Five basic — but misinterpreted — keys to creating a cool classroom culture

doing the right thing book

Here’s an excerpt from a new book about American education by veteran teacher David Greene called Doing the Right Thing — A Teacher Speaks. Greene taught social studies and coached in New York City schools for 38 years, worked as a field supervisor for Fordham University, mentored Teach For America Corps members in the Bronx and was a staff member of WISE Services. Greene looks at the current school reform era and how great  teachers do what they do every day. This part of the book deals with the five basic but often misinterpreted principles behind creating a productive classroom culture.

 

By David Greene

If the school you work in or your child goes to doesn’t help teachers maintain what many authors and experts have identified as the five aspects of classroom culture, you are dead meat. They are Discipline, Engagement, Control, Influence, and Management (D.E.C.I.M.) Often misinterpreted, these five principles are the keys to a successful school and its classrooms.

Not only is it necessary to accurately define these principles; it is even more necessary to use them naturally. The order these are presented is not relevant. They are like the five fingers on a hand. Each does its own thing, but together they make a powerful fist.

Discipline: This is a misused word. Think not of disciplining students. Think of their self-discipline. Do they have the self-discipline to do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons? Do they have the self control? Do they have the focus to follow the instructions? Can they understand the process? Do they know how to be students? If students don’t, they have to be taught. Who else but the classroom teacher will teach them how to be a successful student and class member? We cannot assume they already know. Most kids want to do well. They want to live up to high expectations given by someone they believe believes in them. However, as much as they might want to, they may not have a clue as to how to live up to those expectations. Sometimes, this even means teaching what may be mundane and obvious steps.

 

Engagement: This is a powerful word. Kids learn best while engaged in activities that inspire learning. They are what they do. The more they are positively and intrinsically engaged in learning, the sooner they believe in themselves as positively and intrinsically engaged learners. As this is internalized in more and more students, the classroom atmosphere is more conducive to learning without external manipulation. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

 

Control: The best, most powerful controllers are invisible. Advertisers control you. They get you to think you need something you never wanted in the first place. What supervisors call classroom management is really classroom control. It is power clearly, yet invisibly, wielded. Walk into a classroom where students are sitting up, actively participating without much prodding, listening to each other, and you are in a controlled environment. Their proper behaviors speak volumes. Ultimately, it is the specific, concise, positive, firm, encouraging, civil, respectful language of control that creates these classrooms.

 

Influence: Internalize. Inspire. Influence. Taken together, we have the kind of influence we want to have with our students. Internal drive (as Daniel Pink points out in his 2009 book, Drive) motivates best. When students know our belief in them is strong, they respond positively. Our best teachers were our most inspiring. They are the ones who influence us to go on to bigger and better things.

 

Management: Often, the first thing new teachers are told to concern themselves with is “classroom management.” Too often, it is the only thing they are told to concern themselves with. How wrong is that? Management is a corporate word. It is a system of rewards and punishments to control and reinforce behavior. If we understand that, we see how wrong it is to focus on management to create a positive classroom culture. Do we want kids using extrinsic motivation (hope of reward, fear of punishment) to inspire learning? I don’t think so. We have all seen those classrooms. Psychologists know extrinsic motivation simply changes what is important to kids. It changes the rules of the survival game. As a result of our new teaching dynamic, many teachers, being human and easily swayed by incentives, simply stop helping kids learn and instead ensure they do well on tests. These are not the same goals or achievements. Over time, the rewards and punishments have to escalate in order to have the same effects. Ultimately, the outcome is that students recognize the failure of teachers to motivate and believe in them. This is no way to have relationships with students, and, as we know, the ability to develop relationships makes good teachers better.

 

If these principles are used apart from each other, the sound of a classroom is a cacophony of random musical notes. Together, these five principles make a powerful song of learning. A classroom should dance to the music of D.E.C.I.M. As “Sly” Stewart of Sly and The Family Stone wrote in his song, “Dance to the Music”:

All we need is a drummer, (Discipline)

For people who only need a beat, yeah!

I’m gonna add a little guitar, (Engagement)

And make it easy to move your feet.

I’m gonna add some bottom, (Control)

So that the dancers a-just won’t hide.

You might like to hear my organ, (Influence)

I said, “Ride, Sally, Ride, now.”

If I could a-hear the horns blow, (Management)

Cynthia on the throne, yeah!

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 20, 2013