Just. Say. Sit Down—his voice buzzed into my earpiece—Stop saying ‘Please.’
No, I was never in the secret service. This was a teacher training program. From the back of my classroom, my “real-time coach” whispered into a microphone, a notebook covering his face so students couldn’t hear. If it sounds like a bizarre setup, it was. While it’s always helpful to have another set of eyes on the room, this coaching was directed at reforming my language. Yes, I suffered from a particular linguistic affliction—one that was ostensibly leading to noncompliance in my classroom: my propensity for “permission seeking language.” I asked too many questions, made requests instead of commands, and had the gall to say “please” and “thank you” to the students in my classroom.
A recent NPR article outlined the increasingly popular “No-Nonsense” teaching method. In this approach, teachers manage their classrooms through explicit directives, minimal praise, and 100% compliance. To. The. Letter.
“Your pencil is in your hand. Your voice is on zero. If you got the problem correct, you’re following along and checking off the answer. If you got the problem incorrect, you are erasing it and correcting it on your paper.”
The piece calls the approach a “unique teaching method [that] empowers teachers to stop behavior problems before they begin.”
Many will argue that this degree of verbal abuse is not characteristic of No-Nonsense teaching, that the teacher took the approach too far. But is her underlying premise any different from the model itself? Compliance leads to learning. Hands neatly folded in laps. “Making. Sure. You’re counting correctly.” What methods were incentivized to create an atmosphere where this sort of teaching could take root in the first place?
The Elephant in the Room
Both NPR and the NYTimes ignore a key dynamic at play here. No-Nonsense teaching is not a trend in education at large, but is marketed almost exclusively in urban schools—particularly those in which students of color are taught by predominately white teachers.
You see enough of these schools, and you can’t help but wake up to a pattern—a transformation disturbingly paralleled in A Narrative in the Life of Fredrick Douglass as he was briefly taught to read by a plantation owner’s wife.
“In the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another… [but] slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me…. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me…. a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.”
I have seen parallel transformations in No-Nonsense classrooms time and time again: New teachers walk in with their pleases and thank yous intact, but are told their language of care won’t get them respect among “these students.” They are systematically trained, as I was, to police their own language and the “100% compliance” of their students. Just as Douglass experienced,
“She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute.”
It is difficult to watch the Success Academy video and not recall that last sentence.
Bad Apples or Flawed Systems?
Imagine, even for a moment, this style of teaching being tolerated in a largely white, suburban school. Luckily, we don’t have to, because comedians Key and Peele satirized this very dynamic in a sketch entitled “Substitute Teacher.”
The clip follows as “inner-city substitute teacher Mr. Garvey has trouble adjusting to a classroom full of middle-class white students.” Garvey, played by Keegan-Michael Key, walks into class stone faced, announcing, “I taught school for 20 years in the inner city, so don’t even think about messing with me.” He proceeds to take attendance, but can’t even get past the first name before accusing students of insubordination. Garvey eventually breaks his clipboard and kicks a student out of class for allegedly mispronouncing his own name. Watch the video, then re-watch the Success Academy teacher doing the same to a student who can’t finish a math problem.
But it’s too easy to demonize the individual No-Nonsense teacher. We can pretend this is just about one “bad apple,” but she was created, very intentionally, by a system. It’s system grounded in a philosophy of compliance over learning—particularly for students of color. Teachers in these classrooms, much like their students, do as they’re told. Just as Douglass said of his own once-teacher, the dynamic “proved as injurious to her as it did to me.” No-Nonsense teachers are taught to simply follow the model, and like the teacher in the video, are subsequently stripped of their own humanity along with that of their students.
New teachers, of course, need skills, strategies, and help with their classroom management. A classroom that feels unruly or unsafe is not a place where learning can occur, and our students deserve better. But students also deserve their childhoods. As acclaimed author Ta-Nahesi Coates observed of his own education,
“Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory, and carried the lavatory pass when en route. Educated children never offered excuses — certainly not childhood itself. The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools?…. I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.”
It was no coincidence that, for Douglass,”The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me.” When compliance is valued over learning, we have lost all that is good in education in the first place. Our students want and need our authentic selves. They want, need, and most of all deserve their humanity— and can therefore rescue ours.
I once had a colleague tell me, “I could never work at a No-Nonsense school,” adding with a smile, “I like a bit of nonsense.”
It reminded me to ask, what exactly is the “nonsense” these schools seek so emphatically to abolish? Things like praising a child, learning from mistakes, requiring teachers to have certification, letting kids squirm in their chairs and just be kids— are all of these really just nonsense?
Many of us went into teaching because of that very “nonsense” that makes our children children. So embrace the nonsense. Students deserve our best, and for me, that will always mean saying “Please.”
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