Contributed by Vickie Gill
Last month I spent some time with a man who returned to college to get his teaching credential after many years of working in the business world. I truly admire his energy, dedication, and creativity. He’s going to be a great teacher, but he was nervous about the first day of school. We spent some time arranging and rearranging furniture, but our real focus has been on developing a classroom management program that will work for him. In truth, he’s ahead of the game because his prior experience in sales will serve him well. He has a good product and will face a room full of customers on the first day of school; his challenge is to get the students to buy into what he has to offer.
To develop his pitch, he needed to formulate an authentic answer to the question that hopefully some student will care enough to ask: “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” As a kid, I would ask that question as a challenge for my teachers—sometimes to cause trouble, sometimes because I genuinely wanted to know. With the rare exception, my middle and high school teachers would warn me “not to get smart” with them; I would retort that I was in school to get smart, knowing full well that I would be promptly sent to the office. It was interesting to watch a teacher explain to a principal that I was being disruptive by asking a question about the curriculum. Of course, I was being a brat because I was bored out of my mind in school and enjoyed stirring things up for a bit. My classmates appreciated it, too, because they had front row seats for the drama that would follow and some free time while the teacher was dealing with me.
“Why, why, why?” Our brains are programmed to wonder. Most of us have tried to explain to a preschooler why the sky is blue. It’s natural that our students will ask why they should learn how to write, read, memorize facts, compute, create, sing, act, speak another language? The answer we teachers give is all important and sets the tone for the class. The students will run it through their crap detectors and either buy into our curriculum or mentally check out.
“Why do we have to learn this stuff?” I’m convinced our response to that question and our ability to sell our answer is at the root of most discipline problems, student engagement, and overall job satisfaction. The new teacher and I spent some lovely afternoons brainstorming about why his students should spend a year working to master the skills he would be presenting. I also left him with my best advice for setting up an effective classroom management plan:
- Anticipate problems before the kids arrive (rules, choices, room set-up, lesson preparation, back-up).
- Design the kind of class you would have enjoyed as a student but be conscious of different learning styles.
- Be sure the kids understand how they will use what you’re teaching in the “real world”—why should they learn this stuff?
- Treat the kids who make bad choices as you would expect to be treated in similar circumstances. Many of your most effective discipline techniques occur when there is not a problem (praise, redirection, connection).
- Make rules that make sense to you and your goals—then make sure the kids understand exactly what to do and why they’re doing it.
- Take care of 99.9% of your discipline problems yourself.
- The consequence for breaking a rule should be logical, consistent, and efficient. Make sure your administrators will back-up your rules and consequences.
- Kids pay far more attention to what you do than to what you say. Make sure that you are not actually creating discipline problems by your tone or actions (anger, disparaging remarks, ridicule, withholding affection).
- Remember that kids tend to act like you expect them to act. Be careful of labels.
- Let the kids see how much you enjoy your job.
Vickie Gill has taught high school English, reading, and journalism for 30 years in both California and Tennessee. Gill has won several teaching and community service honors and was a finalist for Tennessee State Teacher of the Year 2000. She is currently teaching part-time and works as a consultant for a school district in central California. She has a BA in English from San Jose State University and an MEd from Vanderbilt University. Vickie is the author of three Corwin bestsellers, including The Eleven Commandments of Good Teaching.