Public Schools to Teachers: Run Your Class on Fear or Get Fired
To her face we called her Mrs. Thompson, but behind her back it was “Sarge.”
Sarge was our 8th grade Language Arts teacher. Rumor was that she’d been in the military, maybe an officer in the Women’s Air Corps, maybe part of the Normandy invasion, charging the beach with a knife in her teeth. Her necklace of Nazi ears was stored away in her top desk drawer.
No one knew the full truth. The legend grew with each successive school year.
Sarge was squat with a short, salt and pepper bristly haircut, and an authoritative, gravelly voice. Think R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket.
Oh, and the stare. Try to pass a note to a friend, she would see you and give you the stare, and then you would shred the paper yourself, rather than waiting for Sarge to come and do it for you.
On the other hand, Mrs. Thompson was also deeply kind and enthusiastic and loving, and one of the most important teachers in my life. I am more than 30 years removed from her classroom and I can conjure her like it was yesterday.
When I first heard of a system called “No Nonsense Nurturing,” via a middle-school teacher Amy Berard’s first-hand account (first published at the EduShyster blog), I thought of Mrs. Thompson, whose entire being seemed to be anti-nonsense.
Berard recounts her experience working with the Center for Transformative Teacher Training, which uses the No Nonsense Nurturing system to “train” teachers in their particular method of “classroom management.”
During the “real time teacher coaching,” the instructor wears an earpiece and is coached in the NNN method by observers in the back of the classroom. As educator Peter Greene argues, No Nonsense Nurturing is the latest iteration of “scripted” lessons which aim to “human-proof” the classroom. The NNN instructor is told to use short phrases focused on the immediate task at hand, including narration of what the instructor observes each student doing.
As Berard says:
As my students entered the room, I was supposed to say: “In seats, zero talking, page 6 questions, 1-4.” I don’t even talk to my dog like that. Constant narration of what the students are doing is also key to the NNN teaching style. “Noel is finishing question 3. Marjorie is sitting silently. Alfredo is on page 6.”
But Berard’s application of the method displeased her observers. She expressed too much enthusiasm. She started injecting “I see” into her observations, (“I see Victor is on page 6.”), and was told to return to “is.” Seeing through the B.S., Berard’s students began mocking the method, turning it around: “Mrs. Berard is helping Christian.” “Mrs. Berard is reviewing the answer to question 4.”
In the end, Amy Berard’s own students implored her to “just be herself.”
The whole story is heartbreaking, made even moreso by the shills in the comments showing up to claim that this garbage somehow transformed their teaching.
But as Peter Greene notes, the core principles of No Nonsense Nuturing (PDF):
1. I have to earn the respect of my students.
2. I expect 100% compliance from all of my students 100% of the time.
… are inherently contradictory.
Compliance has much more to do with fear than respect. It’s not a particularly inviting atmosphere in which to learn.
But didn’t I fear Mrs. Thompson? Isn’t that how she managed her classroom?
In reality, no. Mrs. Thompson managed her classroom in a way consistent with who she was, and any fear we might’ve had was in disappointing her because her belief in the importance of her work and in her students’ potential was utterly apparent.
Yes, she could be strict during a lesson, requesting and receiving sufficient (though rarely 100%) order. But she was also fun. The highlight of my entire year was having her read a page from one of my creative writing assignments out loud to the class and hearing her deep laugh boom throughout the room.
Following an all-class spelling bee that came down to two competitors and finally ended after 15 minutes of back and forth that had us all holding our breaths, Mrs. Thompson put her arm around the vanquished competitor who looked to be on the verge of tears and said, “That was just marvelous!” and the classroom burst into applause.
“Marvelous,” likely not sanctioned by the No Nonsense Nurturing system, was her favorite praise word.
Somewhere along the line, the school reform movement decided that fear would be their governing value. We will be afraid that students aren’t learning. We will be afraid that teachers aren’t teaching. The reformers are now so desperate, that they’re repackaging fear as nurturing.
To overcome this fear, we embrace these systems, things we can control, without questioning if those things we can control really have value. Standardized testing begets standardized instruction, which squeezes out electives like art, music, dance, which begets bored and disengaged students, which requires programs oriented around compliance and control.
Here’s the worst part. Even when these programs “work” and raise student achievement on these standardized metrics, they are harmful.
I see the results in my college classroom, where students increasingly arrive drained of curiosity and enthusiasm, waiting to be told exactly what to do and how to do it so they can jump through the next hoop, and the next.
They are anxious, and depressed. They have a hard time articulating their own goals and desires.
And these are the success stories.
We also cannot help but notice that these systems are exclusively visited upon poor and minority school districts, where precious dollars are funneled to consultants and training, rather than teachers and teaching.
You will not find No Nonsense Nurturing at Sidwell Friends where President Obama’s daughters attend, or Lakeside in Seattle where Bill Gates sends his children.
Those schools treat their teachers as what they are: professionals. They recognize learning for what it is, a process that must be at least a little bit messy if it is going to be meaningful, where beginning teachers get better by working closely with those who are more experienced.
We must even allow for a sufficient portion of nonsense. Mrs. Thompson was well aware of the legends surrounding her. It’s likely that she even stoked some of the tallest tales herself.
I cannot think of another profession that is treated more poorly—that is subject to so much counterproductive oversight and monitoring—as teaching. A teacher working with students while wearing an in-ear monitor should be something out of a dystopia, not a real-life classroom.
I wish Mrs. Thompson was still around and they stuck one of those things in her ear and they tried to start telling her what to do, and they in turn would get the stare.
It would be marvelous to see.