Combat in the Classroom

22 Sep

It is strange that the teaching learning relationship has turned adversarial. It is as if the classroom is a Kurukshetra, and the armies are arrayed – facing each other. Let the battle to learn begin. Both have the same goal. One wants to give, the other receive, yet it is a battle between the aggressively passive and passively aggressive.


It is not uncommon to see unwilling learners sitting in class, engaging in disruptive activities, yet turning up for more of the same. Or asking questions with the intent of disrupting or derailing the class. Aggressively passive.

It is equally easy to remember classes where the teacher pretends or struggles to be patient with the classroom situation while running down pupils, the curriculum or the school. Passive Aggressive.

Thus the combat.

When did it become like that? Everybody comes into that classroom intending to teach and learn. But with the baggage of past experiences, either with the same groups or with previous ones. And the baggage continues to damage the learning experience unless one learns the tools to deal with negative experiences. Lest they get embedded.

What is worse is if one uses the wrong tools to deal with bad experiences in the classroom. Did I just use the word wrong? Oops, there is no ‘wrong’ in education space these days, is there? Yes there is – it is wrong when it starts off a negative spiral of belief in one’s ability to learn anything. Many little things can do so – a teacher saying – ‘You’ll never learn how to draw!’ could stunt a potential artist for years. If not artistic, there is much therapeutic relief in art or drawing that is denied to the student until they get over this judgement passed on them. Or, if a teacher meets three students from the same pre-school who constantly disrupt the class, the fourth child from the same place may be treated like a trouble maker, even if not one. These are patterns that we often slip into, not realizing when we forgot to be mindful.

A pattern that seems to be particularly damaging is the concept of ‘punishment’ which is much stronger than a penalty or making up for something not done. Punishments are about power and humiliation (as we have said in this column before) and create ever increasing circles of pain. Constructive criticism is the very opposite of punishment and is designed to support the pupil in recovering lost ground. Punishment, in a way is like a bribe paid to the teacher to receive absolution from bad deeds. In this manner the account is cleared and the teacher-learner relationship can begin. Yet, the patterns are retained and repeated; the combat continues.

Teachers claim that parental pressure makes the teacher-student relationship more difficult. At the same time, there is enough evidence and research to prove that parental involvement improves student performance and achievement levels. Of course we are speaking of traditional assessments and examinations where performance improves.

I came across a cartoon (which I am not reproducing here as I am not sure of the copyright) where a teacher snips the rounded thoughts of students into square thoughts – similar to the thought square bubble above her head. It was rather sad – but when I placed it on to a teacher’s group on facebook, not only did teachers agree – but also said parents wanted it this way.

Parents send their children to be ‘schooled’ in standardised ways. It is natural for a child to rebel against this almost unnatural reshaping of their way of thinking. The conflict is bound to happen, the combative classroom is inevitable.

Then it becomes up to the teacher, as the skilled adult in the room to reduce this antagonism. What tools would reduce the combat in the classroom? Open communication with clear ground rules has been proven to work. The smart teacher is skilled in nudging pupils towards learning objectives rather than telling them what to do and how to do it. Micromanaging is the deathknell of trust in the classroom – both ways. But to build a trusting relationship takes time and technique. The scaffolds take long to build and can fall rapidly.

It is really up to teachers to ensure that negativity does not enter their classroom. An excellent exercise is for teachers to avoid the use of the word ‘no’ and its variants for just a day – the effort it takes will reveal much about their teaching practice. By avoiding putting down students, they elevate the level of discussion in the classroom. It takes confident teachers to allow and manage conflict without overt use of their power – it is these teachers who will foster classes where real learning can happen.



This was published in the Times of India blogs on September 11, 2012 link here:


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