Unlearning "100 Percent Compliance"

In solidarity with teachers, administrators, parents, and students in Louisiana who feel oppressed and frustrated by state standardized tests that are being administrated this week, I'm posting an essay a day about unlearning what I was taught in my first two years of teaching. Click here to read the full introduction.

When I look through the folder of photos on my computer from the past five years, there's this one that is especially sad. At the time it was taken, the picture made me happy. I even had a big print made of it, and I hung it up in my classroom. It was a picture of "100 percent compliance" -- a Doug Lemov teaching strategy that had been reiterated to me throughout multiple professional development sessions to the point that it had basically become part of my personal dogma. ("I believe in peace, love, equal rights for all, that salted caramel is the best flavor of ice cream, and that children should always demonstrate 100 percent compliance.")

When the picture was taken, I was teaching first grade at a charter school in New Orleans. It was my second year at the school, and the year before I had co-taught with an amazing woman who was kind and tough enough to be really good at achieving 100 percent compliance. Also, there were two of us in the classroom, so if someone was not complying, I was able to corral the divergent kid using some secret side system. This year, I was alone. 

I was alone, and I was teaching six-year-olds, and I had no idea how to get them to do what I wanted them to do. I used all the strategies I'd been taught, but they were still wiggly and rambunctious. Sometimes they still laughed during my (serious) math lessons. Sometimes they asked to go to the bathroom during the introduction to new material, when there was a specific rule about not going to the bathroom during the introduction to new material! And then they would wet their pants -- which I considered an act of extreme rebellion. I was miserable, and I felt like a failure all the time. So did my students. We were all miserable failures forcing ourselves into that first grade classroom every day because the law told us that children had to go to school.

On the day this picture was taken, for some reason, the kids were sleepy. Maybe it was a Monday after a crazy weekend, I don't know. But at some point during a reading lesson on the carpet, after correcting the kids a million times, ("Get in your square! Keep your hands to yourself! Stop trying to knock over the hamster cage from a great distance!") this seemingly amazing thing happened: I achieved 100 percent compliance! All the kids were in their exact carpet squares, with their hands exactly in their laps, like dolls right out of the box. "OH MY GOD!" I shouted. "YOU LOOK AMAZING!" I grabbed my camera and I took this picture, and I felt completely triumphant, like I had just won at teaching.

I didn't notice until years later the single most obvious thing about this photograph: every single child in it is frowning. Every one. We learn from a very young age that when someone takes out a camera, you are supposed to smile and say, "Cheese!" You are supposed to make the moment look memorably delightful, so you can look back at it and say, "Those were the days." It's in our social makeup to smile for a camera. I'm sure I even said "Smile!" when I took this picture. But no one smiled. There are thirty six-year-old children in this photograph, and not a single one of them is smiling.

I had spent a lot of time studying the concept of 100 percent compliance. It is Technique 36 in the chapter on setting high behavioral expectations in Lemov's book, Teach Like a Champion. In the book, Lemov writes, "There is one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation." The basic idea is that you (the teacher) are the authority in the classroom, and if that notion is challenged or questioned at any juncture, the potential for learning on a class-wide level is sacrificed.

I bought into that idea because it made sense to me. If the students in my classroom did not respect my authority, what was going to make them listen to me? How would they learn from me if they didn't think of me as a respectable instructional leader?

It took me three years in the classroom to realize what is so troubling about 100 percent compliance (and really all of Lemov's behavioral strategies). To start, I am a young white girl from Portland, Oregon teaching brown and black children from New Orleans, Louisiana. And every day, I stood in front of my classroom and taught my students to comply. I rewarded them for being followers. In doing so, I was perpetuating a racist system that teaches children of color above all that they need to do what they are told, even if it doesn't make sense to them. Ray Salazar wrote a piece for Chicago Now which encapsulated this idea well:

Instead of fulfilling the expectations of meek, passive, and low-achieving stereotypes, we need to teach so our low-income black, brown, and even white students create realities that contradict the history of oppression.

