There is nothing wrong with teachers controlling the classroom

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I am not an advocate of ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies. I have never visited a zero tolerance school so I withhold judgement on what the atmosphere is like but, on paper, some of the rules read as a little eccentric. And I don’t like the name ‘zero tolerance’ because we all have to tolerate all sorts of indignities in everyday life. Like the similar term, ‘no-excuses’, I don’t think it can actually mean zero in practice because there are exceptions to any rule.

I also think these labels can be interpreted very darkly. Zero tolerance schools may be perceived as only seeking to reward and punish students rather than instruct them in how to behave. A student from a chaotic family background may simply not know what is expected. And so I think teachers have a role in teaching these conventions, and with good humour. In fact, it is the withholding of this knowledge that is exclusionary.

The conventions of the school do not, as many seem to believe, originate on the noisy floors of satanic mills. Western academia finds its origins in monasticism and this is where the traditions of academic life began. And they have a function. We sit quietly so that we may listen to what is being said or so that we may think clearly. We work at desks because this is the best arrangement for reading and writing. As long as we value academic goals then these conventions are valid and worth passing on to students. Of course, it is possible to argue that some students are, by nature, not suited to such conditions, but to do so is an exclusionary form of essentialism.

As a student, I used to sit with my friends and pass judgement on my teachers. The worst criticism we could mount was that a teacher, ‘cannot control the class’. We did not revel in the freedom that this created because there was no freedom. As soon as an adult loses authority then the students are at the mercy of the hierarchies that have evolved among themselves. These are often chaotic, capricious and less benign and inclusive than teacher authority.

And so I have some sympathy with the argument on the AARE blog that we should teach students to take responsibility for their learning. But I have to reject the overall thrust of the piece because it seeks to argue against zero-tolerance policies by arguing against teacher control.

We read that, “control and quick fixes more often exacerbate behaviour problems in schools.” Teacher control and student compliance are mentioned throughout the piece in a negative light. Well-researched strategies are dismissed on the grounds that they view classroom behaviour management only through a teacher-centred lens.

Historians of education will be able to point to where these anti-compliance, anti-control ideas come from. They are present in early 20th century progressivism that viewed learning as a natural process or form of ‘development’. Teacher coercion was theorised to be a bad thing because it disrupts the kind of learning that is driven by a child’s natural curiosity. Not only have such ideas been found thoroughly wanting in the hundred-or-so years since they became mainstream in educational research, we now understand why they are fatally flawed. Progressivism assumes that unnatural acts such as reading and writing will be picked-up implicitly in the same way that children learn to talk and to walk.

Australia is currently in the grip of a behaviour crisis in our schools. Arguments against teachers taking control only make matters worse, particularly when the kinds of strategies that might address the issue are demonised on ideological grounds.

“You know what your problem is,” says the researcher to the teacher with the out-of-control class, “You are too focused on student compliance.”

[Exit the teacher stage left]

It’s not helpful. It’s not helpful at all.


9 thoughts on “There is nothing wrong with teachers controlling the classroom

  1. Agree completely. Well-reasoned piece drawing together many of the contextual factors.

    I would add parent expectations as a factor – I’ve never met a parent who didn’t think a quiet, respectful classroom was meant to be a norm. Of course, the worst-behaved students often have absent parents, and as you’ve argued, in that sense I see it as our role to help students understand what civil society sees as respectful discourse.

    1. Well, if you are from the UK, there are over 20,000 schools in England alone, so perhaps you should consider that ‘schools you know or have worked in’ may not actually represent a statistically valid sample.

  2. An excellent resource for anyone trying to figure out how much of an adult their children are and how to understand the progression:

  3. In my experience (as a teacher in the United States), “zero tolerance” means precisely that: No context, no maybes, no looking at different perspectives. Wave a finger like it’s a gun? Two weeks suspension. Defend yourself from another student punching you repeatedly? Two weeks suspension.

    There’s nothing wrong with teachers and school administrators creating a safe climate through fair but rigorous application of corrective rules. There is absolutely something wrong with zero tolerance policies.

    1. Agreed. “Zero tolerance” is a dumb expression invented by spin doctors to help make politicians sound “tough”. It has no place (zero place?) in education.

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