Most teachers have encountered a class that starts off a bit rambunctious and needs some extra convincing to get down to business. I have seen a whole host of different techniques over the years that have all worked to varying degrees of success. Usually it depends on the teacher in question but often the tactic employed has just as much to do with the outcome as the teacher wielding it. I have tried all of the tactics below and have made many mistakes in my career. I have to say that the final tactic, when used properly, creates an engaged, student led class where everyone has their perspective and voice taken into account. The point is to get every students’ eyes on YOU. Once you have that, getting them to dig into the lesson becomes easy.
- Yelling– The first year teacher’s exasperated attempt to get the attention of a boisterous class. Yes, it is effective. An adult can usually yell louder than a room full of kids. I’ve done it before but, let’s look at what you are projecting to your students by yelling and look at it from their perspective. 1) You look pathetic. Seriously. Kids see you as ‘not in control’ of your emotions and their actions have had the desired effect of breaking your will to live. Kids:1, Teacher: 0. 2) You look like a toddler who didn’t get what s/he wanted and now you you’re throwing a temper tantrum. I’m only saying this because that is exactly what a 6th grade student of mine told me when I lost my cool about a decade ago. When you yell at students, you have abdicated your authority as the leader of the class and have brought yourself down below the level of your students. Yelling does not convey a sense of trust, respect, or community. It will work, but, you will lose the real power in your room and create an atmosphere of mistrust and resentment that will infect your class for the rest of the year. It is a short term fix that brings long term problems.
- Pleading– “Awww, come on guys”. I feel my grandmothers’ Jewish guilt hanging over me right now… This is less a conscious tactic to regain control of a class but more of a last ditch effort to stave off crying. This is the defeated teacher at their worst. Again, I’ve been that guy. I’ve been so desperate to get a class back to a place of quiet that I’ve tried begging and pleading for their help. Let me tell you how bad it was… one kid actually started laughing at me. Me, a grown ass man, getting laughed at by an 11 year old. Talk about humiliating. When you get to the point of wanting to beg, just walk out of the room into the hallway and give yourself a few seconds to compose your mind. You will find your center and be able to walk back into the room with an air of confidence. Students usually respond better to a teacher who exudes confidence than to one who is whining.
- Surprise – This is actually a great method if it is employed sparingly and with great care. When I mean surprise, I really mean surprise them. Catch them off guard. Personally I’ve done a few different surprise tactics over the year. I’ve started dancing really, really badly (talk bout making a spectcal). The kids were so shocked that there were few jaws on the floor. Then I would stop as if nothing happened and go on with the lesson… I’ve started juggling, too. Really anything to get their eyes one me. That is the goal. One that was done to me as a 7th grader was my science teacher dropped a GIGANTIC text book in the back of the room when non one was looking. It startled everyone so much that one girl who had fallen asleep, screamed and fell out of her chair. My science teacher calmly walked up to the front of the room and started instructing as if nothing had ever happened. Brilliant!
- Wait for them – This is really hard but it is the most important skill a quality teacher can employ. When you wait for the classes’ attention, I’m not talking about closing your eyes and counting to ten and hope that they all notice you standing at the front (or side) of the classroom. I’m talking about actively engaging your students with your eyes and your respect while not talking. You have to start with one student. Get eye contact and simply mouth the words “Thank-You”. Then repeat this process with more students. As you gain a new students’ eyes, the class will start to recognize that you have something important to tell them (I usually go with a joke to keep it light). They will also self police the room and start urging the few remaining students to come into the fold. Believe it or not, this skill of silently engaging with students takes only about 30-40 seconds of class time and has become part of my classes’ routine every day.
Remember, engaging with your students respectfully, confidently, and silently can quickly keep your students moving forward with the curriculum rather than have them become their own worst enemy and derail your lesson. Treating them with respect first gains their respect and in turn, will help them smoothly transition from side conversations into engaged learning.