Don’t be Times Square. Be the Flatiron Building. (from the archives)

This blog owes a great deal of traffic to a steady stream of internet searches for “times square,” which I sort of enjoy.  In honor of the new year and my renewed commitment to sensitive, responsive teaching, I’m reblogging my most popular post of 2011.  Happy New Year!

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A surreal teaching video recently put into focus just how artificial class can be, and in particular how inauthentically the role of teacher is often played. I want my students to see me as human, deserving of their respect. I don’t want my authority in the classroom to arise from the power of grades, or sending kids out, or threats, or yelling, or just being an adult, so how do I gain authority with my students?

I can backtrack this for a long time, stopping thought after thought, thinking “yeah, but how do I do that?” How do I show them that respect is important? How do I get students to give each other their attention? How do I get them to deserve each other’s attention? How do I get them to do anything without already having authority?

I try to do this a little differently every year. I’ve tried “norming.” Several times, I’ve included, “just don’t piss me off.” (pathetic in hindsight) I’m looking for something more sustainable, a potential motto for my students and me alike. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Don’t be Times Square. Be the Flatiron Building.

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Times Square

I live in New York City, and I love the architecture. One place I really hate, though, is Times Square. As a new yorker you almost need an excuse for being there, because no one wants to be caught dead in such a gaudy tourist trap. Times Square is screaming at you with its lights, sounds, and overactivity. It’s almost oppressive to the senses. Times Square demands your attention, like all caps – LOOK AT ME!!!! I’M WORTH LOOKING AT!!!! SEE!?!?!?!?!? COOL HUH?!!? Every time I see it, I want out.

I was talking today about a teacher who typifies the “Times Square” approach to authority. He is overpowering, dominant, and very very loud with his elementary school students. Many students come to love him, but some, so I hear, are traumatized each year. My approach to teaching relies on student values, but his method is all about pressing value and compliance down from above. It’ll never work for me and my students.

Times Square is sensational, but completely unsustainable. How much time can you spend there, in the lights and the crowd, before being completely overwhelmed, fatigued, and disinterested? Who grows thoughtful in that environment?

* * *

The Flatiron Building

The Flatiron Building, on the other hand, is my personal favorite. One of the first skyscrapers, and once the tallest building in the world (at a mere 285 feet), there’s no question it was originally an attention grabber. Even still, its design is striking and has stopped me in my tracks several times, but it’s much quieter architecturally. It gives you room to stand and admire it. Every time I see it, I want to stare.

What makes the Flatiron so compelling and inviting is its simplicity and beauty. If I can just show my students beautiful and inviting mathematics, and give them the space they need to respond and take it on, they might stay longer in its presence. This means taking time to appreciate content, and it means quieting down to share in the experience together. If I can model this behavior and bring them the Flatiron building, perhaps they’ll follow suit.

Everyone knows Times Square for the lights and the crowds, but who knows what the buildings actually look like?

2 responses to “Don’t be Times Square. Be the Flatiron Building. (from the archives)

  1. I came from an after-school background and what served me well there and serves me well in my near-regular classroom in building authority and respect:

    Simply put, I’m the coolest kid in the room. I bring out the most interesting toys, I’ve got the interesting questions, I’ve got the “been there, it was awesome, let’s do it again” attitude. The students latch onto this (usually) and will engage in the lessons. It’s a respect/authority based on competence of what I’m presenting and the opportunity to construct something.

    This idea has incubated with me because in after-school programming (or in the neurologically different population I teach now) traditional measures of authority don’t work. We don’t have grades after-school and if you kick a student out you lose income and open yourself to litigation. And my kids have spent many years struggling in their classes and acting out. One more teacher doesn’t make a difference to them – so I have to try something else to educate my charges..

    • Great comments. It sounds like you’ve got a great problem on your hands. Namely, you in an ungraded environment where students will only respond and learn the things they actually care about. By being the “coolest kid in the room” you’re showing them what you care about and why. That often pays off. In fact, almost everything we learn from our social circles comes in this form! Thank you for doing your job this way.

      I also wanted to share a quote I read on Re-educate Seattle, Steve Miranda’s tremendous blog (sadly on hiatus). It comes from Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness.

      The authority such a leader needs is not power. Power comes to anyone who controls the tools of coercion, which range from grades to guns. But authority comes only to those who are granted it by others. And what leads us to grant someone authority? The word itself contains a clue: we grant authority to people who we perceive as “authoring” their own words and actions, people who do not speak from a script or behave in preprogrammed ways.

      In other words, we grant authority to people we perceive as living undivided lives.

      Does that fit?

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