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When Students Rock the Boat, I'm "Master and Commander" of My Classroom

Voice of ExperienceMax Fischer has learned about dealing with student outbursts and insubordination. Past experience has taught him to remain calm in a storm; to be "Master and Commander" of his emotions and of his classroom. Included: Tips for keeping control when the classroom "ship" is sinking.

Max W. Fischer

Like many movie buffs, I enjoyed the high-seas adventure epic Master and Commander -- The Far Side of the World. Russell Crowe's portrayal of British naval officer Jack Aubrey got me thinking that, in many similar ways, each classroom is steered by its own commander, the teacher. Whether on a ship or in a classroom, the commander must earn the respect of his charges with a firm hand that inspires confidence. Without stooping to autocratic fanaticism -- I'm thinking of Captain William Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty -- a teacher must deal calmly and thoughtfully when tense situations arise.

Most of us have students who on occasion overtly challenge our authority. In those stressful moments, we must muster every bit of our knowledge of human nature. Students who lose control and swear, speak disrespectfully, or adamantly defy us, present us with a real-life proficiency test.

More Voices

Have you seen these Voice of Experience columns by Max Fischer from previous weeks?

* Teamwork Counts (A Lot!)

* Is Differentiation the Answer to the Tracking Debate?

* Another Look at No Child Left Behind (Year Two)

* Gaga Over Google: Photo Images Bring Lessons to Life

* Poetry Writing: A Comprehension Tool Across the Curriculum

I don't know about you, but, in situations such as those, the Captain Bligh in me often fights to surface. I want to force the mutinous student to walk the figurative plank; I want to counter that student's slight with a diatribe of my own. What better way to cope with the circumstances than by blowing off both barrels at the offender?

Fortunately, I usually am able to catch myself. I realize how counterproductive that can be. I recall how miserable I felt in the past when I "lost it." Remembering the slices of humble pie I've eaten over the years reminds me that verbally lambasting a student is rarely a winning maneuver.

I also know that a powerful display of negative emotion on my part can ignite subsequent outbursts from the student. Those eruptions could become physical or, worse yet, breed copycat offenders. For some students, getting written up by the teacher and spending time in in-school suspension seems a small price to pay for entertaining classmates by getting the teacher's goat.

More than that, I am aware how a knee-jerk reaction by me demonstrates my own lack of confidence in dealing with the situation. Responding in kind to a student's outburst increases the risk that I will lose credibility with my students, and perhaps even with their parents and my superiors.

A teacher's negative response to those students -- granted, a small minority -- who get pleasure from challenging a teacher in those ways also can impact the sense of security all students should feel in the classroom. If students don't feel secure with the adult leading their class, real engagement with learning is hampered. A classroom ruled by unruly students speaks negative volumes about the interest level in what's being taught.


So how can you avoid the pitfalls of an overblown emotional response to a disrespectful or defiant student?

  • Be preemptive. Plan lessons thoughtfully. Careful lesson preparation is the biggest key to maintaining classroom discipline. Mindful of the individualistic nature of learning, I make every effort to employ a multi-modal approach to lessons I teach. I want to offer all students an opportunity to demonstrate competence. When students are interested and believe they have a chance to succeed, discipline issues subside.
  • Know your students. Acknowledge their individuality. That follows the above, and goes a step further. The more attuned I am to the backgrounds and characteristics of each student, the easier it is for me to understand the forces that drive them. For example, being aware of a student's special family issues enables me to defuse a situation that arrives at school.
  • Have an action plan ready. Be prepared to involve other teachers or an administrator when a student blows his or her top.
  • Learn from past errors. Practice makes perfect! Teachers' experiences are their best "mentors." No one becomes an instant "Master and Commander," but each of us can learn from each mutiny we endure. Not too long ago, I was able to calmly escort from the classroom a student who started spewing the f-word. He was settled down by the time the assistant principal arrived. Because I was able to maintain my composure, the other students maintained theirs. When one student asked me, "How in the world were you able to stay so calm, Mr. Fischer?" I responded, "Practice, lots of practice."
  • Earn students' respect. When a young officer-to-be inquired how to deal with a crew, Jack Aubrey counseled that he should be neither tyrannical nor their friend. Simply, Aubrey said, he must earn their respect. Any experienced teacher knows that to be true. When we use our intellect instead of our raw emotions when dealing with the occasional fit of insubordination, we reap the respect of all students. When a student goes off, the teacher cannot; teachers cannot allow such circumstances to ignite their own short fuses.
  • Levy discipline with a fair, even hand. Regardless of the situation, students who do wrong must be submitted to the code of discipline. Without proper discipline, the offender will be vindicated and other students' security will be compromised. In all cases, discipline must be distributed as fairly and equally as possible.

Jack Aubrey I am not. Sailing through the Straits of Magellan is not my idea of the perfect adventure. Through the years, however, I've learned how to lead a classroom when the inevitable chaotic moments arise. Past experience has forged my mettle and made me comfortable in my role as "Master and Commander" of my classroom.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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