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It’s a Jungle Out There! Tactful Tips for Taming Troublesome Teachers

Though some of you actually do work in zoos and nature centers, the rest of us occasionally encounter some real animals, too. While most teachers, group leaders, and classroom chaperones are delightful people eager to help share the wonders of your institution with their charges, from time to time a few of them become a bit “beastly.”

The Lioness. The lioness-like teacher is very protective of her children and her authority. Fearing that talkative children, or children who give “incorrect” answers, will reflect badly on her teaching, she may have given the class instructions that inhibit your ability to give an interactive tour. Some teachers still expect learning to take place in absolute silence, and they may be uncomfortable with your open-ended questions and freer environment.

Loosening the lioness’s hold over your tour group isn’t easy. However, clearly stating your expectations at the beginning of the tour goes a long way toward enlisting her approval. For example, you might say, “While you’re here today, we’ll be looking at a lot of different things. I’ll tell you about some of them, but most of the time I’ll be asking you to tell me what you think. There won’t be any wrong answers because you’ll be giving me your opinions. You don’t need to raise your hands, because I’m going to call on all of you. Just remember to talk quietly so we can hear your answer. Does that sound okay, Mrs. Leo?”

During the tour, you may want to thank Mrs. Leo for allowing her children to get out of her strict classroom mode. Asking her opinion or having her explain how a particular part of the tour relates to something from the classroom draws her in and makes her a partner in your endeavor. Of course, you must keep the children so interested in what you’re doing that they don’t really misbehave. Don’t let your inattention allow a child to do something for which he may be reprimanded when he returns to school.

A lioness will also protect her children from an incompetent or ineffective docent. If she finds that you are unprepared or unprofessional in your treatment of her students, she will certainly pounce. Your best chance with this kind of teacher is to be thoroughly prepared, and to provide an effective presentation of a developmentally-appropriate tour.

The Elephant. Just like an elephant’s charge, some teachers stampede into your institution and take over. They answer all your questions, including those intended for the children. They rearrange your planned tour, taking a topic or even the tour itself off in another direction.

While it’s impossible to stop a really determined elephant, there are some tips that can deflect them! When you ask a question, for instance, in that split second before the teacher answers, say with a smile, “No coaching from the audience, now Mrs. Proboscides.” Your questions also can be given back to the children by pre-assigning them. Before you ask a question, say, “I’d like this group (or this particular child) to think of an answer to my next question.”

Flexibility is always a valuable docent skill, but with an elephant in your midst it’s an absolute necessity. If Mrs. Proboscides charges off in another direction, you have no choice but to follow … at least for the moment. As soon as possible, you should try and guide her back to the main trail. Sometimes simply reminding (“We had discussed taking the children to see that room. Would you rather substitute this room?”) will get the group back on track. Occasionally, however, you must abandon your original design and bow to the inevitable.

It’s possible, of course, that the teacher has taken over because a docent was going in the wrong direction. Teachers work within strict time allotments, and verbose docents can play havoc with their schedule. A brief confirmation of the time the class must leave the museum made at the beginning of the tour helps both teacher and docent relax.

The Sloth. It’s easy to think of a certain type of teacher as a sloth. She doesn’t have the latest research on your subject; she mispronounces common terms in your field; she insists on repeating the old-wives-tale information about your museum. Because she has the facts wrong, it’s obvious that she’s as lazy as a sloth!

Of course, sloths aren’t really lazy (they just have an extremely low body temperature), and teachers whose knowledge is incomplete aren’t either. Teachers in elementary school, where the majority of museum tour groups are spawned, are generalists in academics. Their specialty is “children.” Their college classwork in the content areas, even for master’s degree teachers, is broad based. In most cases, an elementary teacher’s current information about any subject comes from the textbooks used in her classroom; and many of those textbooks (particularly in science and social studies) are out-of-date before they are printed. Providing teachers with current information about your subject prior to the tour serves both you and the teacher.

It is helpful to know what is begin taught the children who come to your museum, and this is usually an easy matter to determine. Many school systems have a central office or resource center where copies of the adopted textbooks are available to public scrutiny. Additionally, copies of the state-mandated curricula can be obtained from the Department of Education in your state capital. If you find out-dated content or factual omissions in these materials in your area of specialization, you should not be surprised to find teachers who also make errors.

It’s important, also, to make certain you aren’t the sloth! Docents who take “shortcuts” in their research and continuing education, or who consistently recite the same tour year after year soon begin to blend into the background, growing algae on their fur and becoming slower and slower until they finally drop off their branch. Their tours are completely ineffective, and the museum is relieved when they decide to no longer volunteer.

Chimpanzees. You may encounter excellent teachers who, nevertheless, enter your museum accompanied by a group of chimpanzee chaperones. Although they have been given specific roles to play in the class field trip — namely the supervision of a small group of children — chimpanzee chaperones chatter among themselves and totally ignore the children they’re supposed to supervise. They quickly forget their assigned job and run off in all directions. In some cases, this may be a blessing in disguise as a chimpanzee does not make a good tour participant! If you can handle the group without their “help,” it’s better to let them go. If fact, sometimes you may want to suggest that the chaperones look around the museum on their own, arranging a time and place to rejoin the class group. By the way, you don’t need to point out to the teacher that she has brought chimpanzees along; she already knows it!

It’s possible that the chimpanzee problem will take care of itself I once watched helplessly as one of the mothers accompanying a Girl Scout group to my museum took over as her child tried to make the simple yarn doll we were constructing. At the end of the activity, when I asked the girls to name their dolls, the child sweetly handed her doll to her mother and said, “You name her. Mother. You made her.”

Most difficulties with teachers and other group leaders can be headed off with careful preliminary preparation. Clear understanding of a teacher’s expectations for a tour — and clear communication of your expectations — can be established with a pre-visit phone call. Keeping a card file or computer data base on the teachers who regularly visit your museum is also helpful. Past problems can then be discussed with the teacher prior to the next visit.

The bottom line, however, brings to mind an old business adage. Rule Number One: The Customer is Always Right Rule Number Two: When in Doubt, Refer to Rule Number One. No matter how unpleasant a teacher or group leader may be, you cannot afford to make yourself look good at her expense. The teacher has the responsibility of her class for a much longer time than you will have them. Undermining her authority isn’t fair, and the short-term gains you may make for yourself aren’t worth the damage you do to the teacher, the class, and your institution. And, besides, most of the teachers you will encounter are the warm, fuzzy type — that’s why you enjoy your job so much!

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “It’s a Jungle Out There! Tactful Tips for Taming Troublesome Teachers,” The Docent Educator 6.3 (Spring 1997): 18-19

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