Friday, 5 March 2010

Classroom Contracts

1. Classroom Contracts

At this time of the year, it is common for teachers to establish classroom contracts or agreements with students whereby issues such as behaviour, tidiness, work ethics and other relevant points are discussed and set out in a series of rules or guidelines for both the students and teachers. Some people call it a code of conduct, others refer to it as a charter. In all cases, it seems that the purpose is to clarify to all concerned certain issues involving the class. These are very useful tools to help the parties define where they stand in the classroom and what they need and want from the other parties. It also allows the teacher or school to highlight limits that they wish to establish or follow.

In most of everyday life and in many classrooms this practice does not happen and much is left unstated and sometimes unclear.

Therefore, we assume
– that the other knows what we mean by the word ‘study’
– that the other knows why they are there
– that the other knows what it is to ‘treat our fellows with respect’
– that how we teachers reach our marks is obvious
– that the student knows what they have to do to pass the course
– and so on …

The reality is that most of this information is not available to the other so s/he fills in what is missing with a version from his/her own mind. This is the realm of what NLP father John Grinder refers to as ‘psychological contracts’. In his work with Carmen Bostic St Clair, he has studied the fact that most of our dealings with people are made up of mismatching internal concepts in the minds of each person who is a part of the agreement or communication. Usually one person expects the other to perform in a certain way and when that person doesn’t, they become disappointed and frustrated because it does not match their inner scenario. When you consider that each person involved in the situation will have a different inner scenario, the scope for misunderstanding is immense and the less that we define in that situation, the more chances for difference arise.

Even when we do think we are specifying, it can be far from clear and obvious. If the rule says that students have to be present at 75% of classes, what does that really mean? The student may think that means being physically in the room at some time during the lesson or when the roll call is taken. The teacher may interpret ‘present’ as embracing something more than this, like being physically present for the whole hour, with all the necessary books and materials and taking an active part in proceedings with the knowledge acquired from having prepared for the class by doing the homework!
‘Neat work’ may simply mean legible for one teacher while for another it may mean being presented in a certain way on a particular sized paper, typewritten in a certain sized font, etc.

And then we have the ‘psychological contracts’ imposed on us by others. In company classes, the company manager and the coordinator of the English courses will each have a set of expectations about the lessons that may be quite different to those that the actual teacher and students have. The company manager may want to see excellent progress in a really short period of time which the language course provider promises to aim for. When the teacher reaches the class, it may be evident that such progress is going to be impossible.

Among the biggest spin-offs gained from bringing our unspoken contracts into the open is that it helps us focus on what we want and whether quite elementary information has been left unsaid. Many conflicts in daily life arise when the other does not fulfil the basic terms of this agreement in a reasonable way. If the bus company fails to take me from A to B, then this is a clear breach of contract and I am entitled to my money back. But what if they take me from A to B but the 30 minute journey takes 3 hours, because the bus comes very late and then stops constantly throughout? Then, there is breach of the spirit of the contract, as any reasonable person in the street would expect the journey to take closer to 30 minutes than 3 hours. It is important therefore to establish a reasonable interpretation of the promises. What would someone neutral and independent say?
Another benefit with a classroom contract is that it directs our attention to what our roles are in the classroom. What does the teacher actually have to do? What do people understand by ‘giving’ classes, by ‘helping’ students to learn? What type of behaviour falls into ‘acceptable and useful’ for studying and what is not?
Sometimes, we become confused as to our role and this can be cleared up by a well-defined contract. Three or four years ago, the company running the Buenos Aires underground started to transform their ticket offices at some underground stations into sweet shops with the result that it could be easier to buy candy than get a train ticket or top up your magnetic card. Once or twice I saw queues of frustrated commuters waiting in line behind ‘sweetaholics’ choosing a nice selection of lollies and chocolates! The company had forgotten that their prime role and reason for existing was to transport people and this new activity was impeding a part of this first function. Fortunately, over time these candy shops have been phased out again as they were incompatible at least at the place for selling tickets.

In school, what is our role? Are we teaching and helping to learn or are we babysitting? Sometimes, teachers get the feeling that the unspoken expectation of some parents is the latter. In which case, it may be important to talk about it with them. A common expectation of students is that if they attend the course and meet the official bureaucratic requirements of attendance, then they will pass the course and in such cases it is important to establish from the beginning if this is not the case! This often occurs when the student lacks an extrinsic motivation for studying and is doing so because his parents, his boss or the law says so.

Ultimately, a classroom should be a space for co-creation where teachers and students meet and agree to undertake certain actions that will lead to the student being equipped with new knowledge and skills by the end. Whatever tools we can use to encourage this are welcome and the classroom contract would seem to be a democratic and practical example.

Among the phrases that are useful to include in classroom contracts are:

I/We agree to ….

I/We promise to ….

I/We will

In XYZ situation, I/we will ….

Each phrase should be phrased in the affirmative stating the actions to be done or the objectives to be obtained. Using verbs and stating actions make the conditions easier to do than if we just talk in abstract nouns. For example, “I will respect the study of others by speaking in a low voice in class when others are reading” is much clearer than “Respect for one’s classmates is important”.

Good luck!

© Resourceful Teaching 2010

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