New Teacher Temptation #2

Teacher counseling student

The “private mode approach” – see below. Pic via phorntip46.wordpress.com

A few weeks ago I wrote about a temptation I found myself giving into all the time as a new teacher. Let me say at once that, according to most rubrics, I am still a new teacher. Not brand new, of course. Not a newborn. But perhaps a toddler who has learned a thing or two. I still give into these new teacher temptations all of the time, but I am becoming experienced enough to at least recognize them when I do. And for any baby teachers out there, I’d like to share these temptations with you so you can be on the lookout.

Now I’d like to add another one, now officially entitled new teacher temptation #2:

The idea that the best way to get a student to go back to doing what you want during class is to reason with that student.

When teaching high school, this temptation can be very strong indeed. Most of your students seem to demonstrate (occasionally) the ability to reason and employ logical argumentation. Many of them seem to relish this rather newfound ability. In a sincere effort to meet them where they are, you believe that when conflict arises, the most rational thing to do is to reason with them.

However, it is not.

Imagine this scenario (which may or may not be strongly based upon multiple interactions I have had with students over the last few years):

According to rehearsed and well-established procedures, my kids walk through the door of my classroom, take their seats, and begin their bell work silently.

Then one student breaks her pencil. She whispers to the student next to her, “Hey, Angela, can I borrow one of your pencils?”

Angela does not respond verbally but hands her a new pencil.

“Mira, there is no talking during bell work. That’s your verbal warning,” I say as I continue taking attendance.

*First rookie mistake. I had a perfect opportunity to go over to Mira’s desk and remind her of the expectations privately. Instead, I responded to her in front of the whole class, perhaps because I wanted all the students to know that I strictly enforce my expectations. Now she will feel the need to save face in front of her peers.

“But I broke my pencil,” Mira (reasonably) objects. “I was just asking for a new one.”

“I understand that,” I reply. “However, we all know that during bell work, there is no talking unless you raise your hand and I call on you. We’ve discussed before how beginning class silently helps all of you get focused more quickly and how it frees me to take attendance and prepare for class.”

*Second rookie mistake. I not only am prolonging the conversation, I am attempting to reason with Mira – to show her that my expectations are logical and necessary. Now she will feel the need to show me that her behavior is logical and necessary.

“But if I didn’t have a pencil, I wouldn’t be able to do my bell work at all,” she responds.

Heads begin to turn. There are murmurs of agreement.

“True,” I reply calmly. “But if that situation happens, you can just raise your hand and let me know you need a new pencil. Please get back to work.”

*Third rookie mistake. It’s too late now to offer alternative solutions. I’m just prolonging this conversation now because I want to show her that I’m right.

Mira, encouraged by the glances and murmurs around her, continues. “But I didn’t want to disturb you. It’s not like it’s a big deal. I just needed a pencil.”

Realizing the situation is getting out of hand, I realize too late that I need to stop it. I say, “Okay, Mira. We can talk about this after class.”

*Fourth rookie mistake. In an effort to diffuse the situation and to try to be reasonable, I have inadvertently given a consequence – staying after class. Now Mira feels as though I have been unjust. This whole interaction has taken place publicly, in front of her peers. Being the sixteen-year-old who is dedicated to the core adolescent principles fairness, justice, and looking good, she cannot simply let it go.

“But that’s not fair! I just needed a pencil! You can’t keep me after class for that!”

… the situation disintegrates from there. You get the idea.

There are multiple things going on here, but one of the most important ones was my desire to reason with Mira in front of her peers. I wanted her to understand why she should not ask Angela for a pencil during bell work. I thought that if she understood my reasoning, she and the rest of the class would cooperate and approve of my wisdom.

As you can see, that is not the case.

Do not – I repeat – do not attempt to reason with your students in the middle of class. You can attempt such a thing later, in private. You can reason with them as a group while discussing a hypothetical situation, as I do when discussing consequences for cheating or giving a brief rationale for certain procedures at the beginning of the year.

But providing a rationale for your real-time actions during class only gives students the opportunity to argue with you.

And if you give them that opportunity, they’ll take it with gusto.

Here’s how I should have handled the situation:

According to rehearsed and well-established procedures, my kids walk through the door of my classroom, take their seats, and begin their bell work silently.

Then one student breaks her pencil. She whispers to the student next to her, “Hey, Angela, can I borrow one of your pencils?”

Angela does not respond verbally but hands her a new pencil.

Immediately, in full view of other students but with the clear intention of being discreet, I walk over to Mira and kneel down by her desk as she is working. I whisper,

“Hey, Mira. I know you were just asking for a pencil. But we all need to be silent during bell work. That’s your verbal warning for today.”

In 90% of these kinds of situations, that intervention is enough. Because I have kept my interaction with Mira as private as possible AND shown her that I understand why she behaved as she did, she will not feel the need to argue with me. And because I have not attempted to reason with her – I have only reminded her of the expectations – she will not feel the need to defend her actions.

Some kids, however, may respond anyway. Luckily, since I have already framed the conversation as a private one, this is the likely alternative scenario:

“But I needed a new pencil, Ms. Shea,” Mira responds quietly.

“I understand that. In the future, just raise your hand for me or go over to the supply table in the back of the room where you can borrow one.”

In this case, I can offer Mira an alternative solution since we are having a private conversation. Most of the time, this approach will work and there will be no public confrontation at all.

In other situations, you might get a student who wants to argue with you from the get-go. In that case, you still should not attempt to reason with the student. The best thing to do is to simply repeat the directions like a broken record.

“Hey, Mira. I know you were just asking for a pencil. But we all need to be silent during bell work. That’s your verbal warning for today.”

“But I just needed a pencil. Can’t I ask a friend for a pencil?”

Remaining by her desk, still in private conversation mode with a whisper or very quiet tone: “Get back to work, please.”

Student responds as I walk away: “But unless I got the pencil from Angela, I wouldn’t be able to do it!”

Return to her desk in order to maintain private mode. Still use a calm, quiet tone. “Get back to work, please.”

“But I wasn’t trying to distract anybody.”

“Get back to work, please.”

Frustrated sigh. Student gets back to work.

There will be rare occasions when the 1) private intervention and 2) broken record approach do not work. But they MUST be tried. And you MUST not reason with your student in front of the class. Save the reasoning for a private conversation outside of class, when the student feels no need to appear triumphant and victorious in front of her peers.

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