Reflections on Chief Bernabe, Classroom Management, and Student-Centered Pedagogy at the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Day-Zero Event

Alexandra L. Milsom, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
Department of English

Some of the best, most pedagogically sound advice about teaching comes consistently from Hostos College’s Public Safety Director, Chief Arnaldo Bernabe. Twice now—once at an English Departmental meeting in December of 2018 and then once at the tail-end of the CTL’s “Day Zero” event—Chief Bernabe has dispensed simple, yet vital advice to faculty members about setting a positive tone in the classroom.[1] He appeared on a larger panel on “Classroom Management,” led by Professor Sarah Hoiland, which focused on the question “How do you keep a classroom cool?” Jokes about overheated C-building rooms aside, I think the best teaching advice I’ve ever gotten boils down to what Chief Bernabe lays out in his presentations:

  • Establish rules and expectations first, but “you don’t have to make it a dictatorship, you know.”
  • Have students sit in a circle rather than rows. He says this creates more “surveillance”–everyone can see everyone else.
  • Move around the classroom. You don’t have to stand just in the front. If you move around, you can give personal attention to more students. Doing so will diffuse individual problems.
  • Don’t embarrass students in front of their peers. Speak to them one-on-one whenever something has come up. Humiliation can intensify a conflict.
  • Read up on current issues facing students. During his presentation to the English Department faculty, the Chief talked about how to introduce the concept of “preferred gender pronouns” in class, an activity that makes your classroom more welcoming to transgender and gender-queer students, who are among our most vulnerable students. (He also distributed articles on the topic.)

He lays out these principles from a “security” perspective, and although we might not think about “security” when we enact them, I consider all these methods to be, quite frankly, the foundation of good pedagogy. They are fair, respectful, and student-centered.[2]

The Chief’s joke about not making the class “a dictatorship” is actually quite important: students who feel invested in their classroom community will perform better. Arranging the desks into a circle can be onerous when you are trying to get the class started, but it communicates to the students that you are planning to hear their voices. Although the Chief’s advice requires us to be a bit more uncomfortable at times—after all, one-on-one conversations can be stressful, and shifting from a teacher-centric to a student-centric mode bucks most of our own academic training—we should take it very seriously.[3]  By his admission, the Chief’s own interventions occur when situations have become extreme, but heeding his advice will not only help us avoid extreme situations, it will result in good classes.

[1] Chief Bernabe oversees the requisite 16-hours of in-service training required of all CUNY Public Safety Officers and provides an additional 40 hours of campus in-service training to all of his officers. The courses include a “Police Mental Health Course,” “Emotional Crisis Intervention,” Title IX Training, and a specific training through the Accessibility Resource Center about working with people who have disabilities.

[2] See John Seeley Brown, Allan Collins, & Paul Duguid’s breakthrough 1989 study, “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning” on the differences between direct instruction and “authentic activity” in Educational Researcher, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 32-42.

[3] For information about the effects of public confrontations on students, it is helpful to read Juho Honkasilta, Tanja Vehkakoski, and Simo Vehmas on “‘The Teacher Made Me Cry’: Narrative Analysis of Teachers’ Reactive Classroom Management Strategies as Reported by Students Diagnosed with ADHD” in Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 55, 2016, pp. 100-109.

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