Threatening or Leading?

In his classic memoir of school teaching, The Thread That Runs So True, Jesse Stuart tells this little story:

“At the noon hour of my first day at Landsburgh High School, I noticed a last year’s sign beside the walk that read: KEEP OFF THE GRASS. Beneath these words, in smaller print, the sign read: If you don’t, you will be punished. This means YOU! I didn’t like that. It made me want to step on the grass. I made a new sign and put it back on the same spot: PLEASE, PROTECT THE GRASS. My pupils reacted well to the new sign. They knew that we were working for and not against them. They understood the difference between threatening and leading.”

Somehow this simple illustration has stuck in my head ever since I read the book years ago, and I believe it conveys important principles for us to consider as we lead our classrooms. Do our students know that we are working for and not against them? Do we lead them with patience and understanding, or do we resort to an authoritarian system of threats and punishments?

Rules and consequences certainly have their place, and our schools could not function without a healthy dose of them. But sometimes our “KEEP OFF THE GRASS” signs are counterproductive because of the attitude behind them. Whether we like it or not, our students are adept at sensing the spirit with which we make and enforce rules. They know when we are working for their good, and when our reaction to a situation is rooted in our own selfishness and desire for convenience. Drawing a strict line in the sand without showing our students that we truly care for their hearts only opens the door to rebellion.

Let me give you a little example from my own experience. Little boys love paper airplanes. Paper is available in abundance at school, and what could be more natural than for a boy to fold a paper airplane at his desk when he has a little free time? Sometimes the temptation to test its flight powers during class becomes too great, and the child succumbs. Now, obviously it would be detrimental to the learning experience to have paper airplanes flying all over my room during class time, and I could respond by immediately dealing out some sort of punishment. Instead, I choose to give as little reaction as possible and merely say, “Please wait until break time to fly paper airplanes.”

Then at break time, if my students still want to fly paper airplanes, I do it with them. I admire their new designs. I let them look at a book I have with instructions for folding paper airplanes. There have been some exceptions, but generally after this happens once in a school year, I don’t have trouble with airplanes being flown in class for the rest of that year. Showing my students that I am on their side and that I delight in their interests is a powerful tool for gaining their trust and cooperation.

Cut-and-dried rules are convenient. If you do this, then this happens. Bam. But human beings are not robots. The route of patient guidance is more complicated; it takes time, energy, creativity, and a willingness to connect meaningfully on our students’ level. It accomplishes far more in the end, however, and it is the path that our own Master Teacher walks.

Consider the way that Jesus led His “classroom” when He was on earth. His disciples were not easy learners, and sometimes He must have felt just as exasperated as we do with our students. But He continued to guide them patiently. He gave them responsibility and choices. He let them make mistakes and deal with their natural consequences. Always He led them by example through His relationship with them. Our students also need meaningful relationship us so that they know we are always for them, not against them. We can be divinely enabled to meet those needs as we follow our perfect Teacher.

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Austin Shenk

1 year ago

Love, love, love this.Especially this line:”Showing my students that I am on their side and that I delight in their interests is a powerful tool for gaining their trust and cooperation.”THANKS for taking the time to write and share this!

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