In last month's blog 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.
Discipline Before Instruction
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 this 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.
Discipline comes before instruction because it’s the only priority that makes any sense. If the kids are goofing off, they are certainly not doing your lesson. So, while instruction may be more dear to your heart than discipline management, it is second on your list of priorities.
However, putting discipline before instruction is more easily said than done. 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 this 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 on 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 are nearly finished when, out of the corner of your eye, you catch two students whispering on the far side of the classroom. It is 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 this 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 may 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 in fairness, let me explain how I deal with ‘goofing off’ in the classroom so that we may all have an equal shot.
“First, I must give myself credit. I talk a good game – you know, high standards, time-on-task, etc. But, you also know that talk is cheap. You want to know what I’ll actually do.
What some of you just saw was the fact 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 the students that your rules are “hot air.” They do not define real boundaries, and, consequently, the 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.
Calm Is Strength
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,
“Class! There is altogether too much noise in here. When I look up, I expect to see people working. There is absolutely no excuse for… blah, blah, blah.”
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 you will either 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.
Use the Body, Not the Mouth
After commitment and calm comes action. How do you signal to the 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 can now see that, in your classroom, discipline comes before instruction.
By testing you, the 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 have already 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 will either get back to work, or not. You will know soon enough.
There is 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 will 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 you.” For them, getting back to work is the cheapest way to deal with a teacher who “won’t take no for an answer.”
Upping the Ante
If the student just looks at you instead of getting back to work, you have been “raised.” They are 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 them” simply by using time and proximity.
In rare situations you may have to stop what you are doing and walk over to the students. But preferably, if you are mobile, you can casually move in their direction as you “work the crowd.”
Do you remember when you were a kid, talking to your friend in class, only to get a feeling that something was looming over you? You turned to see the teacher standing behind you with a look that says, “Well, what have we here?” Oops…! Back to work.
Occasionally a “high roller” will backtalk, but we have dealt with backtalk in previous segments. The details are described in Tools for Teaching – all the way to nasty backtalk and beyond.
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 will usually 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.
Meaning Business Pays Big Dividends
This description of meaning business is only a thumbnail sketch of a few critical features. It is neither detailed nor exhaustive.
However, the skills described above 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.
While it is only a start, for most people it represents a big change. During training, more than a few teachers have said the day 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.”