Whose Classroom Is It?
by Stephen Taylor with Commentary by Monty Roberts

When one discovers something by accident or a number of meaningful events seem to happen by coincidence, I am never quite sure whether the right word to use is serendipity or synchronicity. However, I prefer to think of it as Joseph Jaworski describes in the preface to his book ‘Synchronicity, The Inner Path of Leadership.’ Jaworski refers to these moments as if we are being helped by hidden hands, and for him there appears to be a mysterious quality about them. With seemingly hard to explain events, requests and meetings with remarkable people coming out of the blue, almost from the very moment I made my commitment to help and support Monty Roberts, I too have had course to share Jaworski’s mysterious feelings and feel those hidden helping hands at work.

Helping hands were at work on the morning I rushed to the photocopier before class. Sitting there on top of the copying machine was a set of school classroom rules. Not unusual in a school, however, these rules did not belong to our school. I searched the immediate area for the possible owner, but strangely enough on this day and at a time that is usually bristling with frantic last minute activity, the copying room and surrounding area were quieter than the Mary Celeste. Resistance was futile, curiosity got the better of me and I started to read the ten rules and two reminders, all of which were neatly laid out with key instructions and directions picked out in bold blocked capitals. Each rule was written in a distinct tone, which to my ears sounded aggressive and confrontational. I couldn’t believe what I was reading; surely this was part of an early 20th century history of education project?

The Rules Read:

Quietly ENTER the classroom ONLY when your teacher tells you to.

Go to the desk given to you by your teacher: it is not your job to decide where to sit unless you teacher tells you so.

Take your coat off immediately and sit down when requested.

LISTEN properly and FOLLOW the INSTRUCTIONS your teacher gives you straight away.

At the end of the lesson PACK equipment AWAY and put your COAT on ONLY when the teacher tells you.

Push your CHAIR under the desk and LEAVE the room quietly but ONLY when the teacher tells you to do so.

REMEMBER: The classroom belongs to your teacher, you only visit it a few times a week: s/he decides what happens in that room and not you.


These rules pose a whole host of questions and observations which I would now like to explore…

As an outsider, these rules would indicate to me that the school was having or had had  issues with student behaviour. The school’s answer being, metaphorically speaking, to rein in the students and take a tighter grip of those reins. In other words management has decided to take a top down, ‘you will,’ controlling approach, the term ‘zero tolerance often being associated with such approaches. However, as riders can testify trying to hold a horse constantly on a tight rein, to hold back its energies and enthusiasm is exhausting for the rider and certainly not the answer, the long term consequences being of no benefit to either party. In an attempt to limit the disruptions and focus on the teaching and learning, schools that take such action are getting themselves wrapped up in the punishment business and wasting hours of valuable pupil time. This contributes to an us and them culture and staffroom banter that sounds more like a briefing from an episode of Hill Street Blues with comments of ‘hey let’s be careful out there’ and ‘get them before they get you.’ Unfortunately, it would appear that this is the direction hundreds of our schools appear to travel in the absence of any alternative approaches.

Monty’s Principles would indeed take schools in a totally different direction and certainly out of the punishment business. Schools need to work in partnership with their pupils, as Monty states JOIN-UP®, student and teacher, as his theories would suggest for horse and rider. Keeping calm, being patient, listening, negotiating, positive and negative consequences for ones actions, giving ownership and with that ownership responsibility.  In my experience, children and young people are only too willing to seize upon and be involved in the issues that directly affect them. They bring such energy and enthusiasm to these issues, which, if channelled correctly result in tremendous benefits to all.

One key element of JOIN-UP® in the classroom and in schools in general, is the creation of negotiated contracts at whole school, class and individual level. One thing I have learnt is that students will be much harder on themselves than any teacher, and rather than weakening the processes that run the school, students who have input will actually strengthen the school’s experiences. Students who are allowed to have a voice in the running of THEIR schools, classrooms and environments will be learning vitally important life skills [CITIZENSHIP] of cooperation, give and take, responsibility to themselves and others and consequences associated with choice, ‘the learning being in the doing.’

I would suggest that the zero tolerance approaches have actually been introduced because of the consistently disruptive behaviour of a minority of students. We often hear of the term peer pressure being used in a negative sense. It is time this was reversed and the majority of students were given the opportunity to apply peer pressure [non-violent] upon the disruptive minority and reclaim their stolen education. This can be achieved through a progressive and serious commitment to valued student contributions in the form of class meetings, school councils, representation on school governing bodies right through to area and district education committees.

Schools that operate ‘zero tolerance’ approaches will believe they are doing the right thing. However, in my opinion they are operating from fear and under this fear students lose out through lost opportunities! Let me explain; schools are generally judged against other schools by things that can be measured, namely exam results. For many schools this is the number one criteria, failure to continually improve performance is met with public humiliation, branding and all associated negative consequences. These anxieties are met by tightening the control/ rein in order to keep pushing the students and staff to improve their performance, attempting to force more and more information into students rather than allowing it to be wilfully drawn in. And all this takes place in atmospheres of coercion and classroom cultures that neuro-scientists can now prove are not conducive to the brain working at its best.

