I learned an important lesson last week.
I arrived early to a workshop in order to sit at the table of my choice. This was the second day of training, and so I was familiar with the classroom layout from the previous day’s training. I knew that I would be spending the next seven hours in this classroom, and I wanted to position myself in a location where I could be most effective.
I chose a table in the rear corner of the room. This was a position that afforded me a view of the entire room as well as both exits. This was similar to the position that I take in every room whenever possible, whether it be a conference room, a library reading room, a classroom, a faculty lunch room or a restaurant. As a sufferer of post traumatic stress disorder, I am most comfortable when I can see everyone in the room and have no one sitting behind me. I also like to keep all entrances and exits within my field of vision at all times.
When I am unable to establish this position in the room, I am uncomfortable. I feel unsafe. My focus and attention suffers.
After taking a seat in a preferred position, the instructor announced that she was going to randomly shift our positions in the room. As a result, I ended up in the worst seat possible in terms of my needs. I was placed in the front center of the room, with my back to a door and half of the people in the room.
I could not have been placed in a worse spot.
The workshop was designed to provide us with teaching strategies for specific types of learners, and early on during the first day of training, the instructor discussed the process of reducing the affective filter for students in order to improve learning. The affective filter is comprised of the barriers that interfere or prevent learning from taking place. A lack of motivation, inappropriate behaviors, an unwillingness to participate, and the undervaluing of education are all factors that can raise the affective filter in a student.
Another factor, it turns out, is a utter disregard for the seating preferences of adults. I purposely arrived early to the training in order to ensure myself a spot where I could be most effective, and then, for no discernible reason, the instructor randomly assigned me a new location in the room, leading to a rapid increase in my affective filter.
I was angry. I was annoyed. I was nervous. I was unable to muster maximum focus and effort to the task at hand.
All of that makes for one hell of an affective filter.
Why did the instructor do this?
I’m not sure.
Perhaps she believed that breaking up the previous day’s groups would reduce ancillary chatter and increase attentiveness. Except the previous day’s training had been nearly free of any side conversations, so if this was the justification for her decision, it was not based upon any evidence. In truth, she was an outstanding instructor who effectively established group norms during the first fifteen minutes of the workshop, thus eliminating most of the distracting and off-task behaviors.
In short, we were quite attentive on the first day of training.
Also, if there was ancillary chatter or a lack of focus amongst our group, the solution would not be to change our seating. This is what ineffective teachers do to solve behavioral problems. I frequently explain to my student teachers that misbehavior and inattentiveness is not a function of geography. If the kids aren’t listening, you are doing something wrong. So even if we had been a bad audience during the previous day, moving our positions in the room would not have corrected the problem.
Later in the day, we were engaged in activities that required four or five people per table, but asking participants to sit in groups of four or five while honoring their choice of seat in the room could have easily been done.
And before you start wondering if this need for specific seating is restricted solely to PTSD sufferers, two other participants expressed displeasure in their seating assignment to me during the day. One woman was placed at a table near the windows and complained that she was cold all day.
“I would’ve sat on the other side of the room, away from the windows, if I had been given a choice.”
Another told me that she was envious of my seat in the front of the classroom because when she is sitting in the back of a classroom, she tends to “zone out.” She needs to be close to the action to maintain focus.
Even in my fifth grade classroom, students have choice of seating. While I determine their table assignment on a month-to-month basis, students can choose from any of the eight desks that comprise the table. They negotiate, collaborate, compromise, and occasionally cut deals in order to obtain the spot that makes them them happiest.
Accommodating personal preferences is simply the right thing to do. My philosophy has always been to give students as much choice and as much freedom as possible, and I try to remove myself from the decision-making process in the classroom whenever I can.
The less I say and the less I do, the more my students learn.
A lesson this otherwise effective instructor could do well to learn.