Before reading this column, you might want to read or review Dr. Jones's previous columns on positive discipline: The School Discipline Code, Instruction Meets Discipline, No Joy, No Work, Visual Instruction Plans, and Thinking Like a Teacher.
In our previous segment, we examined consistency. We pointed out that there is no such thing as "very consistent." Consistency is all or nothing. You are either consistent, or you are inconsistent. Being consistent lays the foundation for "meaning business." If your mindset is wishy-washy, you haven't a chance.
We also learned in the previous segment that consistency is tied to our classroom rules. We learned the "rule of rules:" Never make a rule that you are not willing to enforce every time. Consistency means every time.
In order to be consistent, therefore, the line between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior must be crystal clear. You must know exactly when to act. Until you have mental clarity, you cannot have behavioral clarity. But rules carry a price. When we look up to see one of our rules being broken, we face our moment of truth concerning consistency. Will we act now, or will we equivocate?
Meaning business is both mental and physical. Thinking like a teacher produces consistency. In this segment, we will examine acting like a teacher -- the physical part of meaning business.
When you catch students goofing off, the question in their minds is, "Do we really have to shape up, or can we just smile and continue goofing off as soon as your back is turned?" To answer that question, they will study you. They will look for signs -- signs of commitment that say, "This is serious."
Our body language reveals our commitment by signaling our priorities. When managing a classroom, one simple priority stands supreme:
Discipline comes before instruction because it's the only priority that makes any sense. If the kids are goofing off, they certainly are not doing your lesson. So, although instruction might be dearer to your heart than discipline management, it is second on your list of priorities. Putting discipline before instruction is more easily said than done, however. Most teachers pull their punches. Let's look at an example to see why.
First, imagine that students are working independently, and your rule for the format is that students are to do their own work. There is to be no talking to neighbors or wandering around the room. (Other formats will have other rules.)
Imagine that you are helping a student with a piece of work that is fairly difficult -- let's say, a geometry proof. Aligning the theorems and axioms and corollaries is not easy, and no two proofs are the same. You have been working with the student for a couple of minutes, and you're nearly finished when, out of the corner of your eye, you catch two students whispering on the far side of the classroom. It's not a big disruption. In fact, it is the most common and innocuous type of disruption in any classroom. Now, be honest with yourself. What will you do? Will you flush your work with the geometry proof down the toilet within sight of completion in order to deal with the whispering? Or will you keep an eye on the students as you complete your instruction?
The vast majority of teachers will keep teaching. They have an investment of time in solving the problem, as well as an intellectual investment and an emotional investment. The student is "getting it." Besides, the end is in sight. So, they continue. You might as well stand and make the following announcement to your class:
"Class, may I have your attention. Some of you have been doing the assignment and, therefore, missed what just happened. In the interest of fairness, let me explain how I deal with goofing off in the classroom, so we might all have an equal shot.
"First, I must give myself credit. I talk a good game -- you know, high standards, time-on-task, and so on. But, you also know that talk is cheap. You want to know what I'll actually do. What some of you just saw was that I will do nothing! You see, I find enforcing my classroom rules to be -- oh, how can I say this -- inconvenient. And, since it's inconvenient, I'll probably blow it off unless you really get in my face.
"Now that you know how I operate, I hope you will all stay on task, rather than goofing off. At least, that's what I would like, even though I'm unwilling to pay for it."
As you can see, making a rule that you are not willing to enforce every time has severe consequences. It teaches students that your rules are "hot air." They do not define real boundaries, and, consequently, students must test you continually to see what they can get away with today.
If you want your rules to mean something, you must pay for it. Instead of hesitating or equivocating, you must commit. You see the problem, and you swing into action! Well more accurately, you swing into inaction.
Our natural response when somebody bugs us is a fight-flight reflex. We get upset, and when we get upset in the classroom, we usually open our mouths. It sounds like this,
The most common management technique in the classroom is "nag, nag, nag." Nagging is natural. It is simply a fight-flight reflex with speech. If you get upset and open your mouth, you will nag. Our first objective, therefore, is to relax in response to seeing the disruption. This is not a natural response. It takes training. But it is a skill that all natural teachers master. Relax, lower your blood pressure, keep your mouth shut, and give yourself a moment to think.
Give yourself a moment to realize that this is your moment of truth. It is the moment in which either you will stop what you are doing and commit to dealing with the problem, or you will equivocate. But in this moment, you must also hit your "relax button" in order to be effective. If you are calm, you are in control of your mind and body. If you are upset, they are in control of your mind and body. Relax, so you can be planful rather than reactive.
After commitment and calm comes action. How do you signal to disruptive students that you mean business?
First, they must know without a doubt that they have just placed themselves on the front burner, and everything else in the classroom has suddenly moved to the back burner. Stop what you are doing, take a relaxing breath, turn slowly toward the students, and square up as you simply wait. The students now can see that, in your classroom, discipline comes before instruction.
