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On-Site Staff / Staff Leadership and Management

Us vs. Them Mentality & Classroom Management

girl-window-classroom management

I recently attended a training session on classroom management.

Among the attendees were leaders in the field of after school education.

The trainer, a former classroom teacher of 10 years, now a program director, was highly engaging, organized, and unquestionably experienced when it came to working with challenging students. She eloquently shared information on her program, classroom management protocols used in her district, as well as some best practices that included guidelines commonly used in her classrooms.

Despite the useful nature of the information she provided and its relevance to after school programming, I couldn’t help but notice how students were consistently, yet inconspicuously, being referred to as ‘the others’.

“They need to be validated.”
“They need structure.”
“They need clear and explicit directions.”
“They need to be treated with respect.”

“They,” as in “not us.”

The proverbial “us vs. them” mentality.

This mentality is prominent in the rhetoric around classroom management, and is not only ubiquitous in education but anywhere discrimination is present. It fundamentally separates you from those you describe through the use of language and language itself plays a powerful role in how we perceive and interact with others in the world; in this case, how we perceive and interact with students. It is very common to hear educators at all levels refer to students in this way and I doubt the trainer was intentionally trying to ‘other’ anyone. However, this cultural meme is evidence of an existing divide between educators and students.

The one crucial element missing in her presentation, and I would assume, many professional development trainings on classroom management, was the synthesis and recognition that children and adults alike require similar support in order to be successful. I believe that we ALL need to be validated; we all need structure; we all need clear and explicit directions; and most importantly, we all need and deserve to be treated with respect. Unfortunately, the didactic principle, “treat [students] the way you wish to be treated,” is not already the status quo in education.

Time for a Hypothetical

Let’s imagine for a moment that I am a college professor, and you, a student in my class. You enter my classroom late, and I, being the one in charge, decide to call you out in front of the 200 people that arrived, on time mind you, to lecture.

“Hey (insert your name)! What did I say last time? I told you not to be late! This is your first warning!”

Though, you may have deserved the diatribe for interrupting my highly informative presentation on blueberry vs. banana nut muffins (blueberry all the way), being called out in front of 200 people is, well, kind of embarrassing. To make matters worse, imagine a person you admired (who actually came on time) witnessed the entire interaction take place. Not a good look.

Now, let’s imagine I am your supervisor and you are participating in a leadership meeting. I notice you talking to a colleague sitting next to you and in front of everyone at the meeting, I say, “(Insert your name), what was the deadline I just set for attendance records to be submitted? Oh, you don’t know… because you weren’t paying attention. Too busy talking to the person next to you, huh? Well, guess what! You just earned yourself a write-up!”

I don’t know about you, but if my boss did that to me, I’d be half way to Human Resources.

Now imagine you’re a 2nd grader in an ordinary elementary school classroom, and your teacher calls you out in front of the class for talking. “(Insert your name), why are you talking?! I told you no talking right now! Well, congratulations! You just lost your recess!” *Taken from an actual teacher observation*

Unfortunately, this type of interaction is not uncommon in 2nd grade classrooms, or classrooms in general.

Kids are disrespected all the time, all day long, solely because they are, well, kids. Furthermore, the idea that adults automatically earn the respect of kids is adult-centered and is often not reciprocated in kind.

The fact of the matter is we’re ALL kids (some more than others… you know who you are) and NO ONE wants to be disrespected. As adults in the classroom, we are privileged with the opportunity to model for our young learners how people should treat one another in our society. Therefore, calling a student out in front of the class (like calling someone out in the middle of a meeting) is not a good classroom management practice, not just because KIDS don’t like it, but because it’s a mean thing to do! And yelling at a kid is not a good classroom management practice because yelling at someone is a mean thing to do!

… Sorry.

I do not deny that there are clear, marketably effective strategies for managing behavior in a classroom, but what I do not do is view them as mutually exclusive of the communicative strategies I would use with adults. To be clear with expectations and goals, respectful in the manner in which issues are addressed, and honest with the feedback being provided, is what all leaders need to do when working with people, whether they are leaders in a classroom, or leaders of entire organizations.

I have observed some of the poorest classroom management practices to some of the greatest in my 13 years in education.

And the most well managed classrooms have always been those that were run by LOVE and not FEAR, and by teachers who knew they were not the only teachers in the classroom; but that they too were students.

For breakfast I had three tangerines.  

sue kimAuthor:  Sue Jin Kim
Educator, Writer, Performing Artists
Los Angeles, CA

Sue Jin Kim is an educator, writer, and performing artist from Los Angeles, California. She has performed on both television and radio and is an Associate Artist for Tuesday Night Project. As an artist, her goal to broaden the lens of Asian American talent as portrayed in mainstream media, while representing positive alternatives to female images that currently serve as models in society.

Sue Jin was the Associate Program Director for ASES Prep, an award-winning intervention program in the City of Norwalk, CA, providing at-risk youth the knowledge and skills to make positive changes in their communities through social justice education and non-violent civic action. She is passionate about non-traditional forms of education and space-creation, grounded in humanity, respect, and love and has trained hundreds of educators in the field.


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