“WHAT PART OF ‘BE QUIET’ ARE YOU HAVING TROUBLE WITH?”
“Hey Man. You don’t have to shout!
What do you think? The vast majority of books and teacher trainings tell us don’t shout. Shouting teaches shouting, not quiet compliance. That’s fine philosophy but there are times when it seems counterintuitive.
Back when I first started teaching, I was given a most excellent book called Teaching Children Self-Discipline At Home And At School by Thomas Gordon, Ph. D. (author of the best-selling Parent Effectiveness Training and Teacher Effectiveness Training). In it, Gordon ‘shows why traditional disciplining doesn’t work at home or in the classroom, and how to change children’s behavior effectively using skills of cooperation instead.’ I agreed with everything he said until I got in front of a classroom and I crash landed on Planet Reality. I still believe he is right. I just believe there is more to it that is missing from his books – that’s one reason why I write.
Here’s what happened:
At home I’d read, ‘…children will use self-control to follow rules when they have been given the chance to join with adults in deciding what those rules should be.’ Then the next morning I’d get a call to substitute teach at some troubled school and wham! Reality set in.
At first I tried the classroom management techniques I’d been taught. I was told to lower my voice and the class would quiet down to hear what I was saying. What a load of crap! What if the class has decided that Substitute teachers (or any teachers, parents or police) are blood sport and not to be obeyed or feared? I quickly abandoned my training and adjusted it to include extreme behavioral management.
I’d stand in front of the class and hold up one finger and in a normal tone of voice I’d say, “May I please have your quiet, undivided attention.” I was ignored. I’d hold up two fingers, “May I please have your quiet, undivided attention please.” I was ignored. I’d hold up three fingers, “May I PLEASE have your quiet, undivided attention.” After they ignored me this third time I cut loose in the loudest voice I could muster (and remember, I sang rock & roll professionally so I have a VERY loud voice when I need it) and I’d shout, “WHAT PART OF ‘BE QUIET’ ARE YOU HAVING TROUBLE WITH?”
And invariably some kid would look up in surprise and say, “Hey Man. You don’t have to shout!” To which I’d reply, “Oh yes I did.”
What’s going on? Time and logistics.
First off, if children have been reared in an environment that is chaotic (like many children in America) their intrinsic motivation for self-discipline gets skewed and it takes a lot of time to change their orientation. Robert A. Heinlein, tells us that there are children who grow up “…with only the instinct for survival,… …experience taught them that what they were doing was the way to survive.”
I’ve encountered many students who just didn’t think I was serious until I started shouting. As the great jazz poet Mose Allison tells us:
“If you’re going up to the city, you better learn to shout.
‘Cuz if you don’t stand up and holler, you’re going to be left out.”
Next (secondly), the logistics of a situation can undermine the most progressive of behavioral management techniques. I only shouted to get attention. Then I’d talk in a normal voice. But as a sub you just don’t have the luxury of slow patient guiding toward a mutually workable environment for learning. In my regular classes I rarely shouted but when I did it was necessary to get my kids’ attention. Those were times when the class was new, or when I got a lot of new students in mid semester. And classroom overcrowding (as well as societal overcrowding) is the worst obstacle to kind, patient, progressive efforts to ‘change children’s behavior effectively using skills of cooperation’.
At a CDS school here in California the law states/suggests a pupil to teacher ratio of 14 to 1 (that’s 14 ‘at risk’ or behavior problem students to one teacher). The school district raised it to 17 to 1; then to 20 to 1. Finally they ordered us to increase our numbers and I wound up with 40 students in a room with only 24 chairs! It was impossible to get cooperation of any kind from this seething cauldron of humanity, mostly because it was impossible to get everyone’s attention at the same time. The frustrating impossibility of this situation was made all too clear on the day we offered my students the opportunity of a lifetime.
The Principal and the Dean of students (who was doing double duty, her first assignment was as a teacher) came into my room to announce this golden opportunity ASAP. The school district had approved the use of a computer program with which students could get high school credit for required classes by going on-line and taking the classes at their own speed. Those who didn’t have computers at home could use school computers during lunch and after school. It was free of charge to the students. Teachers offered to tutor students past any rough spots. What made this such a particularly great opportunity for our kids was the fact that many (most) of our students were behind in their credits and were seriously ‘at risk’ of not graduating on time, if at all. But…
We could not get them to quiet down and listen – whether we spoke quietly or shouted. Three strong adults offering a wonderful opportunity and the kids just would not listen to a plan which could save them time, money and help them get out of high school (which most of them obviously hated). After 20 minutes of trying to help a room full of students who refused and resisted our help, the Principal and Dean left in disgust. Later we did get a few students enrolled in the program but only after speaking to them privately.
I’ve been in numerous trainings at which teachers of the ‘at risk’ population would complain that the trainings just wouldn’t work in their classrooms. Then we teachers would get berated by administrators and experts who’d call us ‘negative’ or ‘entrenched’ or ‘unwilling to try something new’ to which I hereby respond, “Don’t tell me. Come to my room, take over with my students, and show me by teaching under the same time and logistical constraints that I am under.”