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Dr. Fred Jones's
Tools for Teaching

"No" Means "No":
The Importance of Consistency


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This article is condensed from Dr. Jones' award winning book Tools for Teaching. Illustrations by Brian Jones for Tools for Teaching.

By examining consistency, we begin to link classroom rules, the topic of our previous segment, to the enforcement of those rules -- better known as Meaning Business. Often you will have to say no to misbehavior. When you do, you want the problem to stop.

How do you say no and make it stick? We would do well to take a lesson from my mom:
My mom meant business. She had been an elementary teacher for many years, and a very good one, no doubt. But I could be as willful as any other little kid and could wheedle with the best of them. My mom referred to any such arguing or wheedling as yammering. Early in life, I learned two iron-clad rules from my mom.

Rule #1 -- No means no.

Rule #2 -- I am not going to stand here and listen to your yammering.

WEENIE PARENTS

Years later, I found myself supervising graduate students in family therapy at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Half our clients were parents who were at their wits end with their kids brat behavior. Those children would wheedle endlessly, and when the parents said no, they would whine and fuss and tantrum until they got their way.

Those parents just couldnt bring themselves to say no and make it stick. They had difficulty being consistent.The nickname for those parents around the clinic was weenies.

Consistency is a word that everyone knows, but few people really understand. One of my weenie parents said, But, Dr. Jones, I think we are being pretty consistent. When I told that to my colleagues, we had a big laugh. We had a bigger laugh when one of my other weenie parents said, But, Dr. Jones, I think we are consistent most of the time. What weenies fail to understand about consistency is that it does not permit degrees. You either are consistent, or you are inconsistent. There is nothing in between. There is no such thing as very consistent or extremely consistent.

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CRACKING

What if my mother, instead of being consistent, had been pretty consistent. Four out of five times, no meant no. But, one out of five times she cracked. Maybe she had a good excuse -- she was busy or stressed or distracted. In a moment of weakness, she blurted,

All right! Here, you can have it! Just go outside, and leave me alone! Im tired of listening to your yammering!

If my mother had cracked, she would have taught me the following lessons:

  • When the going gets tough, the tough get yammering.
  • If at first you dont succeed, yammer, yammer again.
  • Never give up! Today might be your lucky day.
The irony of consistency is that the closer you come to being consistent before you fail, the worse off you are. If the parent cracks easily, the child does not need to be a world-class yammerer in order to succeed. But if the parent does not crack easily, the child must learn to play hardball.

DISCIPLINE BEFORE INSTRUCTION

One of your basic jobs in the classroom will be to set limits on student disruptions -- to say no to typical, everyday goofing off. We will focus on the most common disruption, talking to neighbors.

Imagine yourself in class as students work at their seats. According to your classroom rules in this format, talking to neighbors clearly represents goofing off. As you help a student, you look up to see two students on the far side of the room chatting away instead of working.

Lets deal with your priorities before we consider your actions. In the classroom, the following priority must govern your decision making at all times:

Discipline comes before instruction.

It is not optional. It is a cornerstone of effective management.

Placing discipline before instruction is something that most teachers would readily accept. After all, its only logical. Does this make sense?:

If students are goofing off, they certainly are not doing your lesson.

How about this?

Get your rules and routines straight at the beginning of the semester. If you dont, youll be chasing after those kids for the next eighteen weeks.

Indeed, most teachers would agree, at least at a logical level, that discipline should come before instruction. Why, then, do so few teachers act that way?

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH

Beware! Weenie-ism can be far more subtle in the classroom than it is at home.

Lets imagine, for example, that youre helping a student -- Robert-- with a complex piece of work, such as a geometry proof. Hes lost somewhere in the middle of the proof among the theorems and axioms and corollaries. Youve been working with Robert for a couple of minutes, and you are nearing closure. Given another twenty seconds, Robert will be able to progress on his own.

At that moment, out of the corner of your eye you catch two students on the far side of the room talking instead of working. Its not a big disruption. It isnt even bothering students nearby. Now, be utterly candid with yourself as you imagine what to do next.

Do you want to abort the teaching interaction -- in which you have invested several minutes and which is nearing closure?
Or

Do you want to finish helping Robert before you deal with the problem?

During training, a roomful of experienced teachers will respond in unison, Finish helping Robert.

Of course you want to finish helping Robert! After all, you have made an emotional investment and an intellectual investment as well as an investment of time. You are so close to completion. Robert almost has it.

