Thursday, May 18, 2006

Classroom Management.

My classroom management has improved a lot since I've been here. I'm not sure if this is good or not. There are obvious reasons why it might not be. For example, a strict classroom is generally less fun than a noisy, somewhat out of control class, and students obviously learn better when they're having fun (all other things being equal). But my the way my attitude towards discipline has changed is interesting.

When I came, I had these ideals of classroom management:

1) I should treat the students as equals, explaining and justifying disciplinary action.
2) I should keep a sense of humor.
3) I should create clear rules that are followed consistently.

These sure look good here in wordpad. But at one point or another, every one went out the window, either accidentally or systematically.

I gave up on (1) mostly as an anti-whining measure. Students were not interested in a rational discussion of whether or not they had deserved to be reseated next to a girl to shut them up, they generally wanted to prolong the whining as long as they could, because as long as someone is listening to your whining, there's hope that you won't have to sit next to Ainur.

(2) has unfortunately lost a lot of ground, as have many of the other things that require a sense of humor, just as a result of my being here. I have a student who is pathologically unable to listen to anything that is not a response to a direct question that she has asked whom I always scold for making me repeat instructions three or four times. One time I was drawing a graph in a particularly frustrating math class, and someone said in Russian that there were axes already drawn on the other side of the fold-out chalkboard. I didn't understand them the first two times they said it, and only after the third did I look and see what they were talking about. The non-listening girl said, "Well, if you listened the FIRST time," which made the whole class laugh. If I had been a student, it would have made me laugh too. But I was frustrated that day, and I guess the look on my face was pretty venemous when I turned around, because the class immediately went dead silent. A few hours later I felt like a bad person. A sense of humor is a tough thing to maintain constantly.

But (3) is the interesting one. One major problem that Americans face is that we can't scold people. There's no detention in Kazakh schools, so the major way that students are disciplined are through dressings-down. I suppose it's because they culturally respect authority, but here a zavuch can make even the hardest eggs break into tears only by scolding them about the way they're dressed (which I can't really imagine happening in an American high school). This option is not available to me, because when I scold in Kazakh, or even in Russian, I'm funny, because I make grammar mistakes. The angrier I am, the more and funnier the mistakes I make. I'm very familiar with the look of a student's face trying to look contrite while also trying not to laugh. I can drag students to other teachers to have them scold them, but that can't be done too often. I have a punishment defecit.

One way to make up for this is fear. By administering the few punishments I have (reseating students, making the class do silent work, or kicking a student out of class) less consistently, and never giving in to protests of injustice, I can instill fear in the students. The first hint that I might be getting angry makes them think that the next moment they could be kicked out of class for talking to their neighbor. One really doesn't have to administer very much acutal punishment to create fear, as long as it is done with some degree of arbitrariness and surprise. If I may flatter myself, the Peace Corps has taught me a lot about creating fear in children. It is not just, but I do it with their best interest in mind - by controlling the classroom, it allows me to lead the class and help them get an education, right?

I wonder, though, if I'm losing the war to win a battle. It's a teaching cliche that you teach the student, not the subject. The last thing the world needs is more people who fearfully obey orders and believe that punishment is delivered to the weak by the strong according to whims and not justice. Ultimately, I may be making my punishments arbitrary with a just cause in mind, but this is certainly lost on the students. Is learning how to factor quadratic expressions worth this? The answer is not clear. But I can imagine a dictator, at the head of a state and not a classroom, asking himself the same question, and it makes me want to tolerate a little more rowdiness.