The Classroom Management Charade

Back at the beginning of October, I spent three days being oriented to teaching in Korea at a nice little conference resort place…thingy.  I’m not going to go into details about the event, suffice it to say there were a lot of Americans, Canadians, South Africans, English and Irish.  We got to know one another and we spent about 24 hours listening to lectures on our roles as Native English Teachers (NETs).

Even though each speaker was given specific topics, the topic of how to control your students and managing the classroom was a common topic throughout the conference.   The first tip usually given in classroom management almost always focuses on “be fun”!  It seems (and maybe rightly so) that as NETs, our role is to be fun! Be Funny! And never boring.  So, to start lessons or the “warm-up” as I’ve been taught, should be something light, fun and funny.  I guess I’m ok with this.

The next topic was straight into discipline.  Here are the two main categories: 1) Token Economies and 2) Negative Discipline.  We’ll leave negative discipline out this time, maybe I’ll do a part two in the future.

Token Economies

What this seemed to come down to, to me, was candy.  Candy, candy, candy.  Motivate your students through their sweet-tooths.  You give candy for correct answers and good behavior.  The biggest problem seems to be that, you end up spending money on candy which over time, sounds awful.  But, in addition, the bribe model, while perhaps effective in some way, doesn’t seem to be the kind of motivation that is fundamentally required to meet the goals of the class.  I also don’t think candy is going to decrease bad behavior.  The “trouble-makers” may from time to time value candy over their social-place (and the maintenance that is required therein), but I can’t imagine this being a long-term motivator for them.  Perhaps the solution could be in making the candy a community based reward, where no one gets candy unless the class reaches a threshold of good behavior/meeting class objectives/etc..

Community-based rewards might actually work in a society, like Korea.  However, I’m not sure I could actually pit the students against themselves.  It may create conformity in the direction that I feel I want, but it may also create resentment, entrenchment and, worst of all, a continued feeling that learning is another form of punishment.

Other token economies include using classroom “money”, which allows you to conserve your actual rewards (and maybe even make them better) but suffers, fundamentally, from the same problems as noted above.  Also mentioned was the idea of “leveling up”.  This is the idea of gamification and  I actually like this idea the best, as it creates a system of progress that the students can track and follow (albeit arbitrary and not necessarily relatable to their progress as English speakers).  At the basic level, this economy is based on climbing a latter of “titles”.  There were some good ideas presented in the conference that involved this kind of classroom economy.  Beyond giving titles, with such a system you can also designate new responsibilities, with certain privileges.

Gamifying my classroom sounds very attractive  but I’ll admit to a great deal of hesitance as well.  I think this video from a DICE conference might help show why it scares me a little.  In the beginning of the presentation, the presenter cracks some jokes about traditional gaming, talks about Facebook and then starts talking about why Facebook games are so successful.  Essentially it comes down to “achievements” and authenticity.  The older gamer notion of “I play games to escape reality” is going out the window and games are making their way back to the real world via social networks etc.  Throughout the presentation, I felt more and more excited about the idea of gamification, however, when the presenter gives his idea of the “future”, I lost my appetite   You can just skip to the end of the talk and listen yourself; what he says is that he “sees a future” where everything you do is motivated by competition with your social network.  Brushing your teeth; social network game with ranks/rewards.  Eating breakfast? play the game on the back of the box and get points to show your friends you’re the best at corn flakes.

Who pays for this? Well the tooth paste companies for one.  A game that gives you plus points for brushing more often and for longer periods? That benefits corporations invested in toothbrushes and toothpaste.  That particular example isn’t so frightening, but it doesn’t take much to realize that making everything a competition is going to get invasive pretty fast, not to mention straining on relationships.

