Classroom Anarchy

“You can’t make me!”

One of the defining moments of my youth was when I told my mother I wasn’t going to try out for track again my sophomore year. I’d run cross country and track as a freshman, and cross country in the fall of my sophomore year. And I hadn’t liked any of it. So I hadn’t planned on signing up again.

She pushed a bit, urging me to change my mind. Now, she was very reasonable about it, pointing out that I didn’t have physical education as a class and that physical activity is an important element to maintaining optimum health. Both very good points.

Didn’t matter. I didn’t want to do it. And maybe this is imagination painting details into memory, but I distinctly remember using the phrase, “and you can’t make me.”

It was like I’d flipped a switch and suddenly the room was filled with light. She actually can’t make me, I realized. While she could threaten consequences if I didn’t do what she suggested, and she might have been able to force me into the car and take me to practices and meets, she could not make me run. At least, not unless she had psionics of some sort that she’d been keeping a secret.

Fast-forward to this past summer, when I read Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. I think it was on the recommendation of Dr. Bates, as I’d asked for a counterpoint to Animal Farm and Julius Caesar and other stories that showed that the aftermath of overthrowing a repressive government was that you ended up with a NEW repressive government. The main character has lived in a wholly anarchistic society his entire life, and he makes contact with a capitalist society and goes to visit, sort of as part of his scientific research and mostly because he’s curious.

It really got me thinking about what anarchy actually is, as well as how such a society might be achieved. How are the community’s needs met? What happens when an individual is non-compliant? Is it truly possible to teach critical thinking that is free of indoctrination?

Anarchy does not mean chaos. It means recognizing and accepting that individuals have the right to make their own choices. This includes the choice to surrender some of that decision-making to others, as we typically do in our society. From a practical standpoint, each of us is an anarchist. No one can make our decisions for us. 

William Glasser discusses this in Choice Theory, which I have borrowed from our department head, and the application to instruction and classroom management is clear. Ultimately, teachers cannot control students’ behaviors, and I don’t think it’s our job to do so. We can certainly influence them based on stated consequences, as well as our own actions. And when we are transparent about those consequences and consistent in following through, students learn that we mean what we say.

I thoroughly believe that no student wants to be unsuccessful. But I also believe that students have a lot of different priorities, and sometimes those priorities conflict with each other. When students act out or are off task, it’s because they have decided (often subconsciously) that something else matters more than success in my classroom. It is our job to pay attention to our students, to notice when they’ve prioritized something else, and to address that in a way that facilitates learning rather than interrupts it.

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