Diary of a First-Year Teacher: ‘If We Seek to Control Children, We Are Always Going to Fail’

A 22-year-old educator in rural Mississippi takes us inside the wild world of teaching in her ‘Diary of a First-Year Teacher.’
Trying to manage students has not turned out well for this first-year teacher. (Photo: Peter Dazeley)
Nov 5, 2012

Each week, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.

When I began my first year of teaching, I naively thought I was prepared to be a transformational leader in the classroom. I had taken a leadership course in college and read a dozen or so books and articles on inspiring change and motivating students.

The reality is, the dialogue about classroom leadership ends in ideology and pep talks. The resources and the advice you receive, from my experience, have been exclusively in classroom management. Now I hadn’t thought anything of this until this weekend when my eyes fell upon my dusty leadership textbook. At my wits end to try to motivate my students, I decided to dust off the book that had so eloquently articulated all the reasons why I cared about being a transformational leader. 

I aimlessly flipped open to chapter one: “Leaders Versus Managers.” My eyes fell directly to the section’s guiding quote, “You manage things. You lead people.” –Grace Murray Hopper.

Like an ACME anvil, it hit me.

Managing a class is an impossible task because children are not things, they are people. Emotional and passionate people. Leading a class is what a teacher is meant to do. Classroom management may be the kosher way to think and talk about how a teacher leads a class, but it falls short of what students who are already far behind need from their teacher. Sure, students need discipline and structure, but before they can have those things, they need to care. Otherwise, you're going to be dragging them kicking and screaming into a straight line.

More: Diary of a First-Year Teacher: An Experiment in Teaching Compassion

Never had I felt that the metaphor of herding cats so accurately applied. But that’s kind of the point, right? To herd cats is like managing people. Especially managing kids. If we seek to control children, we are always going to fail because they are spontaneous, emotional, and HUMAN. However if we desire to lead them, our mission is quite different. Evaluating myself as a manager is setting myself up for failure, when I am doing a job that calls for a leader.

Despite my earnest passion to lead my students, I have fallen short at managing them. I have been resorting to redirecting all misbehavior and often evaluating the quality of my day based on the straightness of my students’ line. My line isn’t usually that straight, and my students don’t sit all that quietly or all that still. I’m a mediocre classroom manager, and I think it’s because I don’t care how straight my students’ line is. I care if my students can read and whether they believe in themselves.

I’ve given it a three-month trial period. And so far, the results have not been worth writing home about. Instead, I'm going to starting leading my class and stop trying to manage them. As I see it, the worst that can happen is that our line could end up less straight. What I hope will happen is that they will care a little bit more.

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