Book Summary: ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire By M. Fontaine

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Searching for Level VI

Over the years, I have tried many different ways to develop a classroom culture in which students behaved well for all the right reasons. This alone is a tall order. Given a school environment in which kids urinate all over the bathroom floor, write on desks, and quite frankly don’t want to be in school at all, it is difficult to find a common language by which to develop morality.

And then I found it. Most teaching victories come as a result of years of difficult and painful labor—there are very few “educational eurekas,” where the light bulb blazes over your head and you know where to go. But one glorious evening it happened to me.

I had been planning lessons around my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and was reading a study guide that analyzed the novel’s characters in relation to Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development. I just loved it. The Six Levels were simple, easy to understand, and, most important, perfectly applicable to teaching young people exactly what I wanted them to learn. I quickly incorporated the Six Levels into my class, and today they are the glue that holds it together. Trust is always the foundation, but the Six Levels are the building blocks that help my kids grow as both students and people.

Level I. I Don’t Want to Get in Trouble

Most students are trained from the minute they enter school to be Level I thinkers. Practically all of their behavior is based on the fact that they want to avoid trouble. “Quiet down!” they frantically tell one another. “The teacher’s coming!” They do homework to stay out of trouble. They walk in a line to keep the teacher happy. They listen in class to stay in the good graces of their instructor. And we teachers and parents reinforce this constantly by promising them trouble if they don’t toe the line. “Wait till your father gets home,” indeed.

But is this good teaching? Level I thinking is based on fear. Eventually we want our children to behave well not because they fear punishment but because they believe it is right.

Level II. I Want a Reward

Eventually children begin to make decisions for reasons other than avoiding trouble. But teachers are especially guilty of enforcing what in our class is identified as Level II thinking. I guess too many of us read B. F. Skinner in college. We learned that if children are rewarded for good behavior, they are more likely to repeat behavior we deem acceptable. There is, of course, truth in this. Whether the reward is candy, toys, or more time for sports, a dangling carrot can be a powerful inducement for good behavior.

I have visited middle school classrooms in which teachers use Level II thinking to encourage their students to finish homework. One history teacher I met pits his classes against each other in a competition to see which of them can complete the most homework. The winning class gets a prize at the end of the year. Apparently this teacher has forgotten that a knowledge of history is supposed to be the prize. When I spoke to the class that did the most homework, I learned that they were terrific at completing assignments and turning them in, but their understanding of history was shockingly limited.

These payoffs are common in classrooms across the country. As someone who is on the front lines every day, I am well aware that getting kids to behave is one of the toughest jobs in the world. We’re all working way too many hours, and if a homework chart with gold stars gets kids to do their work, that’s good enough for many. But it is no longer good enough for me. I think we can all do better.

Level III. I Want to Please Somebody

As they grow up, kids also learn to do things to please people: “Look, Mommy, is this good?” They do the same things with teachers, chiefly with the charismatic or popular ones. They sit up straight and behave the way we hope they’ll behave. But they do it for all the wrong reasons.

The desire to come through for parents is an even greater pressure. Many children are so desperate to please their parents they will even pick their colleges and majors to keep their folks happy. These same kids grow into frustrated adults who hate their jobs and can’t understand why they are so displeased with their lives.

Well, at least they were trying to please someone.

But I think we can do even better.

Level IV. I Follow the Rules

Level IV thinking is very popular these days. With so many young people behaving badly, most teachers are trained to lay down the law on the first day of class. After all, it is essential that kids know the rules. The better teachers take the time to explain the “why” of certain rules, and many creative teachers get their students involved in the creation of class standards. The theory is that kids who are involved in generating classroom rules will be more invested in following them. There is truth in this.

I have no problem with rules. Obviously, children need to learn about boundaries and behavioral expectations. I am certainly not an anarchist. And when I come back from my day at the staff development meeting, am I glad that Robert behaved himself with the substitute? I am thrilled. But if we want our children to receive a meaningful education, do we really want Robert to do things because Rule 27 says he should?

I met a teacher who had an interesting way of teaching his kids to say “Thank you.” One of his rules was that if the teacher gave you something—a calculator or a candy bar—you had three seconds to acknowledge his kindness by saying “Thank you.” If you didn’t do this, the gift was immediately taken back.

And it worked. The kids said it constantly. The only problem was that they had no real appreciation for the gifts they received. They were merely following a rule. Also, the “lesson” did not carry over into other areas of the kids’ lives. One night I took these same children to see a play, and they were no more or less gracious than other children in the theater. They did not thank the ushers who handed them programs or helped them find their seats, and they did not thank the people who served them drinks at intermission. Their class rule was just that—a way of behaving in one class with one teacher.

Level IV is a good place to be, but we must try to do even better.

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