Friday, October 4, 2013

Because I Say So!

On the white board in the gym where I teach music I have written a set of four expectations, boiled down to just a few words:

1. One Voice (translation: in the big boomy space that is the gym, we can only have one person talking at a time, and I will decide who that person is).

2. Move--no running or jumping! (Yes, we meet in a gym, but when I'm there, it's the music room, and we will not be endangering each other by jumping for basketball nets or running during movement lessons.)

3. Permission (I will let students know when it's time to play an instrument. Until then, consider them off limits.)

4. Respect (Me, the instruments, each other).

There's an after-school program that meets in the gym afternoons. A couple of mornings ago, I came in to set things up, and discovered one of the Boys & Girls Club leaders had added a couple of words to number 4 on my list, so that it now read:

I smiled for a moment, knowing exactly what that young man was trying to get across to a recalcitrant fifth grader (I have a strong suspicion who the child might have been), then erased the extra words. Because here's the thing: I don't respect authority. Which is a problem.
It's a family problem. Anderson men are notorious for calling bullshit on self-important poobahs who expect people to kowtow to their opinions simply because they've got a piece of paper hanging on their walls that labels them Master of This or Doctor of That. We may take our marching orders from these potentates, but if we think those orders are questionable, then by golly we question them; and if it comes down to "Because I'm the boss," then we grit our teeth and do what we're told, but there's no illusion of respecting the authority that issued them. Needless to say, we tend to burn through jobs rather quickly, especially when we're in our 20s. Okay, also in our 30s. But I think I finally outgrew it at 40. Or at least learned how to mask it a little better, because I've not had a job since then in which it "just wasn't working."
But back to the smartassery that has cost me and, I think, my brothers, and possibly my father, a great deal of job security over the years. In this, as in so many other philosophical matters, I find myself turning to a Biblical text:
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)
I've long found justification in this passage for my skepticism toward those who use degrees and professional certificates to declare their superior wisdom to the world. True authority, I've believed, comes from actually knowing what you're talking about, knowledge that comes from experience, shaped by intelligence and ethics.
Which brings us to the real crux of the matter: the word "Why?" It's a word that can induce conniptions in an authority figure who expects respect without first earning it, and can lead to the declaration "Because I said so!" In a situation with a power imbalance, such a pronouncement can get immediate results, but will ultimately lead to even deeper rebellion on the part of the underling or student who knows it to be the last resort of the despot. And I will readily admit to knowing just how empty those words were every time I said them to my children or my students.
For the last few days, I've started every music class with a visual: a broken maraca. I hold it up, demonstrate how one entire face of the instrument has sheared off from the whole. I know what comes next: "Who did that?" someone asks. I've been working on my answer, shifting it away from "I don't know, but it could have been anyone..." to "You all did." The point I make is that there is a right way to treat these instruments, and if they don't follow my instructions--if, for instance, they hit two maracas against each other, or on the floor, or with a drumstick, instead of shaking them in the air--this could happen. I then expand it to a lesson about all the instruments they'll be playing during that lesson: the claves that must not be hit too hard, or they will splinter; the guiros that could suffer the same fate as the maraca, unless they're simply scraped (and not sawn, as so many attempt to do); and the hand drums that are to be played with hands, not sticks, which could punch holes in them. I leave out the triangles: they can take it. The overall message is one of respect for these instruments, of which we do not have an unlimited supply.
Having that visual in my hand lends far more authority to the lesson than simply telling them what to do. Now when I take a maraca or a guiro or a drum away from a child for abusing the instrument, he or she has a far better reason than "because I say so."
I'm not done saying so, by the way. I've been in this job for just a month. Some of these students are still feeling me out, figuring out just what I'll let them get away with, testing my resolve, challenging the authority of the staff ID badge I wear around my neck. Earlier this week I had to resort to telling one that he was to obey because I'm the teacher, and when that still didn't get him to back down, to call in the principal. By the time she arrived, the situation was mostly defused, but there was still a need for her to remove the student in question and do some explaining about appropriate responses to teacher directives. He was much better yesterday, but the initial confrontation was rough.
The roughest part is that I know I haven't yet earned my authority. I'm winning a lot of these students over with my lessons, but there are some older kids who need more than that. They need to see that I'm consistently firm in my discipline, and that no matter how many of my buttons they push, they won't get a rise out of me--though they will get themselves referred. The respect I seek from them will take longer than it will with the little ones and the intermediates, who (right up to fourth grade) are predisposed to honoring adult authority. For myself, though, even with the littles, I will be working to deserve this gift of respect they give so freely; and pragmatically working to earn it from the older children, as well.
Talking less helps. I learned earlier this week that spoken (and diagrammed: I put it on the board) instructions suffer from the "Too Long Didn't Listen" curse, and no amount of reiteration can cure that. Modeled instructions, on the other hand, punctuated with nonverbal claps and mouth noises, get them all to moving and paying attention as they wonder what I'll do next.
And this, it seems to me, is the source of true authority, the kind that anyone can respect: what I do, not what I say. Learn the lesson that way, and it's not just that you'll internalize it better. You'll also see that I know the subject matter so intimately I can teach it without talking about it, show rather than tell. One demonstration, properly delivered, is worth an entire printed curriculum.
The principal at Margaret Scott School is also new to the district. Many of the teachers at Scott have been there for years. The principal put some new procedures in place before the year started, and there was a great deal of skepticism about them; but I'm coming to sense a grudging respect emerging from my colleagues as they realize she does know what she's talking about, that these policies do make sense (and she did patiently answer every "Why?" the staff asked when she presented them), that they really do put the welfare of the students ahead of the inconvenience they may cause. In this first month of school, I've seen her working diligently, compassionately, putting in many more hours than the far lighter load that has me dozing off at 8 p.m. She's earning my respect the right way, showing us how it's done, with warmth and humility.
And that's what I call authority.

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