When I was a kid, I was wiggly. I remember sitting in my own first grade classroom and listening to the teacher read a book about goats, while braiding my friend Taylor's hair. I listened better while I was braiding. The teacher let me braid. I still remember details about the book. (Did you know that a goat's eye is rectangular rather than round? Yeah. I learned that in first grade.) She let other kids lie down on the carpet. She let still others sit at their desks drawing. 

When new teachers in New Orleans bring up their own classroom experiences (and how different, and less strict they were), there will always be a voice to say, "But this population of children is different. They need more control; more order. They need to have rules, or they will not be able to learn." I have probably heard a version of that idea 100 times or more, from people of every color, from teachers and administrators and parents alike. But read it again and explain to me how that statement is not racist. It's amazing how we internalize these stereotypes of poverty. We all do it. But in so doing, we are not preventing the stereotypes; we are perpetuating them.

Children deserve to care about what they are learning enough to want to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. If that piece is missing, you can't just install a shortcut like 100 percent compliance and expect dropout rates to go down. We need to focus our energy on getting children to care enough about themselves and each other to see school as an important, useful part of their lives; rather than the punitive prison it can so often feel like.

Lemov's strategies appeal to new teachers because they offer a set of rules you can follow to fix problems quickly and achieve short-term results. I'm not trying to rip all his techniques away and say, "In my six years in the classroom I have found that all these rules are useless and bunk." Lemov is a smart guy, and some of his techniques are indispensable (the chapter on positive framing is really helpful, and so is the one about normalizing error). So I would not do away with this rule completely. I would just adjust it.

Teachers should only expect 100 percent compliance if they can explain why they need it without dictating the reason as, "Because I said so." For example: "I need everyone (100 percent!) to be quiet right now, because it's quiet work time and it can be extremely difficult for people to concentrate when you're making a loud noise. We should be respectful of our community, because it benefits all of us." As a non-example: "I need 100 percent of the students in this room to sit up straight and tall while I am explaining fractions. Because I said so." 

I don't want to live in a world where people yield to the authority just because they are the authority. I want to live in a world where people have enough self-worth to recognize when something doesn't make sense, and to peacefully, intelligently, and assertively speak up for what they believe. I want that for all people. It's a little harder to teach; there's a significantly more chaos. But I believe that children who are happy, who are ignited by school, and who believe in themselves will be self-motivated enough to study and grow invested in any test. 

There's another picture from that same year that's in my photos file. It was taken on a zoo field trip, on a day much later on, after I had let go of a lot of my Lemov-ian ideals. We'd had a great time at the zoo -- even with all the potential for things to go horribly wrong; with the ample spaces to hide or run away or wreak havoc. The kids were into the zoo. They were all quiet when I told them that at one time, there were eight tiger subspecies, but now, largely due to the selfishness and environmental neglect of humans, there are only three (and those three are severely endangered). Throughout the day, I'd let the kids run (when it was safe); I'd let them shout out their questions; I'd let them take their time pressing the buttons and talking to the monkeys. I had let them be six-year-olds.

The picture shows us -- all thirty of us -- standing outside the big gate that welcomes you to the zoo. We are getting ready to get on the bus. In the right-hand corner, three girls are hugging each other. Two boys are posed on the ground, assuming the stances of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I'm somewhere off to the left, with three students embracing me: they're tucked into the crooks of my arms, all teeth with their smiles. Actually, everyone is smiling. 

Last week, almost exactly three years after that picture was taken, I was hanging out at the school where I had taught first grade. Carra, who'd been in my first grade class, came up to me at lunch. She said, "Ms. Johnson! We read a book in science about the Bengal tigers. Remember when you told us that there were only three species of tigers left on earth? The book didn't even SAY that!" I did remember. But, more importantly, so did she.