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Calm Is Strength: Responding to Backtalk

Upset Is Weakness

In our previous segment we learned that calm is strength and upset is weakness. To put this statement into perspective, ask yourself the following two questions:

  • If you are calm, who is in control of your mind and body?

  • If you are upset, who is in control of your mind and body?

Management of discipline problems in the classroom is first and foremost emotional. You will never be able to control a classroom until you are first in control of yourself.

When you are calm, you can bring all of your wisdom, experience, and social skills to bear in solving a problem. But, when you are upset, you can only focus on the threat that is upsetting you, and your response will be primitive – a fight-flight reflex with an angry voice.

It is hard enough to stay calm with the normal foolishness of a classroom. Your acid test, however, will be backtalk.

The Acid Test

Imagine that you walk over to Larry, our chronic problem student, who is goofing off. You give him a prompt to get back to work. Instead of complying, Larry looks up and says:

“I wasn’t doin’ anything. Why don’t you just get out of my face and leave me alone?!”

All eyes in the class immediately snap toward you. On every student’s face is an expression that says, “Wow! What are you going to do about that Mr. Jones?”

Larry has just made theater out of discipline management, and his classmates are the audience. By challenging you in front of the entire class, Larry says, in effect:

“Hey, you guys! Look over here! This teacher is trying to tell me what to do. I want you all to know that he can’t because he doesn’t run this classroom. I do!”

Now what will you do? Will you say something?

Beware! The most predictable way of getting someone to speak to you is for you to speak to them. In addition, part of the fight-flight reflex in a social situation is speech. It would seem that everything Larry is doing is calculated to get you to do one thing – to speak!

You are being “set up.”

Responding to Backtalk

To understand the management of 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.

Your short-term response deals with the fight-flight reflex. If you stay calm, you can “abort” the fight-flight reflex before it gains strength. If you stay calm and stay in your cortex, you can act intelligently. But, if you allow yourself to become upset, you will “downshift” to your brainstem, and none of your management strategies will be available to you.

In the long-term, of course, you can do whatever the situation requires. But first you must succeed in the short-term.

To get a handle on dealing with backtalk, let’s look at an example of “garden variety” backtalk. It is far more common than the kind that would produce an office referral. And, by dialing down the stress factor, we can take a more objective look at strategy.

Vanessa and Kathy are talking, and as you walk by, you attempt to deal with it.

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 Kathy.”

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?

The Cardinal Error

The Cardinal Error in dealing with backtalk is backtalk – your backtalk. The student is talking to you in order to get you to talk to them. If you go for the bait, your dead!

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. To watch two children arguing is fairly common. To watch a child and a teacher arguing is disappointing, to say the least – 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, of course. 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.

Here is the standard scenario for a student being sent to the office:

  • The student mouths off.

  • The teacher responds.

  • The student mouths off.

  • The teacher responds.

  • The student mouths off.

  • The teacher responds.

  • The student mouths off.

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

Roles in a Melodrama

Think of backtalk as a melodrama which is written, produced, and directed by the student. In this melodrama there is a speaking part for you.

If you accept your speaking part in the melodrama, it is “show time.” But if you do not, the show bombs. This brings us to our second rule of backtalk:

Open your mouth, and slit your throat.

Imagine the conversation between teacher and student described earlier if the teacher had had 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 may 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 is like throwing a lifeline to a drowning person. By playing off of whatever you say, the student can keep the show alive.

A Comedy Routine

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.”

In the classroom comedy duo, the student is the clown and the teacher is the straight man. The clown plays off of the lines delivered by you.

Ironically, no matter how much you may hate backtalk, when you speak, you become the disruptive student’s partner. This brings us to our third rule of backtalk:

If the students want to backtalk,

at least make them do all of the work.

Don’t do half of it for them!

Backtalk Is Self-Limiting

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?

Beware! Your fight-flight reflex has a voice. It screams in your ear:

“You have to do something! Now! You can’t just stand there and take it! Everybody is watching! What are you going to do?!”

Your fight-flight reflex is calling you to your doom. Take a relaxing breath. Clear your mind. Hang in there. Chances are, the student will run out of gas.

Regardless of what happens next, most important is the fact that you are calm. If you can think clearly, you can put your intelligence and good judgment to use.

In our next installment, we will take a look at tricky backtalk situations. After all, only the students who lack skill are clumsy enough to get into trouble.

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