Fortunately, my mentor professor doesn’t use that phrase very often. This is not because we don’t think it’s important, nor because we think arts education is so inherently engaging as to be above things like management—although don’t we all wish our students were too enthralled with the subject to be hooligans? No, we don’t use the phrase “classroom management” because the term “classroom leadership” is more empowering. The way he explained it to us is management implies reactive behavior while leadership demands proactive behavior. Interesting the way vocabulary shapes our thoughts, no?
Today at work, I had a steep learning curve to force the development of my classroom leadership skills. I teach music at an elementary school, primarily to the first and second graders. My best friend teaches music in the room next to mine and she has coined the term “noodleheads” to refer to her kids with affectionate exasperation. I’ve adopted the term for my first graders. Their classroom teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, has told me repeatedly that this is the toughest class she’s ever had to handle in all her years of teaching. It also just so happens that they are ridiculously adorable and I’m a novice at this teaching/classroom leadership gig, so sometimes I probably inadvertently let them get away with murder.
(For those of you who haven’t seen Recess, this is a shot from the show where the kids wreak havoc. To clarify, I’m not an old woman in a purple prison jumper, but having a class go AWOL can elicit that expression from me.)
Because of how their shenanigans in music polluted the rest of their school day, my first graders lost music time. Their teacher came in to talk with me about how to run things with them today. She explained to me that through good behavior, they had earned back seven minutes of music time. If they could behave well for that seven minutes, they could earn back more time for future classes. I heard: if you can handle this class, you can teach them music. If you let things go crazy, no first graders for you and no music for them. So no pressure.
Mrs. Jenkins and I have had several conversations about how I need to be more iron-fisted. My ideal is the Maria Von Trapp/Julie Andrews “firm, but kind.” The trouble is, being a disciplinarian doesn’t come naturally to me. Her advice to me was to find a system that flows with my teaching style that I can maintain consistently. Easier said than done. Consistency might just be my second biggest challenge with teaching. Right after classroom leadership. But here’s my blossoming strategy.
When my kids start getting antsy and talkative, I stop talking, hold my hand up to my ear and start counting on my other hand. (This counting thing flows with my teaching vibe, so it works for me.) If I get higher than three, that’s bad. The longer it takes them to quiet down, the more “babysitting points” they rack up. Babysitting points are akin to demerits and they negate music points. When they are brilliant little musicians and figure out tricky rhythms or sing most excellently, they earn “music points.” The idea is that when they get a certain number of points, we have a special day—either we play their favorite song games or get drum time or something a little extra fun. Part of my naive idealism struggles with points because I want so badly for them to see music as its own reward throughout the process, but if a point system keeps them in line enough to actually get into the music, I may have it my way yet, right?