“Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut

I was a public high school English teacher for almost two decades in the rural upstate of South Carolina.

My first years were nearly overwhelming—as they are for most beginning teachers. And I would concede that much of that struggling could easily be categorized as classroom management challenges (although having five different preps, 15 different textbooks, and classes as large as 35 students certainly didn’t help).

Yet, then and now, as I approach the middle of my third decade teaching, I tend to reject the terms “discipline” and “classroom management” because they carry connotations I cannot endorse.

First, framing classroom management as something separate from pedagogy, I believe, is a mistake. In other words, effective and engaging pedagogy creates the environment that renders so-called (and generic) classroom management strategies unnecessary.

Next, most claims about “discipline” and “classroom management” remain trapped in reductive behavioristic ideology as well as authoritarian views of the teacher (in which authority is linked by default to the position).

As a critical educator, I seek to be authoritative, not authoritarian (see Paulo Freire). In other words, I forefront the human dignity and agency of my students, I seek always to model the person and learner I feel my students should emulate, and I work diligently to earn the respect of my students, in part, because of my expertise and credibility in terms of what content I am teaching.

But having taught public school, I know the real world is messy: students become confrontational with their peers and even teachers. School can be (and in some places often is) a physically and psychologically dangerous and uncomfortable place, rendering learning less important.

And I also recognize that each teacher is legally and morally the central figure of authority in any classroom. Yes, as a teacher, I must assert that authority any time the safety, health, or opportunity to learn of any students is threatened.

So when I am teaching pre-service teacher candidates, I urge them to take certain steps in their day-to-day interactions with students as well as in confrontational events.

I urge them always to speak to students with “please” and “thank you.” I stress that whenever students become loud, belligerent, or threatening, the teacher must lower her/his voice, mediate her/his language, increase her/his patience, and seek ways to give the student space and time in order to protect all innocent students and the upset student.

I say “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” to students because my father raised me that way. However, my father’s own authoritarian style (“do as I say, not as I do”) also imprinted on me my fear of hypocrisy; therefore, I seek always to have higher standards for my own behavior than for the behavior of my students.

All of that—and more—is to say that when I read A ‘No-Nonsense’ Classroom Where Teachers Don’t Say ‘Please’ I was horrified because of both the abusive treatment of children and the (not surprising) cavalier endorsement by NPR.

The problems are almost too numerous to list, but I’ll try.

First, the so-called “unique teaching method”—”no-nonsense nurturing”—is a program (from “Center for Transformative Teacher Training, an education consulting company based in San Francisco”), and thus, NPR’s reporting proves to be little more than a PR campaign for that company.

Next, these harsh and dehumanizing methods are yet more of the larger “no excuses” ideology that targets primarily children in poverty and black/brown children. In other words, there is a general willingness to endorse authoritarian methods as long as the children are “other people’s children”—code for the poor and racial minorities.

And then, related, the direct justification for that authoritarianism is that parents choose this for their children.

Here, I want to stress again what I have examined before (see here and here):

  • Be skeptical of idealizing parental choice. Parents can and do make horrible choices for their children, and children should not be condemned only to the coincidences of their births.
  • Many scholars have addressed the self-defeating choices within racial minority communities that stem from unhealthy dynamics related to being a marginalized and oppressed people; see Michelle Alexander on black neighborhoods calling for greater police presence and Stacy Patton (here and here) on blacks disproportionately embracing corporal punishment. I have applied that same dynamic to blacks choosing “no excuses” charter schools.

While the NPR article notes that these practices “[make] some education specialists uncomfortable,” I must note this is not about being “uncomfortable.”

These practices are not providing “structure,” but are dehumanizing.

As well, these practices are racist and classist, and ultimately abusive. Period.

Our vulnerable populations of students already have unfair and harsh lives outside of school. Doubling down on indignity during the school day is not the answer.

If we cannot change the world (and I suspect we can’t), we can provide all children the sorts of environments all children deserve in their school day—environments of kindness, compassion, safety, and challenges.

To paraphrase Vonnegut, then, Please—a little less “no nonsense,” and a little more common decency.

See Also

If you’re a teacher, say “please” and “thank you,” Ray Salazar

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

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12 comments

  1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Excellent, Paul. I’m curious as to how you address some of these highly-sensitive issues with black parents or any parents who believe that more discipline and control is always the right answer. Anything that touches on peoples’ child-rearing decisions is likely to be volatile. I suspect you try to apply similar principles to what you describe in dealing with students, but an illustrative anecdote or two would be highly appreciated.

  2. solitaryproletarian

    Great points and a brilliant article, as relevant to the educational system here in Ireland as it is in the USA. I always felt the same way about education and I believe the best teachers I had adopted your approach. I disagree with your point about changing the world though😉 Reading a bit of Vonnegut too at the moment. Great stuff, keep ’em coming🙂

  3. Lloyd Lofthouse

    In 1975-76, I went through a full-time, year-long urban residency in a master teacher’s 5th grade multiple subject classroom in an elementary school that had close to 100% of its children living in poverty in a community dominated by violent street gangs.

    My master teacher taught me to never lose my temper and always speak in a soft voice. She said if you lose your tempter, then the disruptive student or students win that battle and learning loses. She was right.

    She said, the students must hear you no matter how loud your voice is. That means when the class is loud and ignoring you, you stand front and center and talk soft and slow until they quiet down. Eventually it always worked. Quiet students struggling to pay attention would get the noisy students to stop talking. Teacher patience is the key. That doesn’t mean it is always easy to be patient.

