Beyond Carrots and Sticks

When I tell people I teach ninth graders, they sometimes react nervously, like maybe there is something slightly unhinged about a woman who voluntarily spends her time with fourteen-year-old people every day and claims to enjoy it.

Some adults harbor visceral fears of adolescents. I used to. Before I became a teacher, I would have rather had my eyelashes waxed off than return to a middle or high school. I was convinced that I’d revert back to my own teenaged self if I stepped inside of a school, and the kids would make fun of me and make me cry. (I don’t necessarily possess the thickest of skins.)

But then I worked with seventh graders for a summer through the Breakthrough Collaborative, and I absolutely loved it. Those kids were so funny and smart and genuine. I was hooked.

I can imagine, back in my pre-teacher scared-of-adolescents days, that walking into a middle-school music classroom would have made me itchy: Drums and xylophones all over the place? What if the children get ahold of those? It’ll be chaos. Noisy chaos! 

Last week, though, I got to visit Beth Davey‘s music classroom at Iveland Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri. Beth was recently named the 2018 Missouri Teacher of the Year, and watching her expertly lead a class of fifth graders through a series of activities, including an extended musical improvisation (!), was super impressive and inspiring.

It was clear that Beth had taken the time to develop a repertoire of classroom moves that she could call on to keep the class engaged and focused. The kids moved quickly and comfortably from one activity to the next, from singing to drumming to xylophoning (totally a word) to using sign language to giving feedback to their partners. Sometimes Beth dropped her voice to a near-whisper so they had to lean in to hear. Sometimes she used hand signals or showed flashcards to cue students. She had high expectations; kids were using technical vocabulary to speak the language of music, and she wasn’t afraid to make them try something again if it wasn’t right the first time. She did all of this with a calm, warm, authoritative air that said, I believe that you can do this, and I’m so happy to be here with you. 

Sometimes folks think that schools need complicated behavior management systems–“carrots and sticks”–to keep students engaged. But watching Beth at work reminded me that what schools really need are highly-skilled teachers who know how to design engaging lessons and develop positive classroom cultures. What if we spent less time worrying about how many demerits to give a kid for a certain misbehavior and more time supporting that kid’s teachers in honing their craft?

Kids want to learn. They’re excited to learn. How do we set up classrooms that harness and build on that excitement?