My first high school student teaching experience was in a 10th Grade Honors English classroom. I was in grad school, getting my Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction and teacher certification all at the same time. I decided to use the 3 week lesson as one of my graduate research projects. I had no idea what I was going to study until my first day teaching.
I was doing a lot of research and writing at the time on gender roles and media literacy, and I had decided that one of the themes I'd be teaching to those 10th graders was on gender biases and stereotypes. I had a very idyllic vision of how this would play out...these 15 year olds would be SHOCKED at how the media was manipulating them to play out stereotypical gender roles and would be OUTRAGED at how they unknowingly reinforced these stereotypes through their own choices and behaviors. And once they were so enlightened, suddenly they would no longer allow themselves to be manipulated and bamboozled.
My first day of teaching, I noticed a group of girls in the back of the classroom. They were clearly the "popular" girls and they were clearly not impressed with me or anything I had to say. I had done a lot of work with teenagers before and I had this intrinsic belief that they all loved me. Day one and that belief was shattered. I left class that day reflecting on their eye-rolling, note-passing, giggling and whispering as evidence that I was not the charismatic superstar teacher that I walked in that day thinking I was. I suddenly felt very uncool. And strangely, I felt like I wanted these cool kids to like me.
Day two and I had a research project. I was on a mission! I would win these girls over and engage them in such moments of learning revelations that they would start passing notes to ME! But on this second day, I noticed something I hadn't noticed on the first day. These "cool kids" were actually ostracizing the other students. Their snarky comments were dismissive of the real learning and real reflection and real contributions of the other 20 kids in that class who were there to learn. Not only was this classroom backchannel interfering with my focus, but it was interfering with EVERYONE's focus. Some of the kids were so interested in being "accepted" by these girls that they were focusing on impressing them instead of focusing on the lesson. Some of the kids were so annoyed by these girls that they openly made snarky comments back in the hope of shutting them up. Some of the kids just wanted to stay out of the classroom power struggle. I started to think of these girls as learning bullies.
I left that second day with a real challenge for myself. How could I get ALL of these kids engaged and focused on learning? How could I get them to not only listen to me, but more importantly, to listen to each other? And how could I honestly address my own personal feelings of wanted to be accepted by the "cool kids" but honor the responsibility I had to all of these students as their teacher?
Day three and I decided to call these girls on their behavior. I separated them in class so they couldn't sit together. I was the strong arm of the law. Total failure...not only did the girls hate me...all of the kids hated me. I had totally disrupted the delicate social balance of their seating arrangement and everyone was annoyed. So much for forcing mixed groups and shaking up the status quo.
Day four...I was getting to the end of the first week. I had made very little progress in the battle with the girls in the back of the class. Ignoring them hadn't helped. Exerting my authority hadn't helped. I decided I just needed to focus on engaging them. After all...that was my job. I was the teacher. It was my job to facilitate learning, to respect each student's role in that process and to support them the best way I could. So day four...I handed the classroom over to the students. It turns out, they were much better teachers than me.
Days 5 - 15? At some point we all became the girls in the back of the class. No, it wasn't The Breakfast Club. But it was a learning environment where everyone was participating and the power dynamics were balanced and not residing with a small percentage of popular, snarky girls.
I will admit readily that I am a control freak and I like to think I can fix everything. But you can't control or fix learning...and you can't control or fix social dynamics. What you can do is provide an environment and opportunities for people to engage. Too often, we look at the cool kids or the backchannel or cliques and we start feeling those emotions that used to rise up when we were in 7th grade. The truth is, in some ways, we never leave junior high.
We're all adults now, but there are still social dynamics at play in our personal and professional interactions. We still need to think about the "cool kids" and the class clowns and the jocks and the goths (and evidently the emo kids? I haven't taught in a while...) and yes, the geeks. It doesn't work to reject a group's attitudes and opinions out of hand because it doesn't make them go away. It doesn't work to bully or name call or troll...that won't change people's behavior or opinions (if anything, it usually polarizes the situation). What works? Engaging people in the process and valuing what they bring to the experience, even if their attitudes and opinions are very different from your own.
We're all in this together.
And for those wondering, 15 year olds can get shocked and outraged when they realize how gender biased all of the toys they played with as little kids actually are. It's a joy to see teenage boys playing Barbie and teenage girls racing remote-controlled Batmobiles. Not that they would have admitted that after they walked out of the classroom that day... ;)