Friday, 17 February 2012

Who’s driving this thing? Leadership, and the dogs of the classroom

'I don't feel my needs are being listened to enough.'
If you have never been driven through the frozen Norwegian country in the pitch-dark night, may I recommend that you add it to your bucket list? If you harbour a secret passion to reincarnate as Roald Amundsen or even simply to gasp in awe at the perspicacity of a dozen Arctic Huskies as they tear across Narnia and empty their bowels with abandon simultaneously, then it is the very thing. I heard Stephen Fry, the great arbiter of all things middle-class describe it as the most exhilarating thing he has ever done and while I cannot vouch for that claim- jumping out of a plane will evoke far richer echoes of imitating Hemingway-it is peculiarly vivacious.

And at points, also oddly soothing. I have often used the metaphor of a pack of dogs with a driver as a blunt instrument to illustrate some basic truths of classroom management. (I know that the mere proximity of those images makes some critics howl with horror- children as animals? The teacher as a driver of dogs? And that, my friends, is why it is a metaphor, and not a photograph.)

For example, every group of humans will, like dogs, vie constantly with each other for supremacy of will, a class no less. There will be leaders and followers, and a thousand shades in between. There will be dominant voices, and submissive whispers, and there is no guarantee that reason or kindness will attach themselves to either one. And the teacher, however gently he perceives his role, must be the voice of authority, the leader of the room. If he chooses not to be, out of some misguided perception of himself as a facilitator, or enabler, or if he wishes to be but cannot, then in very many classes, Lord of the Flies will be re-enacted, and you just better hope you’re not Piggy. Most kids are nowhere near this difficult; but that’s the point, it only takes a few kids to resist the rule of wisdom and age, and a tipping point of challenge is quickly reached, a critical mass of dissent that ruins the room.

That’s where I stand; it’s a bag of truths I have witnessed from the moment I walked into a classroom. Agree or disagree, you know the measure of me.

The dogs I met were beautiful- and I love dogs like a child loves dogs. Lean and eager, they sat in their harnesses, tense as tightropes and quivered as they anticipated their mission. Let no one disagree that animals cannot reason and imagine; these beasts knew exactly what was coming. With a Sami holler they raced off with complete and perfect abandon.

The pack of ten dogs was headed by two leaders, two alpha dogs. Often, I was told, they were female, and you can take that any way you want. They had to be two things; strong, of course, both in will and stature, and intelligent enough to know when a sensible order was given. Also, obedient enough to know a command from question. Behind them were pairs of males, then some females, and finally two strong males at the back. ‘The males, they follow the females,’ said my laconic French driver. ‘It is the way of things, no?’  There was more than altruism fuelling this ship, it seemed. Short of staffing every leadership team with hand-picked Amazons and supporting them with strong, sex-starved male deputies, there didn’t seem to be an obviously transferable point to take from this experience.

As we drove, the dogs occasionally broke ranks; to sniff at some wild trail, or the spoor of an Elk, to squabble with each other, or even just to attempt the aforementioned mid-romp duodenal acrobatics (squatting and running; quite a feat. Whenever the tail rose I mouthed the words, ‘Shields Up!’). Louis, the driver, didn’t crack a whip, or draw down the Heavens; he simply shouted the dog’s name, and added a tone that spoke volumes. It said; I see what you’re doing. But, trained from birth to expect consequences, they knew to go no further, and the path was achieved once more.

At the end I joined him in rewarding the dogs for running so well; exhausted, they were stoically grateful for his attention, and if one dog was over attended by a rugged scratch behind the muzzle then the others clamoured for equity of affection. Dog Heaven.

‘You have a good relationship with these dogs,’ I said. ‘Good control.’
‘You have to have a good relationship with them to have good control,’ he said. ‘You work hard with them to understand what you want from them- the training when they are young is the hardest part. Then they work hard for you, and you need to show them when they do well. We have a relationship.’

