Beware of Cats in the Dog House

New Rule: Beware of  Cats in the Dog House

A Theory to Consider

Many of us started teaching in the 60s (some even in the 50s)  We remember we thought we had problems. In the 70s, court cases made attendance in school more optional.  On one hand, learning is not the same as seat time. A colleague of mine, Jamie Crannell, used to say instead of making credits time certain, why don’t we make school learning certain.  He was ahead of his time.

On the other hand, many students used the court rulings to skip classes, ask for all the work at the end to get the credit. The problem was, not coming to school created a habit of not being connected.  Yes, educators have responsibility for engaging students, making learning relevant, and creating a goal of using learning in real work.

As the existing system of the 60s became less relevant to a changing world, more and more kids were leaving formal education.  Many options were initiated, mainly in the 80s, which helped students and parents seek alternatives. Educators caught between the Carnegie unit and relevancy were slow to change.  At the same time, the 1983 Nation at Risk Report gave rise to the blame game and the unintended use of test scores as the rating systems for kids and schools.  See The Manufactured Crisis by Berliner and Biddle

Enough of history.  In the early 90s, I met Michael Grinder who was doing training in classroom management and learning styles.  One of the helpful analogies he presented was the Dog and Cat model. Let me explain.

Most of us in the earlier years were taught to teach dogs.  This is not to say the students are animals but some of the characteristics apply.  We are using a metaphor. Besides four legs and furry, what are the characteristics of dogs?  Usual answers are obedient, glad to see you, can’t get enough attention, and want to please. Dog-like students tend to want direct connections with you, see emotions they can read and want approval. They are interested in pleasing you and be of use.  They growl when they are scared or feel threatened.  If they don’t growl and don’t feel wanted, they may just go away.

D – direct relationships

O – Overt emotions

G – Grrr means fear

S – Service-oriented – want to be liked

When I ask, ‘what are the attributes of cats?’, (I have had both as pets) the usual answers are aloof, curious, self-directed, and can survive alone for long periods of time on their own.  (Yes, they need food, water, and their box cleaned). Cat students will be the first to leave traditional education when they see no point or lack of relevance to their life.  Many won’t give you a lot of time if they can’t connect the meaning to the content. If you can hook their curiosity, they are intrigued.  They tend not to respond to orders.  Creating options is a better plan

C – Creative & Curious

A – Aloof, are you talking to me?

T – Tease intellectually to engage them

S – Suggest rather than direct them, give options

This is not just a school issue. Parents have got their hands full as well.  Keep in mind that most staff and parents are operating on a 10-20 year lag.  What we remember as a mostly positive experience in school, might not be the reality of what students today are experiencing today.  Many students today are looking for something new or different.  Many are unwilling to sit there and take it.  Engage them or lose them.  Have a positive relationship with students or they will find a place where they feel understood and valued.

The premise that Michael presented, and I agree with, we were taught in college to teach dogs and the cat population has been increasing at an exponential rate for a long time.  Unfortunately, most schools are still trying to teach dogs, some of this is driven by the testing culture and the limiting view of management. What Ted Dintersmith, Tony Wagner, and the many schools they connected with are effectively teaching cats  (and dogs) by appealing to their strengths. As I read ‘What School Could Be’ by Dintersmith, every school had a student voice and choice and part of the attraction.  Remember, if they are connected with our school or learning site, WE HAVE WILL NOT HAVE INFLUENCE.  I want ethical educators to have an influence on our young people.

As a retired principal, it was always difficult for parents to seen as a brick wall (boundaries and consequences) wasn’t working.  Parents who were Jello (few boundaries and no consequences) wasn’t working either. Yes, I have been both as a parent too. That is why I taught a parent class on the Goldilocks Theory of Parenting.

I am suggesting we start teaching to attract the Cats.  Dogs will follow.  Make learning relevant.  We can do this.  As I have quoted in the past, Angeles Arrien – If your job is waking up the dead GET UP, TODAY IS A WORK DAY.

Michael Grinder shared with us years ago the following story.  I must admit I do not know who Lara Adair is and I really like the message.

When Children Turn Into Cats

Lara Adair 

I just realized that while children are dogs; loyal and affectionate, teenagers are cats.  It is so easy to be the owner of a dog. You feed it, train it, boss it around and it puts its head on your knee and it gazes at you as if you were a piece of art.  It follows you around, chews on furniture if you stay too long at a party and jumps with enthusiasm when you call it from the yard.

Then, one day around 12-13, your little puppy turns into a big old cat. When you call it to come inside, it looks amazed, as if wondering who died and made you emperor. Instead of coming, it disappears.  You don’t see it again until it gets hungry.  It dashes through the kitchen long enough to turn up its nose at whatever you are serving.  If you reach out to touch it, it pulls away as if it has never seen you before. It may talk to you if it needs something like a ride to the mall or some new piece of clothing.

Stunned, more than a little hurt, you have two choices.  First, and the one chosen by most parents, is that you continue to behave like a dog owner.  After all, your heart still swells when you look at your dog, you still want its company, and you want it to obey.  When you do ask for compliance, it pays no attention to you.  It is now a cat.  So you toss in onto the back porch saying, “stay there and think about things, mister.  It glares at you not even replying.  It wants you to recognize its independence.

You, not realizing that the dog is now a cat, think there is something terribly wrong. It seems so anti-social, distant, and sort of depressed.  It doesn’t want to go on family outings.  Since you are the one who raised it, you assume that whatever is wrong is your fault.  Overcome with guilt and fear, you redouble your efforts to make your pet behave.

Only now you are dealing with a cat, so everything that worked before now produces the opposite result. Call it and it runs away. Tell it to sit and it jumps on the countertop.  The more you move toward it, the farther it moves away from you.

Your second choice is to do learn to behave like a cat owner.  Put a dish near the door and let it come out to get it. If you must make demands, find out what it wants and command it to do it.  But Remember that a cat needs affection too, and your help. Sit still and it will come seeking that warm, comforting lap it has not entirely forgotten.  Be there to open the door for it.

Realize that all dog owners go through this, and few find it easy. I miss the little boy what insisted I watch sitcoms with him and now has sealed himself into a bedroom with a TV, computer, and iPhone.  The little girl who wrote me love notes and is now peeling rubber in the driveway.

The only consolation is that if you do it right, let them go, be cool as a cat yourself, one day they will walk into the kitchen, give you a big hug and say, ”you’ve been on your feet all day, let me get those dishes for you.”  And you will realize they are dogs again.


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!