Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fear and Love and Hate

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.
-"The Prince", by Nicolo Machiavelli
Many a teacher has been cautioned by their mentors to "never smile before Christmas." I think this goes hand in hand with the advice given to me from Jim Smith (Master Teacher and god-of-all-unit-leaders) about how it is easier to start out tough and then lighten up, than the other way around. Classroom management and discipline is one of the hardest things to master as a teacher and it took me almost twenty years to develop my own style. In fact, it took me over twenty years of trial and error, hundreds of miserable teenagers, and quite a few irate parents to get to what Jim Fay describes in one short book. So the Machiavellian teacher is usually the new teacher and they will find that it is easier to be feared. But there is more to Nicolo's particular chapter and style that many have overlooked.
Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated...
This is where I think a teacher can go very very wrong if they don't pay attention to the rest of what Nicolo has to say. Having students fear you is one thing, but you have to ask yourself if they hate you. Hate is a two way street: if they despise you, then it is very likely you feel the same way about them. And let's be honest about why we teach and what brought us to teaching. On some level we love kids and want to open the world for them. I think that at first it is easier to "come down hard" and "be feared than loved," but, even by Machiavelli's own account, it takes greater strength to inspire both.

To be honest, a lot of my students have a healthy fear of me and part of that is simply my personality while part of it I deliberately cultivate. I never raise my voice in anger, I never punish, I rarely call home; and yet, I have had no discipline problems in class or salle (fencing studio) in over twenty years. My students and I openly acknowledge this and they learn to take comfort in our relationship. They admit that they were once terrified of me, they are bemused at my sardonic attitude toward that fear, and they freely concede that I am "not so bad" once they get to know me. Not so bad: but not a party in my classroom either. And no, we are not friends - friendly, but never friends. In other words, they know that I do not hate them and they return the courtesy by not hating me. It is an honest relationship.

How have I done this? I can only explain my approach and I hope that you can figure out your own style.

My first lesson of the year is about names and identity. It is a safe way for students to share their self image with me and for me to demystify the aura of the ogre about me. I have them get out their brand new writing journals and on the very first page they write their full name. I then ask them to write for a sustained, five minutes about the "story" behind their name (e.g. Where did it come from? Who chose it? What, if any, is the special meaning? etc). After they are done writing, I break the ice and write my full name on the whiteboard and then tell them the story behind it. By the time I am done, they know a little about my family, its traditions, and the details of my multi-ethnic heritage. In just  few minutes I become human to them and it starts to get more difficult to hate me.

Usually, bolstered by my risk, their stories start to flow about their names and identity: I can only love them for that.

1 comment:

  1. lovely choice. and, btw, i adore your eclectic choice of favorites.