Would you say they trusted you? I asked. ‘Certainly they do,’ he said. ‘Without trust there is nothing.’ I was surprised to see such a close bond between the driver and the driven. There was no casual, utilitarian unconcern for them as merely a means to move a sled; there was a bond between them of mutual cooperation. He knew their names, their character, their capacities, and they knew him. But certainly he was no mere odd, tall dog to them. He had a specific job to do; he was the driver, and he had the first and final say in where they went and how far and fast they moved.

This is something classrooms have taught me. I tell every one of my classes that everyone in the room is important, and everyone has rights. That no one deserves special treatment over any other. And that means two things: first, that nobody must be allowed to place themselves above the general need of the class for selfish reasons, and that anyone doing so could expect to be treated with justice. And second, that as a teacher I was no more or less important than them, but I had a different role from them, which justified my greater authority. And it needed no more justification than that. That’s why I often invite and encourage student feedback in my lessons and of me, but never defer or devolve the authority of decision making. That is where student voice can be fuel for a professional, not a ballast. But when it escaped from the laboratories of the theorists, it became a monster, fed on pastures where it should never graze.

And as I was drawn on through the night, I asked myself, who was in charge here? Was it the dogs, pulling us along so swiftly? From afar you could mistake them as the leaders; certainly there is leadership within them. But their every decision was circumscribed, like a devolved parliament, by the authority of the greater body, in this case the driver. Was he in charge, with his Inuit commands handed down through centuries? But he only drove because I, as the paymaster, the client and customer, funded the expedition.  So was I in charge? Up to a point; by I had no command over those dogs, nor they over me, nor any of us over each other. Where did power lie?

There were hierarchies within hierarchies, and lines of command that, even in such a small group, remained impervious to exact specification. He ordered. They pulled. I paid. We all knew our roles.

Everyone got to where they needed to be.

9 comments:

  1. With you 100% on this Tom.

    For many years I have told probationary teachers and parents alike that children need to be clear about who is top dog in the class. Good basic training early on works wonders. When there is no doubt who is in charge everyone relaxes and the scrum for dominance is left for the playground.
    In my experience, children really like to know their teacher is in charge as long as their teacher is 'for' them. It's not about being a bully with a whip or a stick, but nor is it about allowing them free rein.
    It's that tricky sense of balance all sled drivers need. When pupils believe you have their best interests at heart they will follow your lead enthusiastically as you bound off together to explore the learning landscape.
    I like the husky driver metaphor especially since it highlights the capacity to see further, plan ahead, anticipate hurdles, consider terrain etc. Care for the team though is paramount.
    I'm going to completely gloss over the alpha female references though. My wicked side might take the metaphor further than it needs to go. (Soooooooo tempted though.)

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    1. I only avoided exploring the Alpha Females so I could avoid vilification by BOTH genders :) You feel free though.

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  2. Given there is no common denominator across the educated western world on the role of the form teacher, does not your 'metaphor' imply we need to toughen up the role, bring some further insight to play in how 'leaders of the pack' keep their dominance, avoid 'Captain Ahab' insights into what 'works' becoming 'best practice' and keep great practitioners of 'horse whispering' (sorry to mix m.) close to the fray?

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    1. I think leading rooms of children has been fairly well explored by practitioners for many decades, and benefits little from the kind of research that dominates our educational superstructure. But it is worth discussing, between professionals. Good teachers in every culture know what works, because they've learned in the workshop of the classroom.

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    2. Certainly agree that great practitioners need to be close to schools, always.

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  3. Given there is no common denominator across the educated western world on the role of the form teacher, does not your 'metaphor' imply we need to toughen up the role, bring some further insight to play in how 'leaders of the pack' keep their dominance, avoid 'Captain Ahab' insights into what 'works' becoming 'best practice' and keep great practitioners of 'horse whispering' (sorry to mix m.) close to the fray?

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  4. I'm sorry, I didn't actually read this one, I just laughed and laughed that no one left a comment on your previous post...but I'm not going to either. ;0)

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