By testing you, students are asking a question: "Is our fooling around worth your time?" Most kids come from homes where parents nag, but don't follow through. They already have learned that talk is cheap and nagging is hot air. They expect you to be the same -- until you teach them differently. Stop what you are doing and commit your time and attention. Then wait to see what the disruptors do. The ball is in their court. They either will get back to work, or not. You will know soon enough.
There's no point in raising your blood pressure by giving them your best sick-and-tired look. The more upset you look, the more you signal that they have gotten under your skin -- and it just might encourage them to try a little backtalk. Typically, the disruptors will look at you for a few seconds as the wheels turn. When you stay with them, rather than quickly turning away to resume instruction, they begin to realize that you are serious. Most kids, most of the time, are penny-ante gamblers in the discipline management poker game. They want a little diversion, but they are not high rollers. Typically, they will get back to work rather than raise the stakes. For them, getting back to work is the cheapest way to deal with a teacher who won't take no for an answer.
If the student just looks at you instead of getting back to work, the stakes have been raised. The student is saying, in a sense, "So what? I'm not impressed." If you do not get what you want, move closer, relax, and wait. Any human interaction is more intense the closer the people are to each other. You can "raise" simply by using time and proximity.
In rare situations you might have to stop what you're doing and walk over to the students. But preferably, if you are mobile, you can move casually in their direction as you work the crowd. (Do you remember, when you were a kid, talking to a friend in class, only to get the feeling that something was looming over you? You turned to see the teacher standing behind you with a look that said, "Well, what have we here?" Oops! Back to work.)
Occasionally, a high roller will backtalk, but we've dealt with backtalk in previous segments. The details -- all the way to nasty backtalk and beyond -- are described in Tools for Teaching.
To make a long story short, relax, keep your mouth shut and do nothing. Always respond to high rollers by waiting them out. When their melodrama bombs, they usually will shut up and get back to work in order to disappear.
If the student continues to raise, you can always go to consequences. But, keep this in mind: You can deliver consequences just as effectively with low blood pressure as you can with high blood pressure.
This description of meaning business is only a thumbnail sketch of a few critical features. It is neither detailed nor exhaustive. The skills described above, however, will help you with typical kids and typical disruptions. It will help you until you have time to read Tools for Teaching or come to a workshop.
Although it is only a start, for most people, it represents a big change. During training, more than a few teachers have said after practicing the body language of meaning business, "I tried it last night with my eight year old, and it works! He is the world's greatest wheedler, and I always go for the bait. But, no more! I stood my ground, and he folded."
In the classroom, weenieism is more subtle than at home. Imagine, for example, that you want students to do their own work during this particular lesson without talking to one another. As you are helping a student, you catch some whispering on the far side of the room. It is not serious talking -- just some whispering between two students. You are busy -- in the middle of an explanation. This is your moment of truth. Will you stop what you are doing to deal with the infraction? Or, will you continue instructing?
If you continue instructing, you might as well make the following announcement to your class:
"Class, do you remember what I said at the beginning of the school year about high standards and time on task. Well, as you know, words are cheap. What you just saw was reality -- what I actually do. As you may have noticed, I find discipline management to be well inconvenient. Consequently, when I am doing something more enjoyable, like instruction, I will turn a blind eye to your fooling around if it is not too bad. In other words, as you can plainly see, my classroom rules are nothing but hot air. Now that you know this, I hope we will have a good year together."
Green teachers tend to think of classroom rules as a behavioral wish list. Natural teachers know that each classroom rule comes with a high cost. They understand the following axiom:
Never make a rule that you are not willing to enforce every time.
Consistency begins with thinking long and hard about which classroom rules you are willing to enforce every time. You might find that some, while they sound good, will not be worth your time when you are forced to choose.
I have rarely met a green teacher who understood consistency. To the green teacher, consistency is just a word. People who enter teaching after they have raised their kids are miles ahead when it comes to consistency. They know that consistency is serious business. Their kids taught them how serious it is when they went through the "terrible 2's." They know what brat behavior looks like. And they know that the sweetest child in the world can be awful under the right circumstances.
Green teachers are focused more on nurturance than consistency. They tend to take the notion that there are no degrees of consistency as a bit rigid and authoritarian. They are more concerned with creating an exciting and friendly atmosphere that causes children to quicken their step as they approach the classroom door.
Green teachers are absolutely right to have that focus. But, unless they can balance nurturance with firmness and consistency, they will inadvertently produce brat behavior. And then, without wanting to, they will have to struggle to maintain order. Without wanting to, their voice will become harsh as they nag and criticize.
In later segments, we will look at the emotional and physical skills of meaning business. But these skills are nothing in the hands of a weenie.[content block]