When George Orwell was a young man he worked as a cog in the imperial machine administering his little bit of Burma. He didn’t enjoy it much but it seems liked he learned a lot about himself while he was there. In his essay Shooting an Elephant (1936) he describes a particular incident that left a strong impression on him.
At the time of the incident he was the sub-divisional police officer of the town of Moulmein in Lower Burma and not much liked by the local populace. He was disliked not because he was George Orwell (or, rather, not because he was Eric Blair), but because he was a symbol of something hated: imperial occupation. In any event, Orwell found himself called upon to deal with an elephant that was running amuck in the town’s bazaar. When he got to the scene of the elephant’s crime he found that the elephant had in fact trampled a man to death, and Orwell sent an orderly to get an elephant gun.
The elephant was by this time quietly eating grass in a nearby paddy field. Orwell could see that the elephant was perfectly calm now and had no desire to shoot it, but then he turned to observe the crowd that had built up behind him:
It was an immense crowd, two thousand at least and growing every minute…. I looked at the sea of happy faces above the garish clothes – faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjuror about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realised that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it.
And it was then that Orwell realised the flaw in the imperial system.
Here was I, the white man with his gun… seemingly the lead actor in the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys…. It is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives”, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.
So Orwell shot the elephant.
When I read this essay I couldn’t help thinking about being a teacher.
The thing that really amazed me when I first started doing lunchtime duty at school was that whenever there was even the whiff of a fight brooding between two people it would attract the whole school as an audience. Students would come running from all corners of the grounds to witness the spectacle. The sheer delight of the spectators as they ran towards the “event” always amazed me. Naturally as the teacher on duty you are expected to do something, but what a scrawny white guy is supposed to do about packs of (usually) enormous (usually) brown males squaring of surrounded by a mob of cheering fans who don’t want to let you through to spoil the show I don’t know. Thankfully it is generally just squaring off and once enough teachers show up things settle down again. The one time it turned into a fight I was with another scrawny teacher and we ended up clinging to the backs of these warring titans like cowboys at a rodeo. Something about the thin blue line crossed my mind at this moment.
But this lunchtime spectacle is just the confrontation in the classroom writ large. There is this tremendous expectation from the students when you are a teacher that if someone is doing something crazy bad you will “shoot the elephant”. When a confrontation springs up in the classroom there is always a moment when the whole class goes silent and waits to see what the teacher is going to do next. This is the shoot the elephant moment. Will the teacher explode into a rage and threaten the student with all kinds of improbable punishments followed by the student mouthing off, flinging his chair and storming off, or will the teacher magically defuse the situation? The bit where the teacher explodes in ball of rage is the same as this:
It is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives”, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.
This is what discipline in the classroom used to be about: power confrontations that the teacher had to win with an impressive display. Let me tell you – it rarely works. Occasionally what a kid needs is for someone just to yell at them, but this is only occasionally; when they are doing something pernicious that needs to be stopped immediately. Otherwise, you had better not put on the show that the crowd wants, because if you do you are stuck in Orwell’s hated imperial system. You are not acting as you should act, you are fulfilling the desires of certain students who want you to act badly because (a) it will confirm that teachers are jerks, and (b) it will be entertaining.
If I sound like I think I have mastered classroom management let me assure you I haven’t. I’ve learned what I shouldn’t do in theory, and I can sometimes put it into practice, but putting it into practice regularly actually requires great philosophical stamina because what you are doing is not normal. It is not normal to react calmly and evenly when someone is consistently rude, disrespectful and even abusive towards you. It is normal to get smart back, or vent at them, or walk off in a huff, but you’re not even allowed to do that, you can’t even sit in the corner and sulk, you have to deal with the problem, and because this is hard, and a day at school can be very long, well, sometimes an elephant still gets shot.