Being the Serious Teacher Who Doesn’t Take Traditional Seriously

Chris McNutt
October 6, 2018
Educators face this scenario daily: by doubling down on progressive practice, their unwillingness to embrace the traditional delegitimizes their class.

When your classroom doesn’t look like any other classroom — students are often overjoyed, but also bewildered. Why would I do anything when it’s not for a grade? If they’re not going to lecture, why wouldn’t I just goof off? If there’s not a test, is any of this information relevant? Educators face this scenario daily: by doubling down on progressive practice, their unwillingness to embrace the traditional delegitimizes their class.

In most schools, there is a small cluster of teachers thinking different — they’re letting students run their experience, they’re stepping back from the front of the room, they’re rethinking grades toward legitimate assessment, and they’re not cramming state-mandated standards. When a student reaches these classes, there’s a stark shift: no forced respect, no falsely perceived narrative of what one “needs” to know, no grades. This is a frustrating scenario — schooling has made many students unaware of what schooling should be. It’s not about them — it’s about passing a test, scoring top of their class, and dominating the ever growing college resume checklist.

Therefore, when progressive educators begin to embrace these methods — they feel like they’ve fallen short. As bell hooks explains in Teaching to Transgress, teachers attempting radical pedagogy fall into a trap —

“…when students did not appear to “respect their authority” they felt those practices were faulty, unreliable, and returned to traditional practices.”

After all, students are essentially holding everything back. It could be that the majority of each day — a very draining day — that teachers are beholding them to notes en masse, harsh solitude, and mind-crushingly boring topics. So yes — if you give students a break, let them be kids, and give them a lot of exciting things to do…they’re going to get really excited. It’s obvious when you reflect on it. However, in the moment it’s a grim reality — all of these well-researched frameworks are just turning my room into a circus!

It’s a challenge — and one that I’ve learned to love: educating children who have to come to school without forcing them to learn, and the majority of the time they’re ruled in other rooms. Every single year I deal with a sizable minority of students who will play video games in the corner for weeks — completely adverse to any content — because “well, it’s not for a grade, so I don’t care, I hate school!” I don’t shame or blame them, it makes sense. As a high school educator, I’m well aware of how ridiculous some (even most) of the content students are tested over is. While in this classroom, respect is earned, not given. That’s usually something teachers say to children — but it should be the other way around. We’re earning the respect of them — convincing them that we care, appreciate, and love them — that we want to guide their journey toward even more positive outcomes.

To accomplish this, I talk a lot about school. We have passionate discussions on what a grade really is, how sarcastic comments by teachers hurt their feelings (after reading through Alfie Kohn’s ‘Corridor Wit’), the history of our classrooms, and what our goals at school should be. Most students love this (they’re finally able to trash talk school!) and they’re also willing to give me a chance. There’s something to be said about being the “popular teacher” — often equated to the “easy teacher” (more on that later) — it shouldn’t be a contest, but when students see you legitimately as a trusting, caring individual who understands their situation — they’ll do what you suggest. And there’s a few who struggle to get there — students completely disillusioned will take weeks — even months — of one-on-one conversations and sparks of interest to participate. But all of this is better than the alternative: forcing them to care. After all, it would defeat the entire purpose of educating for positive change if you force them to.

It’s worth noting that “4.0 students” seem the most prone to rejecting a progressive mindset. My most daunting challenge are the ~20% of students who complete homework, read for other classes, and “get ahead”, rather than explore ideas in my class because it’s “not real” without a traditional playbook. For me, outside of just building solid relationships, the only solution is to design the most absurd, relevant, and over-the-top PBL scenario: designing works to help the community and having every professional I can think of come in; raising awareness for the undocumented laborer program who was willing to visit our classroom; building and designing mock rollercoasters for a local theme park contest. If the classroom is doing legitimately fun, relevant, and interesting work — everyone tends to jump on board. And ever present in any scenario in my classroom — students can opt out. Interestingly enough, the more I’ve given opportunities to not participate, the more participation I’ve gotten in return. When your classroom knows you’re doing all this for them, they’ll stay by your side.

Furthermore, letting students guide their path instantaneously makes your classroom relevant. I always mention that if you want to do something different, just ask! This leads to a lot of interesting — and not always fool-proof ideas — but that’s sort of the entire point of teaching. We’re here to guide, mentor, and assist through learning…which includes failure and ridiculous ideas. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to see kids doing a lot of frankly bizarre things in my classroom: building a life-size Barbie doll box, writing a (not-so-well researched) play on drug usage in the United States, or researching local golf courses and their impact on our community’s economy. These might seem random — but they’re all relevant to learning the history of our area. And each leads to a learning opportunity: why not connect this Barbie doll box to the exoticism of Human zoos of the 19th/20th century — this time related to body image and the role of women?; why not connect with a member of the local police to learn more about the opioid crisis?; why not make a proposal of how golf courses can improve the economy, and see why our lower-income areas never seem to have them? Each one of these micro learning opportunities sparks a unique desire to engage and foster a purpose to these projects.

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Pictured: Making connections to deep points of understanding in history, such as the horrifically racist Human zoos of the 19th century, are easily connected and synthesized when connected to student’s experiences.

Motivation feels different. You have to know your students. Sadly — this gets conflated online to knowing their names, greeting them at the door, or recognizing them on their birthday. I would hope the majority of educators show basic human-to-human interaction with people they spend hours each day with. Instead, by knowing students I mean you learn about their goals in life, what drives them, what small and large events have happened recently or in the future, their family life, their struggles and successes. It’s very complicated and time-consuming — but this is the entire purpose of education. If you spend all your time doing this, your classroom will transform. The bonds of trust will drive students to work with you rather than for you — they’ll see you as a mentor, not a military sergeant.

And you’ll sometimes have to accept the situation you’re in as the progressive educator. There have been “free days” — where multiple tests were given in other classes, the day was long, it’s frankly just “boring” today, etc. “Let’s doing something small, or nothing at all, and play a few games. Spend some time with each other and talk.” Doing this may make you the “easy teacher” — but really you’re the teacher forming bonds. The break is just as important as “core class time.” I’ve never had as much engagement — in serious discussions or free play — after our class has just bonded together and relaxed. Learning communities aren’t entirely formed by “learning” together, at least not in the traditional sense — we form these communities by learning about everything: social interactions, getting up and moving, doing something entirely random, and of course — coursework.

Rebranding learning in the classroom is a necessity. Without doing so, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I know far too much teachers who attempt progressive ideas and give up after a month — the kids were too rowdy and well, rebelled. Mistakes will be made along the way, but the fight to implement progressive education will take a lot of unorthodox classrooms, willpower, and commitment to positive relationships. Once you double down and lead the way, you’ll reap the rewards.


Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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