Whenever I take a class for the first time, I give them a talk. One of the points I make goes something like this:
Asking questions is important. It allows me to figure out what you know and what you don’t know, and it reveals misconceptions that I need to address. So asking questions makes my teaching better. However, to make use of this, I need to target these questions. So I usually won’t ask you to raise your hands because I’ll select who answers. And it also means that everyone must feel comfortable and relaxed when they answer. So I will never make fun of an answer and I will not tolerate any one mocking someone else’s answer.
There is certainly a place for humour in my classroom, but never at the expense of a student. The reasons are partly pragmatic: If students fear the reception their answers may receive, they will shut down and I won’t get the information I need to do my job properly. But it is also a moral position. Mocking the responses of students is unkind. There is enough unkindness in the world without it taking residence in my classroom.
Children are not naturally kind to each other all of the time. They can be quite cruel. They can make fun of each others’ appearance or mock each other over quite trivial things like not having the right brand of school bag. They have to learn socially acceptable adult behaviours and these seem to come with age and experience. One of the experiences that may lead to a more mature approach is the modelling provided by productive classroom interactions. I suspect there is often more unkindness when students work on group assignments than when the teacher is leading the class, and this is one of the reasons why I don’t buy into the notion of Utopian student-centred classrooms.
I am able to create a kind classroom environment because I ‘will not tolerate’ the alternative. And that requires me to have authority. It means that students need to be concerned about the potential consequences of challenging me on this principle. This is not arbitrary authoritarianism. It is the assertion of a benevolent authority in the pursuit of a clear, morally defensible objective.
It is therefore a slur to suggest that teachers who lead their classrooms and use whole-class, explicit teaching are in some way harsh and uncaring. Just like those unkind words in class, I am not going to tolerate it any more and I invite you to do the same.