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Bad Dogs or Bad Owners?

Note: Michael Bromley, founder and president of School4schools.com, is guest posting this week.

Had a New York moment this holiday. Trying to find some green, or at least brown, space in Midtown Manhattan for our two suburban pups, my wife and I came upon a doggie section in Madison Square Park. We entered the small dog area, and a Doberman bounded up to us through the gate to the big dog area that had been left open. Nice doggie, actually, but it had no business being with the small dogs, and he started a slight snarl. "Take them off the lead," demanded its owner, who sat by the open gate. "Your leash is making my dog aggressive!" Poor Doberman. He's clearly got some owner issues to get over, and I wish all the leashed dogs of New York City well.

Naturally, as an obsessed educator, it gets me thinking student behavior. Good owners don't make bad dogs. Dogs, like kids, have issues and personalities. Instead of complaining about them, we teachers and owners need to be more concerned about our own choices and how we impact their behavior. Teacher personalities mesh or don't with students differently. We all had the kid who was better with another teacher. And there are kids who just don't fit in to a particular classroom or whose behavior choices come from some other bad owner or situation. It's gonna happen, so the best we can do is strive for consistency and hope to reach as many kids as much as possible. We can so easily, however, lose a kid for no good reason, and for this there is no excuse.

One day in class a few years back, as I droned on about ancient Mesopotamia or something that's exciting only to me, a student raised her hand. "Yes, Heather?" I said, hoping for insight and a higher order question. "Bromley," she said, "how come you're the only teacher in this school nobody hates?" Well, I thought, what do I do with that one? I began, "Uh, no, people do hate me." "No," she continued, "really, nobody hates you, and every kid hates some teacher." Nice compliment for a politician or a salesman. But for a teacher? I thought it over and replied, "Okay, I guess, but I can get you to hate me if you really want." Realizing the deeper implication, I said, "It's not my job to piss off kids. It's my job to get them to learn something, and how can I ask them to learn if they hate me?" Of course I had - or had made - some kids hate me. But I'll take Heather's compliment for what it was, a kid who was trying to figure out why teachers act the way they do.

When I blogged here for Rick a couple years ago - and got myself into a bit of trouble for the suggestion - I proposed that teachers earn their pay from students. It wasn't a facetious take on things, although I really enjoyed the comment that I was channeling Jonathan Swift. It seems that I should have explained a touch further on the notion of teachers as vendors and students as clients. It'd do a world of good if every educator took on a sales job for a few years before stepping into a classroom. If you don't believe me, take a look at the questionnaire developed by the Gates Foundation's Met Project for its survey of teacher effectiveness as published in the Preliminary Findings paper (pdf, see pp. 12-13). Like a typical consumer satisfaction survey, the first question in the survey is, "My teacher in this class makes me feel that s/he really cares about me." Well, yes, we should treat our students as clients. Calling Dale Carnegie...

It's a rare job - or one that commands far more power than it should - that dictates to others without persuasion. Sure, we try to reason with kids, show them our logic and wisdom - which the kids discard as just another adult piece of advice. Persuasion requires consent. Kids won't care unless they buy in, and to get there takes salesmanship not just instructional theory. If the goal of all those instructional strategies is to get unmotivated kids to buy in to learning, it's not happening. In addition to agonizing over test scores, we'd do well to admit it up front: too many of our clients are unhappy. And we'd better look in the mirror at ourselves before adding more smoke on the stage.

As a businessman it was a no brainer, but as a teacher I had to relearn that the best sale is an informed sale. When I was my best as a teacher I never ever - did I say never? - did anything in class without letting the kids know why. Warmups are for this, homework is for that, and so on, and always with the additional honesty about things we do as teachers that aren't necessarily for the kids. So, yes, warmups are not just for you, class, it's really for me so that you're doing something and leave me alone to take roll, fix my lesson plan from what bombed last period, and to settle your butts down. I sold the kids on everything: why this quiz, why that reading, and why I'm asking them to play that stupid memory trick game. They didn't have to like it, but they accepted it more readily if I sold them on its relevancy first. I also gave them opportunity to object and argue back. We'd often lose ten minutes of precious class time negotiating what would be on an assessment. It built student engagement and ownership not because it accommodated the different learning styles or built relevancy through prior knowledge. It did all that. It worked because it was a good sale. Here's my product. See how good it is? What quality! What value! What accessories do you want? What color, and when do you want it?

For the most part, kids get predetermined decisions that, while perhaps building in some choice always dictate outcomes. Why discuss it, then? Why find meaning in it. (And why do we assume that kids can't make informed choices?) This is not salesmanship, and neither is it good management. It is, however, the process kids are constantly subjected to in high school. We all agree kids like choice, but do we actually give it to them and meaningfully?

Looking back on the year I taught Heather, she was right that I really did not have any problem kids. My early days teaching were always marred by what I thought was that one kid who ruined everything. Just get rid of that one bad kid and it'd all be fine. As I grew as a teacher it wasn't the kids that changed, it was me, and I stopped having "bad" students. And what changed in me was the realization that my job was sales and not delivery or accounting. I had to design a good product, but that, too, was with sales in mind. And once delivered, I had to run a serious customer support operation to keep the clients satisfied. (More on that in a next blog.)

Sure, these clients aren't in the education market because they want to be. The kids and I would talk about that. Always being up front with them, we would discuss their options, which included the real product they're consuming, grades. I would even treat behavioral matters through negotiation. "You can choose to go to the Dean's office - I won't send you there. So let's talk about other options..." And we'd go from there. During Heather's year I had only one child with whom we had this discussion, and she and I came out of it with greater mutual respect. A recent graduate, she called me this summer to sell me Cutco knives. Warms the heart.

The "bad" kids I had in the early years were never aware of those options, so they just did what any smart, dissatisfied customer would do and voted with their feet, or tried to, which was expressed through misbehavior. I know I'm not advancing any new theory of the relationship between engagement and behavior, but I do want to put it into a context of a client relationship and not pedagogy. Instructional strategies should be tools and not outcomes, which is why they only consistently work with teachers who engage kids with effective approaches already (which the Met Project discovered).

Now I work with kids from outside of the classroom. Together we work on relevancy, engagement methods, and negotiation techniques. We work on how students can build a meaningful classroom experience despite the teacher and with any teacher. The process is the same as in my classroom, only students have to take up the sales role by themselves and apply it on their own in their classes. The process is hardly magical, but it is empowering for students to remove teachers as barriers and excuses for negative outcomes. Now I get to hear from students about how that history teacher really isn't so boring, or that science teacher isn't so mean. And I love to hear from teachers things like, "Lisa didn't curse me out this week!" or "Bob actually smiled and said good morning today!" (We worked on that for three weeks.) Those are the little parts of a good sale, and I want our students to take on that role. The best salesmen will never lose a sale on the first instance, and they will always keep success a possibility.

Two years ago, when I explained to a student my support service that I was thinking of starting, she rubbed her chin quizzically and gave no agreement to all my great ideas for student success. "Sakeithia," I said, worried, "don't you like it?" "Yeah, Bromley," she replied, "but what happens when you get tired of me?" She was so used to different interventions and programs that she had lost all trust in them. I smiled. "If you pay me, I'll be there for you. And if I don't provide you with good service, you stop paying me. Very simple." Her face turned to a huge smile, "I get it now!" While I may never get schools to let kids set teacher pay, maybe I can show them the power of a client relationship and how we can all be better owners with good dogs.

--Michael Bromley

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