Saturday, 20 July 2013

Syed: A Classroom Capital Case Study

KEY IDEA - As Herman dutifully plodded off to punish himself on my command, Syed called me over from the next table "Sir, Sir I need you." I plodded over for Syed as dutifully as Herman plodded over for  me. 

After my previous post, I had the questions I raised about favouritism lingering in my mind whilst teaching last week. One of my pupils, again and again, prompted me to reflect on how differently I treated him to the other kids, and to try and see whether this is a result of anything active on his part.

Incidentally, he is a Muslim pupil, and in searching for a pseudonym for him on this Muslim Boy Names thing, I found myself unable to select a name for him. This was a result of the names having their meanings beside each one. I settled on Syed, meaning always in control. Highly appropriate.

Syed and I have a particularly strong rapport. Partly this is because I do a lot of extra one-to-one work with him to boost his literacy, but partly it is just that we set off on the right foot in September, my mind was made up about him within days, and I have made a lot of time for him.

In the tone of these posts, please don't confuse honesty for arrogance: I'm being brutally honest as I feel this will help me reflect more openly, I'm not trying to lionise my behaviours.

A few key 'incidents' brought home for me how Syed is able to use his Classroom Capital to advance his own needs within the class.

During a particularly terse afternoon, in which behaviour standards had really slipped, I reminded the children sternly about not calling out answers and about not leaving their seats to get my attention. Instead, they should be talking with a partner and raising their hand if they wanted me.

As soon as the micro-lecture was over, one other boy - I shall call him Herman, because the idea of that amuses me - almost immediately got out of his seat to ask me something.

"Herman! I cannot believe you have just done that - you were obviously not listening to me at all. You need to stay in your seat once you have put your name on the traffic lights."

As Herman dutifully plodded off to punish himself on my command, Syed called me over from the next table "Sir, Sir I need you." I plodded over for Syed as dutifully as Herman plodded over for  me. It has become a horrible force of habit - honestly, it is as though he occupies a different category, along with a small number of the other kids, who have some weird unspoken exemption based on my own tardy inconsistency.

Syed can sometimes have great difficulty modulating his emotions, and can flip out over seemingly insignificant things. As a group of children, my class this year are not particularly stubborn, and I have worked on those who get stuck in a rut, refusing to come out. On Sports Day though, in which each class represented a country, Syed was the first child I caved to when asked about waving the giant flag.

Without wishing to dampen the spirit of Wenlock and Mandeville, I was getting pissed off with having the flag flapping in my face when I was administering teacher-face at people. After nearly jousting a volunteer through the head with it, I firmly told Syed that the flag needs to "be on the floor, and it needs to stay on the floor."

Syed immediately whipped himself up into a temperamental frenzy and sat by a tree-stump, his head so deeply nestled between his knees, he was turning into a ball. This is quite clearly a ridiculous response to a perfectly valid and polite request. His refusal to answer any questions about it, or even to look up, is an instance of abrasive and attention-seeking behaviour.

But because it was Syed, my motivations flipped around to trying to get him to smile again, so without allowing him to feel like he was being rewarded for his mule-like temperament, I devoted my energies to motivating him for his race, telling him how sad it was for him to be all glum in our final weeks together. He eventually came around - as well he should! - and then I was struck with the realisation that for the last 10 minutes I had been rewarding his ill-mannered disrespectful and completely unfounded behaviour.

"PERHAPS I'll let you carry the flag home if you are good Syed."

The smile returns.

"Thanks Sirrrrrrrrr"

And then it becomes clear to me that yet again I've been played, and I look around listlessly, hoping none of the other teachers witnessed the sorry spectacle.

I don't want to do a dis-service to Syed, as this post so-far makes him seem like a pathological psychopath - a master manipulator - but it is important to highlight the ways in which these power struggles between teacher and child can play out.

As all of the Sports Day nonsense went on, I had 29 other kids with me - some were tagging along trying to see what was up with Syed, but most of them just did as I had asked, which was to support their friends, chat with their classmates and to enjoy the sun. Where was their reward?

Nowhere, because the teacher was squatting next to a child who was fake-crying, and we both knew it.

I find this all very affecting and interesting, and will think more.

My main questions on this now are...

How did it get to be like this? 

Could any child end up having this sort of hold over their teacher, or is it specific to the nature of the child and the nature of the teacher?

(How) Does it benefit the favourite kids - or those high in Classroom Capital - to occupy more of their teacher's time?

Can a child 'deserve' to be a favourite, and can a teacher speak openly of having favourites without justifying themselves by talking of the kid's specific needs.

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