Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Teachers displaying status (or not)

Before teachers ever step into a classroom to lead it, they should be required to master the content of one very important chapter in “Impro: Improvisation and the Theater” by Keith Johnstone.¹ This book is the bible of improvisational theater and it contains information that is essential for helping teachers function effectively.

I became aware of "Impro" last summer on a road trip when my husband started reading the chapter entitled “Status” to the family aloud. Our two daughters immediately recognized that their observations of at least 73 teachers over the past 15 years were being confirmed by the dynamics described in the book.

I am certain that you'll be reading the chapter yourselves, but here is a sample anyway:

“…every inflection [in one’s voice] and movement implies a status… In reality status transactions continue all the time.”

“We’ve all observed different kinds of teachers, so if I describe three types of status players commonly found in the teaching profession you may find that you already know exactly what I mean.

I remember one teacher, whom we liked but who couldn’t keep discipline…

Another teacher, who was generally disliked, never punished and yet exerted a ruthless discipline…

A third teacher, who was much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human...

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn’t understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first.”

Of course, the rules that govern how status is displayed and perceived in a school environment would also rub up against the rules that govern how status is displayed and perceived by those who adhere to the values contained in the “code of the street.”²

Recently, I was listening to a lecture about urban education by Pedro Noguera, a popular sociologist who studies the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. He mentioned the importance of having individuals with “moral authority” work in the schools and bemoaned the fact that there are too few.³ I am currently reading Noguera's new book, “The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education” (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

The transcript from his lecture states:

“The biggest shortage in many of our schools is a shortage of adults with moral authority. Moral authority is not authority rooted in a title or in a uniform, it is rooted in a relationship. Adults who have moral authority are adults who are able to get kids to listen to them, to follow their instructions, and therefore able to guide them because of what they represent in the eyes of those children. All of us know of adults who have that ability, don’t we? They are the ones you call on when the classroom is out of control, to bring order again. They are the ones who can come, adults and children now not because they are big and intimidating, but because of who they are and what they represent, there are a shortage of these adults in our schools today.”

Of course Noguera is talking about status, too.

Anyone entering the teaching profession should be consciously learning, and practicing, how their body language and tone of voice can subtly raise, or lower, their status in the eyes of their students. This is especially true for secondary school teachers who are dealing with older children who are in the process of transitioning into adults. A new teacher’s ability to manipulate the students in their classroom will determine if they are going to professionally sink or swim, and how quickly.

The manner in which teachers exhibit their level of status is a crucial concept, but seems to be rarely discussed.

Because we are primates, it will always be true that some people will display a higher status more naturally than others. However, if new teachers acquired a set of acting techniques, they could learn to project heightened levels of status when necessary.

This singular topic is probably as important as the many other things crammed into the six week training given to the Oakland Teaching Fellows combined. This program recruits young people (many in their early twenties) to fill the teaching vacancies in OUSD. The only applicant requirements are to possess a Bachelor’s degree, have a GPA of 2.75 or higher, pass two state teaching tests (the CBEST and CSET), and be willing to dive into an Oakland public school head first.

For a month an a half in the summer before they start full-time work in a school, participants learn about state standards, the foundations of teaching, and classroom management. They have discussions and activities about the challenges and benefits of teaching in a diverse educational setting. They work with current teachers in OUSD summer school classrooms, learn about lesson planning, and get a chance to help teach a summer school class. Then they are thrown to the wolves.

Learning about Johnstone's work may have helped one new 7th grade teacher, a bright and once confident young woman, who spiraled down, emotionally out of control, within the first three weeks of school and then left. Students in her abandoned classes had a string of substitute teachers for four months until they were permanently squeezed into any available spaces of other teachers with already full schedules.

Because it is so hard to find teachers who are willing to work in OUSD schools, recruiters find young people who are smart and well-intentioned, but who have never had the opportunity of being real student teachers, have had little or no personal experience in tough urban schools, and are clueless about the complexities of status and how it determines who is in control of the classroom. No wonder these teachers have such difficulty making 30+ non-compliant, cynical, hopeless urban adolescents cooperate with the State of California's educational agenda.

¹Read the many five star Amazon reviews of “Impro: Improvisation and the Theater” by Keith Johnstone (Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, 1979)

² "Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City" by Elijah Anderson (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999)

³The 2007 Konopka Lecture by Dr. Pedro Noguera, “What Does it Take to Leave No Child Behind?” was sponsored by the Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health, Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota. Go to

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