Doc Z and the Paper Graders, Part 2: No Barking

It’s been over a month since I visited Doc Z and the Paper Graders at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. But I find that as I prepare to return to my classroom this morning for the beginning of second semester, they are on my mind. Perhaps this is because I spent hours and hours this past week grading my students’ finals, always a fraught experience even in the best of times. Their work on how we can #StopGrading seems more important now than ever.

But that isn’t all they have to offer us.

As I mentioned in my earlier post about my visit, FHS is the first open campus I’ve ever visited. Because of this, I might have subscribed some behaviors I noted primarily to the school being open, but I wonder if that is the case.

The biggest difference I noted between FHS and the six schools that I have taught over my twenty years can be condensed to one word: barking. More specifically, the lack of barking. At Fairview, not once that day did I hear an adult raise his or her voice and bark an order. And there was a lot going on: Fairview is a big, busy place. If the adults had wanted to, they could have been barking at kids left and right. But they didn’t, and because of this, not only were things going smoothly, there was a happy atmosphere even in the midst of finals.


This whole “not barking” thing might not sound like a big deal, but it is. It comes down to ownership and empowerment.

I’m not saying that the as the adults in the building, we should turn over all power to our students. But we should remember why the building exists in the first place, why we teach and get our paychecks: to serve students. To provide them with an education. To empower them with the knowledge they need in the world.

When we raise our voices and bark at students, we convey so much that contradicts empowerment: I am more powerful than you. I will use my power to control you. I can punish you if you don’t obey.

When I started teaching at twenty-two, I raised my voice all the time. I yelled to get my students’ attention. I lost my temper. In fact, I used my temper as my primary means of classroom management.

I remember once being furious that my principal at the time didn’t yell at a student, Ricky, who was absolutely a pain in my ass. After losing it one afternoon, I demanded a meeting with him and the principal. I ranted in front of the student, my voice probably so loud it could be heard throughout the office, listing my grievances to the principal while the student tossed back sarcastic comments, peppering my outrage even further.

My principal, when he finally got a word in, turned to Ricky and asked, in a calm, even voice, “Well, young man, this does not sound good. What’s going on here?” Ricky’s prickly, cocky attitude evaporated, and he and the principal proceeded to have a heart to heart. I’m not saying that Ricky was an angel afterward, but he developed a relationship with the principal that changed his behavior for the better in my classroom.

You would have thought that this experience showed me that engaging students from a position of respect goes further than talking down to them, but you’d be wrong. I was so caught up in my own outrage, I was furious that he didn’t yell at Ricky. Yelling at kids was what you did when they were out of line.

It took my many years to come to recast that day as a twenty-two year old teacher in different light. While I reformed my terrible habit of yelling at kids many years ago, I was very slow to see the importance of how we approach our students. My day visiting the Paper Graders crystallized something that has been a long time coming.

The way the adults in the building use their voices matters. A lot.

As I head back into the classroom for the first time in 2017, I’m making this one small resolution: no barking. My voice is one of the most powerful tools I have in my classroom, and I want to use it wisely.


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