    My master teacher also taught me to warn students to stop what they were doing if what they were doing was disrupting the learning environment of the classroom. Warn them first before writing a referral and sending them out of the class for a time out.

    After I earned my teaching credential and started to teach full time, that usually meant going to the student’s desk and kneeling so we were eye to eye with them and then telling them in that soft, low voice to stop what they were doing. Focus on the behavior and not the student. The disruptive behavior is the problem. The student isn’t a bad person. If possible, don’t embarrass them in front of their peers. They are allowed to embarrass themselves but the teacher should never do that—NEVER!

    Usually, the third time I warned the same student for the same disruptive behavior the same class period, I’d send that student to a room called the Behavior Improvement Center (BIC) for a timeout. BIC was staffed by a well liked, popular certificated teacher who didn’t let the student sit around and socialize. He had worksheets for them in math and English. If a student sent to BIC repeated the same disruptive behavior in BIC, then they were sent to a counselor or VP.

    Also, treat every student equally every day. That means don’t pick on a repeat offender because if a teacher does, that teacher will miss the good days with that student and there area almost always good days with every student. Even the most disruptive. Children are not born that way. The home and neighborhood environment outside of the school helps them become who they are. Teachers should never contribute to any self-image damage a child faces growing up.

    That’s why these high stakes tests that label children as failures and not college and carrier ready as early as kindergarten as WRONG! That’s why the higher suspension rate in autocratic corroborate charter schools is also WRONG!

    “Unlike traditional district schools, charter schools are free to craft their own discipline policies, and some have used that autonomy to establish strict behavior codes. Escalating consequences for misdeeds like chewing gum, tardiness, talking out of turn, and dress-code violations are standard, and students who break rules repeatedly can find themselves suspended quickly.

    “Nationwide, charter and district schools are moving in a different direction. Los Angeles and San Francisco have barred suspensions of some or all students for nonviolent offenses, spurred by the findings of researchers like Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education linking middle-school suspensions to high school dropout rates.”

    http://ny.chalkbeat.org/2015/02/23/suspensions-at-city-charter-schools-far-outpace-those-at-district-schools-data-show/#.VpfLWRUrKUk

    Far too often corporate charter schools abuse students and dehumanize them in front of their peers. These children are being taught to grow up without a soul, to be dictatorial, to be mean, to act like the corporate psychopaths who are abusing them.

  4. Blue Cereal

    It’s nice to read someone with your credibility advocating for a less authoritarian, less ‘pissing contest’ approach to classroom management, without asserting this will somehow magically solve every discipline issue or fix every situation. We should treat students with a little more respect and decency because it’s the right thing to do. The bonus is that it tends to reduce tension or conflict in the classroom.

    Even when we have to ‘be the teacher’ or reign someone in so that other students’ can learn or b/c we have an obligation to provide SOME order and security, the idea that we have to choose between being ‘robotic jailers’ and ‘feeling-sharing nurture-buddies’ is horrifying – one more false dichotomy out there keeping teachers arguing.

    I love your perspective in this piece, and of course you never fail to bring it home to the ‘uncomfortable reality’ zone. Thank you for all of them, but especially for this one.

  5. Norah

    Hi Paul, I really enjoyed your article. Putting children to the front and centre and showing them respect is crucial. Modelling the behaviour you wish to see is so important. I very much agree with this statement towards the conclusion of your post: If we cannot change the world (and I suspect we can’t), we can provide all children the sorts of environments all children deserve in their school day—environments of kindness, compassion, safety, and challenges. I’d love to wave my magic wand! This message is important and needs to be repeated often. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Pingback: Report: Never Say “Please” to Students | Diane Ravitch's blog
  7. Mary Langer Thompson

    You and Vonnegut are so right. And trained teachers should know that motivation of students is the first step in your lesson so they become interested and classroom “management” becomes non-existent. The one program I do advocate, however, is Love and Logic. It reminds us that when someone is starting to get out of control, one always delivers the empathy first. “I understand you’re upset…” etc. The program was started in the 70’s by two psychologists.

  8. Pingback: Once upon a time … the power of story | Norah Colvin
  9. crunchydeb

    I love it! This was a lesson I learned more as a parent than as a teacher, but the same principles apply – and when I went back to the classroom as a substitute teacher, I found that this approach paid dividends, to the point where I was able to bow out of my neighborhood elementary school’s stick-and-carrot PBIS approach almost entirely without the kids noticing. My last long-term job teaching music (nearly an entire school year), I engaged even my Kindergarten classes this way. Since I was “only” a substitute teacher, nobody ever came to observe me or offer any criticisms of my classroom, so the usual list of “Class Rules” never got made; for both blatant and mild issues that came up, a short touching-base, followed by the least-disruptive reaction from me that was effective and allowed us to keep momentum (perhaps offer to move a student away from an offending classmate and deal with the situation more comprehensively AFTER my 40-minute-a-week time period was up). I found myself wishing on more than one occasion that I’d learned about this a lot sooner in my Teaching/Adulting career.

    Fast-forward to my interview for a full-time contract position in the district and the inevitable “Tell us about discipline” question: “So you’re teaching and Bobby hits Suzie. What do you do?” Let me tell you, the answer “It depends” does NOT go over well. Neither does not having a list of incontrovertible expectations and penalties on your wall from Day One.😛

    And, I am sad to report, the same goes for interactions between/among adults here: too often, situations with teachers are handled punitively when they could be handled respectfully, with dialogue. Kindness and connection really are key.

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