Small words can indicate big ideas. I’m going to talk about pronouns, mostly.
I had a bit of synchronicity today in the form of two events. First, a kid in one of my classes called me out on my use of “my classroom”. I was talking about the way he was behaving in my classroom. “This isn’t your classroom,” he said. I put it down to a distracting technique on his part and ignored it, but he had touched on an area of doubt in my thinking. Then later in the day I was reading some advice from behaviour guru Bill Rogers about negotiating rules in the classroom. Bill talks a lot about the classroom as a shared space and recommends reflecting that in the way you talk about it. It’s best, he says, to refer to “our rules” and “our classroom”.
Let’s have a think about this. It seems to me like an issue of territory and ownership. One the one hand you have the authoritarian approach of the classroom space belonging to the teacher, a space into which the students are invited. On the other hand, Bill Rogers advocates a more egalitarian attitude, seeing the space as shared between all the people using it (teachers and students). A third, disastrous situation is one where the space belongs to the students and the teacher is the invited guest.
Actions such as greeting students at the door lean towards the first view, emphasising that the kids are leaving their space (the playground) and entering the teacher’s space. Getting them to line up outside before inviting them in adds to this. The very fact that the teacher is there first implies ownership. As a statement, “my classroom” is clearly not meant to be taken literally – the property is not mine. What we have here are some old-fashioned mind games. By claiming the space as mine, I invite a guest mentality from my students, calling for manners and deference to a host. In this way, I hope to encourage good behaviour. But simultaneously, I invite a discomfort and a lack of ownership. At worst, this results in a feeling of alienation on the part of the student, a feeling of being in a foreign space, imprisonment, or a feeling of “what am I doing here?”. There are short steps from this to resentment.
Talking about “our classroom” is less authoritarian and risks accusations of woolly liberalism. However, it increases the feeling of community and collaboration between teacher and students, ideally shifting the balance away from “us and them” to a simpler “us”. Responsibility is shared.
Essential to Bill Rogers’ ideas is that rules in a class come from the group and are enforced by the group with teacher as arbitrator, judge and enforcer. This allows talk of “our classroom” to fit in a meaningful context and reflect a state of affairs. In this way it is not an empty linguistic exercise.
Ultimately, changing your pronouns is only going to be effective if the language you use reflects the reality. Anything else risks being a quick fix or a gloss. The kids will see through it the moment a teacher says “You are not following my rules in our classroom”.