When Classroom Management Failure Is An Understatement

I normally don’t talk about professional material on Mondays in this space, but, after last week, I think there’s something we need to talk about.

Classroom Management Is Not Calling The Cops
Image via Stocksnap

Some of you may have seen Ball State University, where I teach, in the news lately. If you haven’t, here’s the story, go read it. I’ll wait.

My understanding of the scenario is that a professor wanted a student to sit somewhere other than where he was sitting and, to give his request some teeth, called campus police to enforce the request. The student, as far as I know, was not in any way defiant, disrespectful, or otherwise threatening at the time.

When the news broke, my fiance was asking me for details. I didn’t have any. I still don’t, really. I kept to the “You’ve seen the news reports, so you know as much as I do” line that I was trained to use by being adjacent to the defense industry as a child. After all, it wasn’t my department or my student, and I only knew about it through the news too.

But as a teacher I do know this: What happened was wrong. There is almost no excuse, ever, to call the cops on a student. Certainly not simply to ask them to move desks.

I will mostly agree with those who are saying it was a power move on the professor’s part, an attempt to assert authority and superiority. Power struggles in the classroom do happen. I’ve had students openly question my pedagogy in front of the class. I’ve had students try to intimidate me by bringing other people into office hours visits. But none of these situations warrants calling campus police. The most severe things I’ve done to maintain power in a classroom is ask a student to step outside (very rare!) or ask a colleague to sit in on an office hours visit when I didn’t feel safe or supported by my title alone.

I also recognize that race was probably a factor here; it certainly fits the pattern, and those close to the case seem to be responding accordingly. I can’t comment a whole lot on that aspect, though, except to say that endangering a student of color by calling armed police is a very, very bad idea and honestly wouldn’t even occur to me. And I also want to note that our campus police behaved well in not escalating the situation and then counseling the student to file a bias report. It is heartening to see a case where the police behaved professionally right now.

But even reading it as a racially motivated incident, as many people including the responding police seem to have done, comes down to a display of power by the weak, like tyrants’ military parades. And that is, I think, what really happened in the broadest sense. But what baffles me is the amount of energy expended to be awful, and how much of an interruptions of class it is. So let’s talk about these things.

There are three things that hang in balance in classroom management: smooth flow of class, respect for students, and instructor authority. In a well managed classroom, all of these things work together. In a poorly managed classroom, these things are all in conflict with each other, and the instructor must make choices about which one to prioritize at the expense of the others.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on classroom management. I know it’s one of my weaker points. But given a choice between which of these to sacrifice in the service of the others, I will happily sacrifice instructor authority to preserve respect for students or flow of class.

The power difference between a professor and an undergraduate student is vast, and as such, we professors and instructors (because students don’t really know the difference) need to be on our best behavior. There must be no hint of impropriety on our end, nor of insecurity in our position. Uncertainty on a topic is good, and insecurity as a human being is natural. But we must understand that any action we take is amplified by our implied authority simply by standing at the front of the classroom.

It is for this reason that, for instance, it’s wrong to date a student, no matter how much the student says that they consent to the relationship. Because in such a power difference, there’s no possibility of informed consent from the less empowered party.

This is also why it’s basically never ok to call the campus police on a student. Campus police are there for when there is present and immediate danger, not to enforce the authority we already carry. In these situations, as happened on my own campus last week, the professor himself is the present and immediate danger.

There is one situation when it’s ok to call campus police, and it’s for that reason that our classrooms are all equipped with red emergency call buttons: when students are in actual danger. I have been in a classroom, as a student, when a professor had to call for emergency assistance. A student was having a seizure, and the classroom was not a safe environment for that student as a result. The professor had been warned at the beginning of the term that the student might have such an episode and, to the professor’s credit, the professor behaved professionally, enacted the student’s emergency plan as discussed, kept the class calm and away from the danger, and summoned emergency medical assistance. May we all be so professional in the face of a true emergency.

But in such a situation, all flow of class has already been lost, and the priority isn’t on learning at all, but on maintaining safety. That’s when it’s ok to call for emergency services such as campus police.

What baffles me whenever people call the police on black people for no good reason, or when teachers act out so egregiously in other ways, is how much energy they are expending to interrupt their own lives to make the call. I get 50 minutes of time with my students on a MWF class, 75 on a 2-day/week class. Why on earth would I waste any of it making a scene? Each minute matters. Then add to that the way I get terrified whenever I have to make an actual phone call or interact with police–why would I do that to myself?

So I really don’t understand when these things happen. The few times in my life I’ve had to call for public services–when there was a fire in the neighborhood, when there’s been a car accident, that sort of thing–it was terrifying and I had to truly debate with myself “Is this the right time or am I wasting someone’s time if I do this?”

Do these people have so little self-awareness that they do not have these debates? That they do not ask themselves “Is this worth interrupting class for?” or “Is this worth inconveniencing someone else for?”

Teaching is not about your own power as a teacher. The power we yield is a function of the system we work in and the assumption that to learn we need someone to follow, and following gives power. I’ll admit that when I first considered becoming a teacher, the power fantasy appealed to me. I imagined how I’d fail students at the drop of a hat for any infraction. But when I found myself suddenly the instructor of record for two sections at a time as a grad student (and with nearly no training, I might add), it looked very different. I suddenly saw the power I held over my students and was scared of my own hand. But then I remembered the moments when I saw true displays of power by my own teachers: when they granted myself or other students grace, to make our paths easier and our loads lighter when we most needed it. The feeling of power I get when I make these actions that are small and inconsequential on my end but change a student’s world in large ways, that’s the power trip that we teachers should pursue.

Anyone who teaches because they want to feel important, or treats students as merely subjects in their kingdom, doesn’t deserve to be in the classroom. If you are here to light the way and smooth the path, you’re here for the right reasons.

And to any instructors who might think that it’s a good idea to call for campus police to help manage a class: Manage your own classroom; that’s literally your job as a professor. If you can’t do so without endangering your students, then you shouldn’t be teaching.

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