a generation of students who wait mindlessly for directions and do exactly what they’re told. In fact, we’re faced with the exact opposite: children who cannot function under any sort of formal structure or authority at all. School B is far from the typical American reality; most children simply do not exert the self-discipline needed to learn, and teachers are not empowered with the tools and time needed to help them.
Sometimes this perspective makes me feel old-school, so I’m glad to see self-control leading some of the headlines this week. Let’s hope this starts a push toward getting students not only to innovate and collaborate, but to control themselves.