“Who’s the Alpha?”
“You’re looking at him, kid.”
That’s a line from Jurassic World (2015). Love it.
The roots and meaning of words has really started to interest me. We use them in our everyday language, but dig a little deeper and we find a whole new world of meaning and application for these words. One of them is this – ‘Alpha’. Usually associated with masculinity (and usually not in a good way in our society). As a teacher, I’m encouraging every to be more ‘alpha’! Be more ‘alpha’! Let me explain.
The word ‘alpha’ has several meanings, which I hope will become self-explanatory as to why I’m linking them with teaching (if not, I’ll explain anyway).
1) In astronomy, it refers to the brightest star of each constellation. Well, what have stars traditionally been used for throughout history? Navigation – i.e. getting your bearings by reference to the star(s). You figure out where you’re headed and whether you’re going the right way by means of the stars in the sky.
2) In music, ‘alpha’ is the name of the sixth note of the natural scale. It is the note given by a fixed-tone instrument (such as an organ) to which all the instruments of an orchestra are tuned. Get it?
3) In development, it is the first version of a product that’s being developed (i.e. ‘alpha testing’).
4) In zoology and sociology, it refers to the animal/person that holds the dominant role or position within a particular hierarchy.
Be more ALPHA
As a teacher, you NEED to be the alpha.
Let’s take the astronomy reference. If you’re not the brightest shining object in the room, someone else will be. If you’re not the one through which all others in the room get their point of reference on the standards to be expected, the level of work to be completed, the behaviour to be expected, the manners by which they will interact with others, then by default, that role will be taken by someone else (and it isn’t going to be an adult). If you lapse in that role, you’ve let 30 students fall into the misguidance of others, because it isn’t going to be the sensible, mature, hard working students that will fill that space. Instead, it’ll be the loud, brash, dominating students that can bully others into submission. You are also the star that will shed light on what kind of work students should be producing, guiding students on how they can succeed in your classroom and in their academic endeavours. Your feedback will be the means through which they can navigate the subject material every week. Your light needs to be bright, and it comes through your expertise in your subject area, your competence in giving feedback, and the standards you maintain in your classroom.
Moving on to the music analogy (which I personally love). You are the note to which all the instruments of your orchestra are tuned. You are the role model for conduct and standards in your class. Your modelling of work and behaviour will set the tone for all others. The orchestra is made up of each student and the sounds you produce together are your results (academic and personal). If one of your instruments is out of tune, it must be brought back into harmony with YOU FIRST and then with all others. Everyone in the orchestra is able to tell when one of them is out of tune, and if you fail in your duty to harmonise them, they’ll know, and then guess what? All of them think it’s OK to go out of tune (and some of them will do it on purpose just to be funny). If you fail to harmonise their work with the standards you expect, then they know they can produce sub-par notes and you won’t care about it. In order for you to be able to do that though, you need to know what your note sounds like – you need to set the tone for everyone by first knowing what it is you want everyone to sound like and what you want them to work off. Do you understand?
In the product testing analogy, you are the first version of the product (the curriculum, the behaviour, the tutor time, etc) and you will be launched into the world of your students with as much readiness as you have, so you need to spend time really developing yourself before that through your subject knowledge, pedagogy knowledge, being up to date with the pastoral programme, basic things like seating plans and knowing the names of your students – all of it. But when you do get launched, the feedback that you receive from how you operate day-to-day is vital to how you will develop further. You need to take that feedback on board and develop better, fuller, more complete versions of yourself. There will never be a ‘complete’ version (new updates come out all the time on apps, right?) but you will repeat the cycle of preparation, operation, feedback on a pretty much daily level.
Finally, we get to the most traditional understanding of this word in our lexicon. Being the alpha means you’re the top dog. You DO hold the dominant position in the hierarchy of your classroom. And yes, your classroom IS a hierarchy. Below you, there are many sub-groups with competing interests and their own hierarchies, but it starts with you. The dominant position sets the agenda. You have to understand that you have this position and be comfortable with it, because as I said, if you don’t do this well, others will take that place. Your job title has given you the dominant position vis-a-vis your students. You have it, like it or not. But role power isn’t enough. The exercise of that power in the most effective way for the fulfillment of your school’s mission and the betterment of your students is a journey in itself that you need to commit yourself to. Good luck.