Oh no, not again.
At the worst possible moment, just as you’re homing in on your lesson objective, you notice a desperate hand waving at you from the edge your peripheral vision. Your first instinct is to ignore it and plow ahead, but then come the impatient grunts and throat-clears.
The student is one of several who frequently need your attention—to tell on a classmate, voice a complaint, or ask why he gets to do this or she gets to do that. Regardless of what it is, you’d be willing to bet it has nothing to do with your lesson.
For some students it seems that every waking moment is spent looking for what is wrong or unjust in their world, and when they find it, they want you to fix it right now.
So they interrupt the flow of your classroom. They break your train of thought. They become so fixated on their perceived problem or issue that nothing else matters to them—least of all their academic work.
With all of your responsibilities and single-minded focus on learning, you have precious little time or patience for it, especially when the matter seems so petty and their urgency so unjustified. You want what? Who are you talking about? Why does that even concern you?
It’s normal to question their motives and intentions, cut them off mid-sentence, or discard their concerns with a clipped phrase and a wave of your hand.
But in the long run, an exasperated response will only cause their complaining and tattling to worsen. It will only cause them to be more anxious, less focused, and tenfold as likely to interrupt you again and again.
What follows is a simple three-step strategy for handling this common situation in a way that both calms and satisfies the student, while at the same time limiting future interruptions.
Step 1: Enforce
Effective teaching requires you to never let the whole of your class suffer because of a small few. So your first order of business is to remind yourself not to respond to or call on anyone who isn’t following your hand-raising routine. Once you prove that this is always the case, the disruptive behavior will stop.
Furthermore, as part of your first-week-of-school focus on routines and procedures, your students will learn that just because their hand is up doesn’t mean that you’ll call on them right away. They may have to wait patiently and trust that you’ll get to them as soon as you’re able.
Finally, because they’ve proven, through detailed practice and role-play, that they understand what is expected of them, if they stray from the routine—by waving, calling out, or making noises to get your attention—you will follow your classroom management plan as promised and enforce a consequence.
Step 2: Listen
Only after you’ve completed your thought, reached your objective, or finished your explanation, will you answer questions or address concerns. Part of what makes this strategy so effective is that you’ll only call on students when you have the time to give them your full attention.
You’ll only call on them when there is a natural break in the action and you have a moment to look them in the eye, nod your head, and show interest, regardless of how trivial the question, complaint, or contention may seem. This is key.
By showing that you care, by validating their concerns and perturbations, your students will be free to let them go, focus on their academic responsibilities, and relax in knowing that when they have a problem, you’ll address it.
Step 3: Fix
It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to curb the intensity and frequency of tattling is to take it seriously. So after listening to the student’s concern, address the problem assertively and as quickly as you’re able.
“Thanks for letting me know, Jesse. You’re right, no one may put their hands on you. I’ll take care of it. And if he bothers you again, I want to know about it.”
Then let the student see you handling the problem. If, however, he (or she) ends up not having a valid concern, then without showing frustration or anger, just be straight with him.
“Jackie has every right to voice her opinion about the book, no matter how much you may disagree with it. Now go back and rejoin your group.”
Free To Focus
When students are discouraged from tattling or voicing their apprehensions, when they don’t have confidence that you’ll stop the bully from making fun of them or their table-mate from distracting them, they grow frustrated.
They complain louder and more vociferously. They become less focused on their work and more focused on themselves and their grievances. They begin taking matters into their own hands.
And the more you wave them away, the more you tell them you don’t want to hear it, and that tattling isn’t allowed, the worse it gets.
But when they know they can count on you to safeguard their right to learn and enjoy school without interference, they’ll lay down their sword. They’ll let go of their vigilance. They’ll be free, finally, to focus on the academic challenges you place before them.
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