Consequently, most teachers will return to helping Robert. In the moment of truth, most teachers will choose instruction over discipline.

The Students Perspective

Now, lets look at the situation from the students perspective. Its the beginning of the school year, and they are trying to figure out who you are. The class just saw you make a choice. They saw you look up to observe two students goofing off, and then they saw you return to Robert.

From the students perspective, answer the following question:

In this classroom, is discipline management on the front burner or is discipline management on the back burner?

You might as well make the following public announcement to the students:

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, talk is cheap.
What you just saw was reality. As you might have noticed, when I have to choose between discipline and instruction, I will choose instruction. I find discipline management to be oh, how can I say this inconvenient. Consequently, when Im busy with instruction, I will turn a blind eye to goofing off as long as it is not too bothersome.
I would like for there to be no discipline problems, of course. But, as you can see, dealing with them is simply not worth my time. In spite of that, let me express my sincere hope that we will have an orderly and productive school year together.

When you look up to see one of your rules being broken, you are on the horns of a dilemma. If you act, your rules become reality. If you fail to act, your rules are nothing but hot air.

This is your moment of truth. If you waffle, you become a weenie. A weenie is a magnet for brat behavior.

SEE AND THEN ACT

Thinking when you should be acting is fatal. If a student has stepped over the line, you either do something about it or you pull your punch. Thinking at this juncture produces dithering instead of doing. To eliminate dithering, dont think. Discipline always come before instruction -- period! If you stop to think at this point, your thoughts will be rationalizations for staying with Robert. Here are some truly irrelevant thoughts that might come to mind.

How big is the disruption? That is irrelevant. When you see unacceptable behavior, you either deal with it or not. The disruption typically will be small -- talking to neighbors in most cases.

How important is the assignment? That also is irrelevant. If the assignment were not important, you wouldnt be teaching it in the first place.

Of course the problem is small. Of course the lesson is important. Of course discipline management is inconvenient. But you cannot turn a blind eye to disruptions. No means no every time, or it means less than nothing. Stop dithering and do your job, or quit kidding yourself and admit that you really are a weenie.

DONT CONSULT YOUR FEELINGS

Discipline management is a game you play out of your head, not out of your gut. Your boundaries coincide with your definition of unacceptable behavior. They have nothing to do with how you feel. Feelings are inconstant by their very nature. You cannot respond, for example, because you feel yourself losing your patience. Your patience will be a function of

  • how much sleep you got last night;
  • whether you are upset about something else in your life, such as a sick child or a marital problem;
  • what some other kid in class did five minutes ago.
You must, therefore, have mental clarity as to where your behavioral boundaries lie. Without mental clarity you cannot have behavioral clarity.

YOU MAKE THE RULES

I dont make the rules for your classroom. You do. Different lesson formats have different rules. Green teachers often think of classroom rules as a kind of behavioral wish list. They make rules based on what they want, rather than on what they can afford. More experienced teachers know that each classroom rule comes with a high price tag attached.

If you are to be consistent, you must respond every time you see a rule infraction. Consistency, therefore, requires that you adhere to the following rule of rules:

Never make a rule you are not willing to enforce every time.

Enforcement always will be an intrusion that requires you to stop what youre doing. Before you make a rule, therefore, imagine yourself enforcing it -- every time. Then, ask yourself, Is it worth the price?

INCONSISTENCY AND HARSHNESS

Green teachers who have not yet raised a family have a particularly hard time taking consistency as seriously as they should. Their primary focus is usually relationship building. Rule enforcement tends to take a back seat.

Teachers who have raised a family know all about infantile omnipotence. Theyve learned to combine affection with firmness and consistency in order to create stable boundaries. For teachers who have little experience with that balancing act, the notion that boundaries cannot move, that there are no degrees of consistency, seems overly rigid.

Nevertheless, your ability to be nurturant ultimately will be a function of your ability to be consistent. For example, when you turn a blind eye to chit-chat, you allow talking to neighbors to self-reinforce. Dont be surprised when the problem reoccurs -- and reoccurs -- and reoccurs. When youve finally had it and intervene, youll be attempting to suppress a behavior that you participated in building.

The management of behavior problems will follow one of two paths in any classroom:

If you are consistent, you can use smaller and smaller consequences to govern misbehavior.

If you are inconsistent, you must use larger and larger consequences to govern misbehavior.

In the final analysis, the price you pay for your own inconsistency is a reduction in your capacity to nurture.

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