Guest Post: Stripping Away

by Doug Robertson

I’m losing control of my classroom. Every day, every lesson, I lose a little more control.

I’m stripping away the excess of my teaching. Trimming the fat. Every year of my teaching career I change things, and I’m finding that those changes often result in less rather than more in my room.

Everyone remembers their early career as a teacher. You cling so tightly to your classroom. At least I did. Everything had to be controlled because I had very little actual control. I had no confidence in my teaching skills (rightly, new teachers are, through no fault of their own, roundly bad) so I tried to control everything else. Anything that could have a rule or a procedure had one. We practiced. We drilled. We worked on those procedures until I felt like every student could do them in their sleep. How do we get drinks? How do we line up? How do we sharpen pencils? The discipline plan was spelled out to the letter, with eventualities and hypotheticals sketched and prepared for.

It took years for those rules to relax. The process started when I began to use other teachers as as models and mentors. I learn just as well from negative role models as I do from positive ones. I turn weakness into strength and make sure it doesn’t become my problem.

When I taught 6th grade in Hawaii I worked with two of the meanest, most negative, awful teachers I’ve ever met (who I talk about in greater detail in He’s the Weird Teacher). Kids were terrified of them. Crying-in-the-office terrified. They called themselves “Hammer One” and “Hammer Two.” The students didn’t name them that, let me be clear. They proudly named themselves that. If you got in trouble in one class she would send you to the other who would roundly savage you in front of her class as well.

Once in class we were talking about suspense. I defined it for the kids (third year- I define, they nod) and then asked for examples, expecting a story from a movie or a book. Instead a student raised her hand. “It’s like when we have to go to Mrs.----’s class,” she said. I asked her to go on. “Well, we know someone is going to get in trouble. But we don’t know who or why.”

My classroom got progressively more positive that year. I responded to the negativity by going hard the other direction. My kids might have had too much slack in my class, but I didn’t care. They needed it. And you know what? I never had any serious discipline issues. I was starting to be more myself in my room because I had to be to be the counter to Hammers One and Two, and it was working. I began to crystalize the core of my teaching personality in that awful year.

Looking back I can see the steps leading to my release of control. How decisions I made and thoughts I had brought me to what my classroom is now. I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching. I believe I should be able to answer “Why?” to literally everything that happens in my classroom. I mean literally literally too, not figuratively literally like it gets used literally all the time online. If the answer to Why doesn’t pass my BS Meter, I need to change or junk the choice. Can’t be precious with ideas in education, kids don’t care if you think your idea is great.

My classroom this year is the most relaxed class I’ve ever had. My seating arrangement involves varied height desks, bean bag chairs, wobble stools, standing, and sitting on desks. There’s a lot of student talking. There’s silliness. There’s vague specificity. I get away with this because my group this year is almost perfect for this style of teaching. Or has my style of teaching created a class perfectly suited for it? Little of A, little of B perhaps.

I have begun giving extremely loose directions. This too started a few years ago, timidly at first. Widening the scope of a project. Trying to keep in mind the learning goal rather than the end project result. I realize this kind of thing is something we hear on Twitter all the time, but this was well before that. I was having these slow moments on my own. Light bulbs coming on, encouraging me to trust my own students.

“How long does this have to be?” Until it’s done.

“Can we work in a group?” You need to accomplish x. Find a way to do that.

“I don’t know how this program works.” Huh, I bet you can figure that out.

“Can I do a play instead?” Sure, as long as x. That’s our target.

Kids were lighting up, having fun, being creative. I started sending that message right away, Day One this year. I don’t assign seating. Kids come in, “Where do I sit?” “You’re a fifth grader. Find a place to sit.”

Our rules start as a giant student-created list of everything they think a classroom needs to run well. The whiteboards are filled. Together we whittle the rules down to four- Be safe, be responsible, be respectful, make good choices. Then we trim that down to one overarching rule- Be Cool. If you can’t remember anything else you can remember that behavior goal- Be cool.

I don’t give student jobs any more. If something needs doing do it, not because it’s your job but because you’re a citizen of our classroom. Everyone is Library Monitor. Clean up the class library, those are our books. Everyone is Door Monitor. Hold the door, be cool. Everyone is Attendance Monitor, let me know if one of your tablemate is absent. Anyone can be Line Leader because come on, you’re fifth graders and that’s just a silly thing to fight over. I’m not regulating that.

Make the room simpler. Simpler means less to remember. Means more flexibility. No one is waiting for someone else to tell them what to do because they know I trust them to do it.

I’m loving my stripped down classroom. It’s allowing me to build around it in other ways. I’m building more creative lesson plans that allow more freedom. I’m building better relationships because I’ve stripped away the things that told kids, “I don’t trust you. You need to be controlled.”

I have no idea if this will work in your room. Everyone is different. I’m positive my classroom works in my way because of who I am and the teacher I’ve become. Confidence allows me to get away with a lot. I’ve seen my way works and now I’m playing with that, taking the line out as far as I can.

Strip your classroom down to its bare parts. Make it a lean, mean, learning machine. Give yourself and your students freedom. Watch it go.

About the Author:
Doug Robertson is a tenth-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon, the CUE blog editor, and Slytherin faculty representative. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of two books about education,He’s the Weird Teacher andTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome) and an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words).  Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST


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