Anyway, back to token economies, some other potential problems with such a system is that you still maintain a “have/have not” classroom management style.  It would be necessary to make sure all students had equal access to progression, regardless of their proficiency in English.  Some students simply will not progress in their English, and it isn’t always because they are bad students, lazy, un-motivated or stupid.  In fact, I would say those reasons are unlikely.  A short anecdote: A few weeks ago, I did an activity with my 9th graders that had them asking their fellow students what they expected to be doing in one year, five years, ten years etc..  I have one student in particular who is not usually very interested in learning.  I don’t know too much about him just yet, but based on superficial things, he seems like a leader, he seems poor, his clothes are messier than his peers and he is, in general, more of a “this shit doesn’t matter” kind of kid.  I think I would call him Authentic, in a certain way.  Most kids have a bull-shit detector, but his is well-tuned.

As usual, his participation in the activity was minimal, so I walked over and asked him the questions (I was filling out a worksheet just like they were).  His answers were enlightening.  I asked “where are you going to be in five years?”

“I don’t know.”


“Because I have no future.”

The classroom was loud, students were moving around, but my heart was breaking.  This boy wasn’t joking around.  He wasn’t laughing.  He also wasn’t crying about it.  He was just telling me the facts.  Thinking about five years into the future wasn’t exactly exciting for him, because it’s already been decided.  In the worst kind way, this boy has created a self-fullfilling prophecy about his future.  Because he believes it to be already decided (and the result is bad), he need not worry about something so useless, so upper-class and so wasteful as learning English.  What use would he have of it?  To guide tourist around his town? (This sounds a little crass, but I’m just trying to think from his position).

The point is this: this boy’s perceived “bad behavior” is just as likely to be based in his world-view that he has no future (for whatever reason, I haven’t gotten that far into his story) as it is that he is simply a “bad student” that he is “lazy” or “just not smart”. /end anecdote

So, back to the leveling up token economy—how would such a system include students as illustrated in a fair manner?  And, while we are considering the “bad” students, how do we maintain the motivating factor for the students who do use the system in a traditional way?  (i.e. answering questions correctly and behaving “well”).  What happens when the quiet student who participates in class in traditionally appropriate ways is leveling up at maybe the same rate as the student who is disruptive in a traditionally defined way?

Perhaps it’s not actually an issue.  Maybe this is over-thinking it, and the practicality of the matter demands a solution, even if it doesn’t address all or even most of these problems.  That’s as far as I’m willing to address the issue at this time.  My conclusion as far as Token Economies goes is that I remain underwhelmed.  That they address the symptom of the problem while ignoring the sickness itself.  Like a doctor trying to simply treat symptoms without having a diagnosis; you may be able to control the symptoms, but you won’t know if you’re moving the patient towards real recovery.

So what is the take-home message here?  And why am I calling this whole thing a Charade?  I’m calling it a charade because, while I was sitting through these presentations with a raised eyebrow and confused look, most everyone around me seemed to lapping up the kool-aid.  It seems classroom management is a real problem for most of the teachers doing this gig.  As NET’s, we have a unique situation that lends less authority and also less ability to perform traditional forms of discipline and so it seems that many of us flounder, myself included.  So while it may look like I am still out there drowning while everyone else has latched onto a life-tube of token economies and negative discipline, I can’t help but wonder where this boat is going to take them?

Granted.  Many of the NET’s aren’t actually interested in teaching.  They are here for the experience, the fun, the

ESL teacher can know grammarz?

what have you.  Getting too deep into one’s self as a teacher isn’t what they signed up for, so this stuff may all work for them.  For me, I am trying to understand who I am as a teacher.  I’m trying to figure out whether or not classroom management in this form is applicable for me in the long term.  These token economies, negative discipline: they have to be something I can do as a teacher for decades and not come out the other end hating myself, my students and my profession.  And when I look down that telescope, I don’t see good results.

Fundamentally, I feel there is something else missing in these approaches to managing a classroom.  Certainly the ideas in this post are of a pragmatic, practical nature.  But they have their own roots in an approach, a theory of how learning is accomplished; and I’m just not certain I share those same beliefs fundamentally.  Perhaps the charade is not what everyone else is doing, but is instead, how I approach it all.  That’s how it feels right now anyway, like a charade.

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