Counterwill in the Classroom
Counterwill is a funny thing. We seem to walk straight into it as adults without understanding its energy. Some time ago I had a difficult day as a Substitute teacher which could have panned out quite differently had I understood Counterwill better.Read More
Counterwill in the Classroom
Counterwill is a funny thing. We seem to walk straight into it as adults without understanding its energy. Some time ago I had a difficult day as a Substitute teacher which could have panned out quite differently had I understood Counterwill better.
My notes informed me the Year 12 English students I was teaching were sitting a test that lesson. I braced myself. “Test conditions” means silence – often a bit of a feat to pull off when you’ve never met the students before.
I called the class to attention and insisted they complete the assessment in silence. “This is no time for chatting,” I emphasized. “Students all around the country are sitting this same assessment today, and each school must keep the same rules.” Looks were exchanged between some members of the class as I handed out the test papers. The energy coming my way was not exactly warm.
Retreating to my desk to begin quiet surveillance, I was surprised to see a group of girls chatting quietly amongst themselves. It was a few minutes into the test and not one of them had even picked up a pen. In fact some were applying make-up and others were chatting about the upcoming school Prom that weekend.
In front of me were a group of bespectacled boys writing furiously. I felt injured on their behalf. How dare these girls compromise the chances of these other students, so keen to succeed? I stalked over to the girls and “shushed” them as only a good teacher can. My “shush” was greeted with a chorus of exasperated sighs and eye-rolling from the group, and after a few minutes the talking ensued.
I tried again, more insistently this time, but to no avail. The only purpose it served was to increase the eye-rolling and increase the volume of the chatter. I retreated to my desk to consider my options. If this were to continue I would need to take more extreme action. Normally, in cases where students really won’t comply, they can be sent to the Deputy Principal’s office. This, so close to the upcoming Prom, could endanger their chances of attending. Harsh, perhaps, but my blood was beginning to boil. Occasionally one of the group would glance haughtily over at me as they talked, waiting to see what I might do next.
I had made up my mind. Eyeballing them I marched across the room. “Girls,” I hissed, “this is to be completed in test conditions. If you cannot manage to stop your conversation I will send you to the Deputy Principal immediately. Do you understand?” The girls fell silent. I retreated with a sigh of relief. Sometimes you’ve just got to show them who’s boss, I thought to myself as I returned to my desk. However, things were not so rosy as I had supposed. When I turned back around the girls were huddled in a tight group whispering in earnest conversation.
Moments later, the silence was disturbed by the sudden clattering of desks and school bags. All eyes were turned on four of the girls standing, chins held high, walking towards the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“You don’t want us here, so we’re leaving,” one replied tensely, “just like you asked us to.”
“But…” I replied, “alright then…” I faltered. I gathered up my assertive voice again.
“You may leave only if you’re going directly to the Deputy Principal’s office.”
The girls exchanged glances and smirked. “Yeah sure,” they replied and left, walking in the opposite direction from the Admin building.
After they left an unsettled hush fell over the room and students began pulling out their papers again and looking at their work. I remained standing tensely, calculating in my head which DP to refer this incident on to. Recovering slowly from the incident, I walked the room again,looking over student’s shoulders at their work. When I reached the group of earnest, bespectacled boys I leaned in close. “At least now you boys can get on with your work,” I smiled conspiratorially.
The boys looked up and one freckled individual with curly locks of hair physically recoiled from me. Staring me down, angrily he exclaimed, “Don’t think just because we’re doing our work that we’re on your side!” Bewildered, and feeling stung, I stumbled my way back to the teacher’s desk, wondering what had just happened.
What had just happened, in fact, began at the very first moment I opened my mouth that lesson. I had triggered Counterwill, and not just in the unruly students, but in the dedicated ones as well. When relational connection is low, Counterwill can be high.
There are many things I could have done that day to reduce the possibility of Counterwill. I could have started the lesson more relationally by telling the class a little about myself and my passion for English as a subject. I could have communicated to them why their regular teacher was absent. Instead, I went straight into the test description. And instead of reassuring them about the assessment and what they might want to think about to do well, I chose to focus on what they must not do and how severe the consequences would be if they did not.
When the group of girls chose to ignore my initial instructions, that was my invitation to work harder to connect with them. I could have started a quiet conversation on passing about what they were wearing to the school Prom perhaps. I could have talked about my small children which is why I was a Substitute at the time. Instead I “shushed” them - a dangerous move in a Counterwill-charged classroom.
Don’t get me wrong – “shushing” my regular class, who I have spent months getting to know and enjoy - is a perfectly simple thing to do and does not trigger Counterwill. However, trying it with a group I had no prior relationship with is risky. Respect is usually earned, not given simply because of one’s title or position.
By assuming compliance I had lost it, and by ignoring the dynamic of Counterwill I had triggered a full-blown, defiant walk-out on my watch. It could have ended so differently. Oh the beauty of hindsight…