Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don't back a lion into a corner!

In my last post, I explained how lion tamers use chairs to "bounce a lion" and coaxing reactions that will challenge them to move around in different directions in the arena.  I used this process as a metaphor for how good teachers can coax their students to accept challenges in solving problems and learning new skills.  Today, I'd like to apply the metaphor of the lion tamer's chair in a different way, by applying it to classroom behavior and discipline.

Before I jump into things, I want to clarify what I mean when I use the term "classroom."  I mean any learning environment in which teachers interact with students.  That could be in a traditional classroom, or in a lab, or on a field trip, or in an online environment, or . . . well . . . anywhere you can imagine.

As I've stated, the lion tamer's chair is merely a tool that helps coax a lion to move in a particular direction under the direction of the trainer.  Its use requires knowledge of the natural behavior of lions and skill in using that knowledge to manage the behavior of the lions to achieve desired outcomes.  Likewise, knowing something about human behavior allows teachers to develop skills in managing the behavior of people in the  classroom environment.

Applying the chair metaphor, we as teachers can develop skills in stepping through boundaries in ways that promote good classroom discipline and thus enhance the learning environment.  Recall from my previous post that the lion tamer's chair is used to enter the "personal space" of a lion to different degrees, each of which elicits different reactions.  Enter the outer boundary and the lion backs away.  Move past the inner boundary and the cat gets irritated and moves toward us . . . menacingly.

As you can imagine, different lions have different boundaries.  Some lions let you get fairly close before they back away, whereas others back away before you can get close to them.  Lion tamers learn this by interacting cautiously with each lion until they know the boundaries well.  Teachers can also take time to learn the boundaries of their students.  Different students have different personalities and experiences that mold their boundaries, just as lions do.  If we learn some of these boundaries we can more efficiently learn how to apply that knowledge to managing classroom discipline.

For example, some students are very sensitive to the "push" of a teacher who appropriately challenges a class.  When a student who feels threatened, we have crossed a boundary with them.  They may lash out at us, even if only in subtle ways, just as a lion does when it is "bounced."  If we push harder, then it's likely that we will cross another boundary and the situation will escalate into something very negative . . . and perhaps even dangerous.  But if we step back just a bit . . . just outside that boundary we crossed . . . the student will feel less threatened and can be approached again from a different angle.

Lion tamers often puzzle over how best to approach a particular lion.  Some lions can be quite enigmatic in their boundaries and reactions.  But nearly always, sometimes after some failed experiments and consultation with other trainers, a good lion tamer can figure out a way to work with any lion.

Disruptive lions can be dangerous in the arena, just as disruptive students can.  Not only physically dangerous, but also a threat to the learning process for everyone in the classroom.  But if we take the time and effort to learn the boundaries of our students, and their reactions to our crossing those boundaries, then we can tailor our behavior to avoid conflict and instead challenge students in positive ways.

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