At one time, I would have suggested that a leap of faith was required by schools, education leaders and districts before taking on Monty’s principles. However, they only need to look at the success of companies in corporate America such as Volkswagen North America who have come to realise that trust based approaches are the best performance enhancers. To quote Clive Warrilow [CEO Volkswagen North America] in his 1998 speech to the graduating class of the Business School of Oakland University, on the subject of Monty’s techniques and philosophy he said ‘ it is a metaphor for a style of management that says people will be better employees if you treat them with dignity, respect and honesty. Trust goes a lot further toward winning people over then ordering them around.’  Unfortunately, still very few education leaders are prepared to take that leap whether through fear of failing and ridicule or just not knowing how to. However, in the meantime our children continue to suffer lost learning opportunities to become self-disciplined and responsible young adults who are equipped to make our world a better place.

To return to those earlier rules that mysteriously appeared and inspired this article and which are clearly the antithesis of Monty’s Principles. I find it very interesting that there is no mention of responsibility, no mention of consequences, no mention of choice and no mention of the school and staff’s commitment to quality lessons and respecting students’ efforts in order to earn mutual respect.

Taking the tough no nonsense approach is not helping these youngsters or our future communities. It is not offering them anything new but only mirroring the social difficulties of fear, aggression and threats that already exist for many from very difficult family backgrounds. If you want tough approaches, these youngsters could well teach the staff a thing or two.

On discovering these rules my immediate concerns were for the very same children who years earlier I had had the privilege to teach in an atmosphere of mutual respect, in a shared and negotiated classroom and who now found themselves in a top down oppressive, aggressive and controlling environment.

To answer a question often asked by the media. Yes, it is upsetting to think of children I have previously taught having to endure a regime that is not only unnecessary but also inadequate. However, I have to believe that the previously good experiences will linger longer in their memories and that it will be these they take into adulthood and not those of fear, aggression and threat. As Amy, a past pupil once shared with her class, ‘JOIN-UP IS LOVE.’

So, I ask again……………..WHOSE CLASSROOM IS IT?

~ Stephen Taylor

Monty’s thoughts after reading Stephen’s article:
Children are intelligent little creatures, often underestimated by adults even if they are well educated and hold teachers’ credentials. Young people learn even when we are not paying that much attention. It is not whether they can learn, but it’s a matter of what they are learning. If through the actions of adults youngsters are learning that force and intimidation works, then they will strongly anticipate the day when they too can control their environment in that fashion.
Any newscast you choose will prove to the inquiring adult that our society is growing accustomed to using forceful techniques. Violent acts are being celebrated by our society at an unprecedented rate. The Internet is loaded with mindless acts of aggression between one human and another. To the victor go the accolades; we tend to be saying that if you’re big enough, strong enough and draw enough blood, you’re the hero.
The most recent atrocities include girl-on-girl physical violence, which steals from our species one of the last tenets of respect for one another. Cage fighting has become incredibly popular. No participant can leave the ring, and there are virtually no rules. Hitting a man when he’s down, kicking his teeth out and choking to submission are ordinary acts to determine the champion.
Where does this mindset begin? Is it in the homes where violence is often the vehicle used by family members to control the environment? Is it in the schools where rules such as Stephen has identified are regularly employed? Is it on the playgrounds where this mentality takes over to celebrate the actions of a bully who controls his subjects? Is it in the entertainment elements in the lives of our children? TV, motion pictures, video games, and the Internet provide incredible educational opportunities for those who want to become proficient in the principles of a fear-based culture. Is it the actions of certain military elements and even religious extremists?
There seems no doubt that it is a certain measure of all of these elements. There is no question that there is an ample supply of each of them no matter where we look. When our very educational system begins the academic life of a child by saying that it’s OK to demand rather than request, it is my opinion that we are headed down the wrong path. When our school systems agree that it’s OK to control the educational environment using the same techniques that a schoolyard bully would use, I believe we are educating but in the wrong direction.
Most elementary school teachers are bigger, stronger and more frightened than their students. If that is the criteria by which we gain control, then what happens when the natural process of growing up finds the student stronger and more physically capable than the teachers? I’ll tell you what happens: We get exactly what we are seeing in our violent modern culture.
Many of my readers can remember the story that I have told so often of the lady who is walking with two children. One is about ten years of age and the other about six. We watch as the lady stops, spins round and in a loud voice says, “Johnny, you stop hitting your little brother or I’m going to hit you.” What sort of message is this? I submit that it is certainly effective, at least until Johnny is as big as his mother. After that point, she is likely to experience her lesson in reverse, and that’s what we are experiencing in our culture today.
~ Monty