In less than a minute, I knew I was in trouble. Like most veteran teachers, I had finely tuned antennae, and the signals were very clear; I hadn’t even introduced myself yet, and there were a number of very loud conversations that weren’t even slightly affected by the first bell starting the first day of class. A core of students who had chosen to sit together as they came into the room for the first time were clearly and intentionally ignoring me. Trouble.
It is moments like these that put a teacher’s experience and instincts to the test. I knew I would have to be forceful to establish my authority - there’s no way that this kind of behavior is going to fly - but my message from the start is that I want us to work together as a community so that I don’t need to use force.
I struggled through that first class, trying unsuccessfully to find a balance. It was no good. They weren’t buying. I tried every approach I could think of and still the whole period was a relentless struggle to maintain control.
I have to say, it was a rude awakening. I hadn’t experienced any serious power struggles in years, and I was out of practice. When there are one or two disruptive students, a few private conversations are usually all that are needed. In this case, there were eight or nine students who were intent on testing me, and they were working together to maintain the upper hand.
As the weeks progressed and I set up study groups to foster independent work, I found that there was simply no way to organize the students that would be effective. Finally, out of the obvious fact that they weren’t working, I brought the whole class to the front and changed the rules.
“It breaks my heart, but this can’t go on. There are some people in this room who really want to learn physics, and it is my job to make sure that they are able to do that. Everything I believe in makes me want to help you learn how to work independently and own your own learning, but it is clear that we can’t do that in this class at this time. So I’m going to shift gears.
“From today on, we are going to revert to a traditional, teacher-directed class. There aren’t going to be any more study groups or open work time. We are all going to do the same thing at the same time, even though I don’t believe in it.
“And I am reluctantly going to become your boss about behavior. I don’t like being a disciplinarian and I haven’t issued a detention in many years, but that’s about to change. I don’t want to get into too many details right now - it’s just too negative and besides, it doesn’t apply to most of you - but over the next few days, I will have conversations with several of you to discuss how this is going to unfold.”
I followed up with individual conversations with six or seven students. I told them exactly what behaviors I was no longer going to allow, and laid out the escalating sequence of consequences that would happen if they persisted. And I told them I would be relentless in following through; I intended to regain the classroom that I knew the other students deserved.
The first few weeks were difficult. I had had conversations with the deans about the situation and had warned them that I would be needing their support. I hadn’t “written up” a student in so many years that I had to relearn the necessary forms. But learn them I did. And there were some challenging moments in the classroom when I began implementing the new approach.
Since I hadn’t needed their help in the past, the deans understood that this was an unusually difficult situation and we worked well together. For a while, it looked like the classroom struggle might escalate, but after a few weeks, the two most disruptive students were spending so much time in the dean’s office that their counselors intervened and transferred them to another class.
I never told the other students that that had happened, but everyone knew, and it made a difference. But even with less defiance and disruption, we were still a long way from student-directed learning.
After several months, I carefully reintroduced the idea of study groups. I created several groups that I thought might be viable, and let them go over homework independently in the back of the room while I went over it in a teacher-dominated structure with everyone else. If the groups in back didn’t work out, I pulled them back in front to work with me.
Eventually, there were two groups able to do work reasonably well on their own. The other students saw the contrast (with my active encouragement) and I began asking “Who feelsready to work on your own in the back?” When that became the more enticing option, it began to take root. If one student in a group drove them off task too often, or was too disruptive, the others in the group would make him stop, since it jeopardized their ability to continue to work. Once peer pressure replaced my interventions, I knew we had made progress.
By the second semester, we had a fragile but functioning working arrangement. It was what I would consider a limited success, but the students who were intent on learning were able to finally take advantage of the study group approach..
This experience was an important lesson for me, especially since it occurred towards the end of my career. I saw again how stubbornly self-destructive students’ attitudes can be towards school, and how group dynamics can work as intensely against student success as it can towards that success. It also reminded me that when a classroom is run as an island of one philosophy in a sea of a different (or no) philosophy, it becomes much harder, and sometimes impossible, to establish a true community of learners.