When Not to Believe Our Students

To the disdain of many traditional teachers, I strive to create a very lax-like atmosphere in my classroom. Teaching a four-five split grade classroom, many might observe my style and assume that I allow my 10 and 11-year-olds too much autonomy and independence. The downside of teaching at the elementary level is that much emphasis is placed on the “classroom management” side of things as opposed to the actual pedagogy of one’s practice. Down in the K-8 environment, the energy from the adults in the building is typically on a “we know, at all times, what’s best for these children” type of wave. Because of this, we tell them what they can and can’t do, we make decisions based on how we were raised and remember our elementary schooling, and we spend a lot of time dictating about behavioral traits rather than dismissing some of those minute battles for the sake of squeezing every ounce of education we can put in, and get out, of our students. The result: we walk into our classrooms taking a savior-like approach to the practice and decide when and when not to believe our students.


There are a hundred examples I could use as support for my next little spiel. But I am going to dive in with the whole, “kids listening to music while reading” topic. I cannot concentrate with any white noise. In terms of paper and pencil, book and understanding, and whatever else academic, I’ve been like that as long as I can remember. If I heard the television on in the living room, I would need to close my bedroom door, which was a twisted hallway and at least twenty feet away from the tube. I’ve grown to slightly adapt to concentrating in a public library, to some classical music playing in the background, and on the odd occasion, hip-hop instrumentals. Put me in a situation where I am hearing anything with lyrics or any one person capable of talking, no work is getting done! My teacher in the 7th grade tried to tell my mom during a parent-teacher interview that I needed Adderall. The classroom was a busy place with many distractions and I seldom got any meaningful work done while there. But when assignments got sent home, they came back to school reflective of a student who sat at the front of the class and only spoke when spoken to. Meanwhile in school, when I asked Ms. Thompson to work outside in the hall, she assumed that I was going to lose that grammar sheet she had just given me and roam the halls looking for friends. She took me for a liar and thought I simply needed a little bit of medication in order to concentrate. Mother abruptly told her she better shape up and learn how to teach young boys. That was the end of that. It’s just who I am and how I learn.


But now as a teacher, I have students who ask me during silent reading if they can listen to music on their iPods while reading J.K. Rowling, The Fault in Our Stars, or Goosebumps. My initial teacher impression was always, “you’re lying, how the hell you gonna actually read while listening to music?” So, of course, I usually said no. Then I got comfortable with that elementary teacher balance between classroom management and teaching and started allowing students to do this. They would read while listening to music during silent reading time. They would read while plugged into their iPods during literature circle reading time and then they would produce results; the very thing we as teachers are always looking for.


Some teachers believe that they ultimately and always know when students are lying to them, especially when it comes to aspects pertaining to educational matters. I know when Chris hands in a test 40 seconds after James handed in his that something is awry. James has been getting straight A’s since September and is typically a faster thinker. Before I moved Chris’ desk beside James two weeks ago, he spent the last 7 months taking the full hour just to struggle to get a C. James hands in a test and Chris does less than a minute later. Something isn’t adding up. That is the adult part of teaching. That is the, “I know better than you…nice try, you have the answers for this math test but don’t have any of the work down that you used to get to the answer, I wasn’t born yesterday” side of teacher-knows-best teaching that should be used in the classroom. But I do not know best when it comes to this generation at all times. I do not know best when my style of “traditional” learning clashes with that of a student, born in 2004 and has had an iPod since she was 3 years old, who comes up to me and asks if she can listen to music while reading. And in those grey areas, the areas that usually get most grey when cultural and generational values clash with current ways of experience life, I should not impose my will by not believing my students. Simply put, listening to Future while reading Hamlet may not make sense to us teachers. But it may be very natural to that student. So natural that they don’t even understand how asinine a question like that sounds to us!


White noise is necessary for some to feel comfortable. For others, white noise is crippling. All people need a particular environment to function productively. Thinking your students are lying to you (within reason) is slipping into a role that no teacher should ever embrace. The classroom should be open and adaptable to every bit of conscious thinking in between. You think listening to “gangsta rap” while reading Hamlet is preposterous? So do I! But why not believe our students when it comes to such a minute detail as that? At least that’s how I feel, so you can go on and “hollldat!”


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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