Acknowledging a Student’s Demand for Power Does Not Mean Giving In
by Mary Welliver-Dillon
I taught Shaniqua eighth grade math. Shaniqua was tall, athletic, and universally acknowledged for her power and independence among her peers. I might even use the word "bully" in a certain way--there was not any challenge to Shaniqua's actions or words by her class. From what I could tell from her outer aspect, Shaniqua listened well to instruction and was interested in doing well in class. She was often very late for school, and did not comply with the school's policies of dress code or required afternoon tutoring in math. After the first report card grading, Shaniqua's mother visited my classroom after school and attempted to intimidate me with hostile words. She did not agree with the attendance count or Shaniqua's work feedback in several classes.
My learning from Shaniqua involved how to understand her kind of power and will in the context of my classroom dynamic. I have not been, since my second year of teaching, much of a screamer. Because I teach math, I find it easier to communicate and exert my personal control of the classroom through the work and thoughtfulness required by the subject itself. I find that most 8th-grade students, given an honest and supported challenge in learning, rise to the challenge without much need for screaming. My students sat in "bunches," were encouraged to work together to solve problems, and were asked to measure their progress towards new skills weekly with an individual quiz. In addition, students led the discussion of "right answers" by demonstrating work at the board and looking for the consensus and understanding of their peers. My primary role during class was to circulate, looking over shoulders at written records of students' work, and offering questions or feedback about what I saw.
Shaniqua did not respond calmly to my presence. At the beginning of the year, she physically bristled at my presence. She did not respond to questions or comments I shared about her work. Into the second marking period, she directed disrespectful remarks toward and about me whenever I was near her table. Finally, I asked her what she meant by this behavior. She told me, in private conversation, that she didn't like it when I looked at her work, and could I please "leave her alone." I, nearly screaming in my head, asked her how I could assess her work if I couldn't see it? We were at an impasse, and I was angry that she could not understand why I needed to see what she was doing to be able to correct and coach her in math.
I struggled for a new way to approach Shaniqua. I was worried that, if I didn't look over Shaniqua's shoulder, other students would feel that I was intimidated by her, and this would undermine my "classroom management," such as it was. I worried that they would feel that I was unfairly grading Shaniqua in a different way because I challenged their work and not hers. I was most of all worried that I would not have enough "information" with which to formulate grades for Shaniqua. Yet if I gave her additional requirements to turn in written work, that would also be seen as an unfair punishment. Finally, I decided to give Shaniqua's request a try. I would ask nothing extra from her. I would stop monitoring her classroom written work, continue to grade her weekly quizzes and occasional written project assignments, and see what happened.
What I learned was that acknowledging power with gentle respect was powerful in itself. Shaniqua noticed immediately that I had stopped looking over her shoulder. She began to speak up more in class discussion, propose ideas to the class, and volubly lead her group. She went to the board to demonstrate solutions more often. I had all the "information" about her thinking and learning that I needed. She gave it to me in her own ways.
The class took this change of behavior in stride. Far more than noticing my change in monitoring Shaniqua's work, they seemed to notice and appreciate Shaniqua's serious contributions to everyone's learning. The climate of the room changed, and Shaniqua's influence propelled the whole class to a new level of serious academic inquiry. Shaniqua became the student whose questions caught everyone's attention.
Things were not always peaceful with Shaniqua and me after this event. There were still fights with other students in hallways, disrespectful words, inexplicable actions of Shaniqua's that I questioned and wondered about. However, her rigor in class and her attitude towards me was changed because I accepted her request to maintain power over her learning.