The Freedom of a Tyranny

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For those who don’t know, I’m a science teacher at a nearby school.  I just finished a 3 week stint substituting for a fellow science teacher.  My colleague had a medical emergency several weeks before the district contacted me and asked me to sub.  The old teacher is out for the year and the district has only just now hired a permanent replacement so this was my last day with these students.  Interacting with an established classroom dynamic has gotten me thinking about order and rules in the classroom for two reasons.  The children have filled me in on the teaching style of their official teacher which I understand to be excessively organized.  Or at least, that is my interpretation of my students’ perspective which you’ll have to take with a grain of salt considering the source.  I never had an opportunity to view my colleague’s teaching style first hand.  The second reason was a conversation that I overheard while sitting in my office between a student and the substitute  teacher for health class.  The health teacher shares my classroom when it isn’t in use.  The gist of this conversation was that their health teacher had a large number of rules and spent a considerable amount of time enforcing them.  That same grain of salt would apply to this conversation as well, but it got me thinking.

Lots of rules in a classroom.  Lots of order.  Codes of behavior.  Rewards and punishments for violating those codes.  I started to mull over my own approach to teaching.  I don’t really have a punishment for misbehaving student except to pull them away from their friends if they’re being too disruptive and I’ve only had to do that once.  My tolerance for disruption tends to be pretty high assuming it’s not during the 10 minute instructional period at the beginning of class.  And I don’t have any specific rewards for good behavior unless you consider verbal praise a reward.  My teaching style tends to be rather ad hoc.  It’s not unusual for my very short lecture to veer off in random directions provided I think it’s in an intellectually path.  Sometimes students who are leaving for more than a day or two will ask me what we are going to study in class while they are gone so that they can not fall behind.  This is an alien question for me.  I have never in my life planned more than a week into the future.  I have reasonably vague notions of where I want to take my students in the coming weeks but that is the entire extent of it.

I also don’t have any rules in the classroom.  I really don’t.  Well maybe some obvious safety things.  Mostly I just tell them to do things and then they do it.  Not sure why.  The benefits of being an adult I guess.  At least this is how I see myself.  Sort of a benevolent tyrant.  My students would be shocked stupid if they knew how often the things I tell them have to do with my absolute desire to not make extra work for myself.  Considering my well-meaning despotism, imagine my surprise when I found a note  in the corner of the board that my students decorated for me on my last day.  It’s just barely visible if you want to look for it.  He wrote.  “You gave me so much FREEDOM”.  The word ‘freedom’ was underlined and he signed his name.

I suppose in a way it’s true.  While other teachers might be less draconian, I’m not sure that translates into more freedom to students. One conversation revealed a long list of rules turned that 20 middle school kids into instant lawyers.  In my other classes I got the feeling that there wasn’t a lot of spontaneity.  Of course I’m sure others would object to the barely controlled chaos of my classroom.  It isn’t for everyone.  There is frequent cellphone usage.  More than once kids have (with permission obviously) put in headphones to listen to music while studying during free time.  More than a few use the cellphones to play games.  If there’s stuff they’re supposed to be doing I tell them to put it away and do their work.  To my everlasting surprise they generally do.  It also occurs to me that I missed many many opportunities  to give them puzzles, games, handouts, and other trivial time wasters on days when learning wasn’t a huge priority.  Like on half days when there’s not really enough time to do anything productive.  A popular technique among some of the teachers at my school is to teach the students how to knit.  It’s a fantastic artifice for keeping students busy but has little utility in chemistry.  Mostly I let my students be to learn or not as the please.  To do homework or not if they felt like it.  Because why should I do otherwise?  If it’s not directly related to the subject matter it’s fairly useless and much more work for me.  When I asked them to do real learning they did.  I think they mostly chose to learn because the pH lab or the polar molecules lab with the soap, oils, and water are superior to sitting like a bump on a log.  They were considerably  less enthusiastic about the assigned reading but they did it just the same.  In my class and from my perspective there are no rules.  No government, no arguing, no debates, no order, no consistency other than the vague force of habit.   My habit of course. The only acceptable course of action is to do whatever I say.  Otherwise I left them alone.  For this they voluntarily learned some very basic chemistry, covered my board with thanks, and called it freedom.  I honestly don’t know if this is the best way to teach.  I’m always open to new ideas and I have a facination with other people’s teaching styles.  For now though it seems to be working.


I do not wish my comments to be misinterpreted in anyway.  I am in no way disparaging my colleagues.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for my fellow teachers.  I am only trying to discuss potential differences in teaching styles as it applies to my own self-reflection. Children, on the other hand, will often disparage the teaching styles of their teachers.  As they did it to my colleagues, they’ll certainly do it to me.  Though, it’s not as if  I would care.   The board was nice though.


3 thoughts on “The Freedom of a Tyranny

    Johanna Nielsen said:
    December 7, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Not to be THAT person, but it sort of reminds me of what God claimed for both Adam and Eve and the Children of Isreal. And how Jesus chastised the Jews for making so many rules. He said his burden was light in comparison. At the same time, in order to enjoy those freedoms, you do have to obey without right to voting. Which basically makes god a benevolent dictator. I think you’ve put to words the whole concept of how becoming “a slave” to Christ brings so much freedom.

    Also, way to be an awesome teacher. I’m super proud of you. I’m glad you don’t do busy work; I always hated that in my own school career, lol.

      TheCentrist said:
      December 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm

      Yes my policy of not assigning work that wasn’t directly related to learning or chemistry was exceedingly popular. If they didn’t have work to do including that in other classes, they socialized, read books, played on phones, did whatever. Most teachers wouldn’t let students waste so much time. But then what would you call knitting, or group cohesion games, etc?

      TheCentrist said:
      December 7, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      The difference between me and God is I expect my students to graduate. To move on, to graduate to think for themselves. I can give my students a recipe to follow demand they complete the steps and they will but that’s useless as a scientist. I need them to reason and imagine for themselves. This sentiment isn’t present in religious circles. The more conservative you get the more alien doubt and independence become.

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