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Dr. Fred Jones's
Tools for Teaching

Meaning Business: Part 4
Dealing With Backtalk


Before reading this column, you might want to read or review Dr. Jones's previous columns Meaning Business, Part 1: Calm is Strength, Upset is Weakness, Meaning Business, Part 2: The Body Language of Commitment, and Meaning Business, Part 3: Follow Through and Pseudo-Compliance.

When students confront you verbally, everything they are doing -- the challenge, the upset, the talk itself -- seems calculated to get you to do one thing -- to speak! Could there be a method to their madness?

Let's look at an example of the garden variety wheedling that is most common in the classroom. The simplest form of wheedling is denial. Denial requires perhaps three neurons.
"I wasn't doin' anything." or "Not me."

To denial, we will add its companion, blaming.
"He was asking me a question." or "She started it."

Finally, to this display of garden variety wheedling, we will add a teacher who is committing The Cardinal Error. The Cardinal Error, when dealing with backtalk, is backtalk. Taking the scene from the top, it might go like this:
Teacher: "Vanessa, I would like you to turn around and get some work done."
Student: "I wasn't doing anything."
Teacher: "You have been talking this whole period, and I want it to stop."
Student: "No I wasn't."
Teacher: "Every time I look up, I see you talking to Serena."
Student: "She was just asking me a question."
Teacher: "I don't care who was asking who what. When I look up, I expect to see you doing your own work."
Student: "Yeah, but..."

Have you had enough yet? Who do you think will look foolish by the time this conversation winds down? When you were four years old, you already had the social skills required to have the last word in an argument if you wanted it badly enough. All it takes is perseverance.

Read More!

Have you seen these Education World articles...

...About Dr. Fred Jones?
* The King of Classroom Management! An Education World e-Interview with Classroom Management Expert Fred Jones
* Preferred Activity Time (PAT) Is Preferred by Kids and Teachers!
* Tips from Fred Jones's Tools for Teaching

...By Dr. Jones?
* Meaning Business -- Part 2: The Body Language of Commitment
* Meaning Business -- Part 1: Calm is Strength, Upset is Weakness
* Escaping the Paper Grading Trap
* Adding Motivation to Mastery
* Beyond Say, See, Do Teaching: Exploiting Structured Practice
* Teaching to the Physical Modality: Say, See, Do Teaching
* Weaning the Helpless Handraisers -- Part 2: Teaching to the Visual Modality
* Weaning the Helpless Handraisers -- Part 1: Reinforcing Helplessness
* Succeeding With Classroom Structure: Rules, Routines, and Standards
* More Time on Task, Less Goofing Off


It is not uncommon to witness two children arguing. But witnessing a child and a teacher arguing is most disconcerting -- which brings us to our first rule of backtalk:

It takes one fool to backtalk.
It takes two fools to make a conversation out of it.

The first fool is the child. But the normal foolishness of children does not worry me. It goes with the territory. What worries me is the second fool. The second fool is always the teacher. It is the teacher's backtalk that will get this student sent to the office. One of the most common scenarios for a student being sent to the office is the following:
The student mouths off.
The teacher responds.
The student mouths off.
The teacher responds.
The student mouths off.

By this point in the conversation, most teachers realize that they have dug the hole so deep the only way out is to "pull rank." That is why backtalk is the most common complaint in office referrals.


Think of backtalk as a melodrama that is written, produced, and directed by the student. In this melodrama, there is a speaking part for you. If you accept your speaking role in the melodrama, it is "show time." But if you do not, the show bombs. That brings us to our second rule of backtalk:

Open your mouth, and slit your throat.

Imagine the conversation between the teacher and student described earlier if the teacher has the good sense to keep his or her mouth shut.
Teacher: "Vanessa, I would like you to bring your chair around and get some work done."
Student: "I wasn't doing anything."
Teacher: (silence)
Student: "Well, I wasn't."
Teacher: (silence)
Student: "Well"
Teacher: (silence)
Student: (silence)

Students might try to keep the show going for a while, but they cannot keep it going all by themselves. When they run out of material, embarrassment usually sets in. When students begin to feel foolish, they fold. Getting back to work suddenly becomes the quickest way to disappear. If you talk, you actually rescue backtalkers from their dilemma; it's like throwing a lifeline to a drowning person. By playing off whatever you say, the student can keep the show alive and avoid "going down for the third time."


Think of backtalk as a comedy routine -- a classroom comedy duo. There are many duos in the history of comedy: Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Burns and Allen, Martin and Lewis. Comedy duos all have a predictable format. There is a "clown" and a "straight man." The straight man sets up the jokes by delivering "straight lines" like:
"How bad was it?"
"Then what happened?"

In the classroom comedy duo, the student is the clown and the teacher is the straight man. The clown plays off the lines delivered by the teacher. Ironically, no matter how much you hate backtalk, when you speak, you become the disruptive student's partner. That brings us to our third rule of backtalk:

If students want to backtalk, at least make them do all the work. Don't do half of it for them!

Think of backtalk as self-limiting. You have to feed it to make it grow. If you do not feed it, it will starve. Or, think of it this way: Opening your mouth is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Do you want the backtalk to die down or blow up in your face?


Nasty backtalk definitely increases the price of playing poker. We will refer to it as "high-rolling." The student is risking all. The backtalker is probing for a nerve ending -- a "hot button." Is it the use of a certain word? Is it something personal?

What is the real agenda underlying the use of vulgarity? As always, it has to do with power. Questions of power boil down to control. Can a four-letter monosyllable control you? Can it determine your emotions and your behavior? If so, then the student possesses a great deal of power packaged in the form of a single word. If you give students that much power, it will be used.


To understand the management of backtalk, especially nasty backtalk, you must conceptualize your response in terms of two time frames, short-term and long-term. The short-term time frame is very short; one or two seconds.

The correct short-term response, as you might imagine, has to do with the fight-flight reflex. Relax in order to avoid downshifting to the brainstem. If you stay in your cortex, you can act intelligently. You know the student and you know the situation. You can bring all your social and professional skills to bear. If, however, you are in your brainstem, good judgment is out of the question.

Your lack of an immediate response is also powerful body language. It tells the student, among other things, that you are no rookie. You have heard it all a thousand times. And it tells them that you cannot be "had" for the price of a little smart mouth.

If the student runs out of gas and takes refuge in getting back to work, you have "finessed" the incident (and gotten somewhat lucky). Consider getting on with the lesson. The class certainly will know that you do not take such language lightly when, as students leave class, you say, "Larry, I would like to speak with you for a moment." Of course, you need to be standing in the doorway at the time.

Your short-term response does not foreclose any management options. It simply gives you time to think while avoiding The Cardinal Error. Playing for time also puts the ball in the student's court and allows you to observe what he or she does next. In the long-term, you can do whatever the situation requires. You know what options are available to you at your school. If, in your opinion, the student should be sent to the office, then do it.

Whatever you choose to do, if you are calm, your actions come across with an air of cool professionalism. There is no rancor. You are above the storm. That calm helps students accept responsibility for their own actions. It is hard for a student to blame someone else when he or she is the only one out of line.

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

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