Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Arnold Pulda reflects on how a bout with cancer precipitated his transition from a "drill sergeant" who barked orders at his students to a quieter, gentler Dr. Pulda. Included: An opportunity to share your most effective classroom management strategies!
Last spring, I had the chance to mentor a student teacher. The experience worked out well for her -- and it was a wonderful opportunity for me. In modeling good teaching strategies and dispensing advice, I got to examine my own principles and practices. One of the bits of advice I did not give her was "Yell at the students."
During my first years of teaching, I shouted at students fairly regularly. No one advised me to do so; it just seemed like an effective tool for classroom control. I took as my model the Marine drill sergeants depicted in movies. Sometimes, I went nose-to-nose with my student "recruits." In those days, I equated intimidation with management, silence with consent (and even respect), and acquiescence with learning. To me, a teacher's voice was a loud voice.
I can pinpoint the exact event that precipitated a change in my approach
It was spring of 1999 and I became quite sick. My treatment included chemotherapy, then radiation to my neck and throat. Forget yelling; I could barely talk! I was out of school for several months, while another teacher took over my classes. Near the end of the school year, on a day when I was feeling relatively OK, I stopped by school to talk with my principal. She urged me to go upstairs and speak with my former students. With some misgivings, I did so.
The students greeted me warmly when I walked into the room. I sat among them and let them ask me questions. I replied with squeaks and croaks and hoarse whispers. I had to pause frequently for long seconds as I drank water to lubricate my throat. But I had never heard a classroom so quiet. Never! No student interrupted; no gossip or chatter went on anywhere in the room. The students wanted to hear what I had to say. I learned that I didn't have to yell in order to be heard.
Today I know that effective classroom management does not require silence. I know that a healthy background buzz among students and the teacher can be indicative of a vital classroom, cooking with lively ideas, serious student engagement, and a reasonable amount of good humor.
Yes, there can be a fine line between productive noise and the off-task chatter every teacher has heard. But in years past, I might have tried to terminate unproductive noise by adding noise of my own. I would shout over the din in order to be heard. That strategy usually succeeded in the short run, but I often observed students looking at each other, rolling their eyes in a way that said, "He's shouting again; talk to you later." Management and control accomplished by adding my noise to the students' really accomplished nothing.
Today, my classroom runs more smoothly. I manage my classroom with a combination of clear expectations and quiet command. I have developed and distributed a short list of behaviors that I expect of students. Among those behaviors are the standard strictures against being tardy or disruptive, and also the requirement that all students get busy with on-task work as soon as they enter my classroom.
There has been one other big change.
I have found my "teacher voice." I haven't yelled in two years. I don't have to yell anymore. When student behavior or talk gets disruptive, I am usually silent; a meaningful look in the students' direction commands their attention. Often a classmate will urge them to hush.
Today I speak slowly and quietly-- and my students hear me better than ever.
Arnold Pulda is a teacher and a liaison for gifted and talented student programs in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Article by Arnold Pulda
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