Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Apr 7, 2016 in Featured, Reflecting on Practice |

Context Matters

Context Matters


For many of us who teach, preplanning is that brief period of time in late summer before school hallways flood with students and when teachers are supposed to be planning lessons and readying rooms for the upcoming weeks. In actuality, most of preplanning is spent in mandated meetings. Still, during one such time, I managed to find an open period in which to roam the relatively quiet halls of my high school and peek into the rooms of some of my colleagues.

As I wandered, I noticed that several teachers had posted what were supposed to be inspirational posters on the wall next to their doors. I’m sure you’ve seen similar ones; they often feature a drenched cat or majestic eagle, the “You can do it!” sort of posters. I also noticed similar posters hung next to the clock or by the pencil sharpener inside the classrooms. Based on the obvious placement outside and around the interior of the room, it was clear that these posters were meant to be seen every day by students.

Some of the posters were commenting on bad attitudes. One specifically read, “The attitude STOPS here!” As I passed this poster, I wondered how the kids would feel about being met with such a message before they’ve even met this person on the other side of the door. Though each student will not enter the room with the assumed chip on their shoulder, each student is met with this message regardless. I wondered if the assumption, so clearly stated to them as they entered, would lead to only developing negative tension in the classroom, and thus create the attitude the poster owner so wanted to avoid.

While such posters are hung at the beginning of each year with good intentions, they can be seen as, depending on the student and the day, demands rather than requests. Such messages posit the student in a powerless position and situate the teacher, whom the students may not have even met yet, as a voice of authority. A tension is already created before teacher and class have even uttered a word to each other.

Unfortunately, assumptions about students did not end with passive messages posted outside and inside teachers’ classrooms. Once school was in session, at the end of each day the student resource officer (SRO) came on the intercom and shouted, “All students not under the direct supervision of a teacher or coach must exit the building immediately!” It was usually repeated several times in a threatening way. He would come back on 15 or 20 minutes later and say it again. I wondered, when we heard the repeated message, a bit louder and a bit more forceful, if the SRO had just caught more kids loitering in the halls and felt vindicated by making his announcement again.

Previously, the community school secretary would make the announcement, but perhaps her voice was too kind and the kids didn’t scramble out of the building like they did to the out-of-breath, barking voice that replaced it. It also used to be that they had a good 30 minutes or more before the announcement was made, but that changed to the SRO’s coming on directly after the dismissal bell rang. I sometimes wondered if kids broke into a cold sweat at their lockers trying to get out of the hall before the SRO could catch them at 2:25.

This daily harangue worked as a constant reminder to students of their position in the school and adults’ lack of interest in their needs and their reasoning for their actions. The tone and word choice did and always will anger me because I do not want to be identified with the message or the messenger. It angers me because I see the ways this 2-second message can hinder those of us who want to engage in dialogue with our students in our classrooms. Much like the poster about attitudes, this message can shut down students before they even enter my door. My observations of how the school “spoke” to the students made me realize that the talk was filled with assumptions and accusations, and it positioned students as powerless in that they had no voice. These conversations were noxious or directly confrontational, but the student was expected to simply comply.

Angela Dean
Madison County High School

Reprinted by permissions of the Publisher, From Bob Fecho, et al (eds.), Teaching Outside the Box but Inside the Standards: Making Room for Dialogue, New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright ©2016 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.