Silence has immense power in and of itself. Think about awkward silences in an elevator, or when you happen upon your ex boyfriend at the mall. Even a few brief seconds of silence can stretch for an eternity. Silence has two realms of implementation in the classroom: when you’re one-on-one with a student, and in a full-class setting. Some true-ish anecdotes will share the power of silence more than 1,000 pages of clinical, research-based recommendations ever could.
The Confession of Silence
The trick, then, is making your classroom run in a way that allows silence to speak volumes louder than the loudest screamer. The key to why silent teachers are the most effective can be summarized in four words, four spaces, and one mathematical symbol: consistent expectations + consistent consequences. When students know what is expected of them, and know what happens when they don’t meet the expectations, there’s no reason to ever say anything, and if you MUST say something, there’s no reason to ever speak above a whisper.
On my team (we’ll get to forming a team later, you need one) on time means your butt is placed on your assigned seat when the bell has stopped ringing. That is a clear expectation. Kneeling on your seat is late. Standing next to your seat is late. Sitting in the wrong seat is late. Looking out the window is late. Touching your seat with your hand is late. Sitting on another student’s lap is late. I could go on and on about the behaviors students have used to test my team’s rule. We enforce this expectation 100% of the time and it yields the same consequence for students 100% of the time. Without such clearly defined expectations, you can never reach the silent level of classroom management. When you try to enforce a rule like ‘be respectful,’ students, administrators, researchers, and parents can always argue because ‘respect’ has no agreed upon definition. You cannot list all of the behaviors constituted as ‘respectful’ nor can you ban all the behaviors that could possibly define ‘disrespectful.’
Expectations come later in the blog, in this section, we’ll focus on the silence that can grow from clear expectations. Once an expectation is established, it is the consistent consequences that allow you to remain silent. In the case of my team, being late for class is a simple, five-minute detention after school. The consequence is ALWAYS a simple, five-minute detention after school. Yelling at students for not meeting expectations will never yield the same results as a single consequence. “Seriously Devaun! You’re late again?! Don’t you know the rule is to be seated by the bell? You’re late! Why don’t you kids listen?! I never had this problem when… Tomorrow, you be in your seat by the bell or else… will happen next time” At this point, you know how I feel about next time.
Talking to students about the expectations they failed to meet will not yield the same results as a single consequence. “Devaun, being on time is an important skill to develop. One time when I was on time, I was actually given my first job. Can you believe it? I showed up at Bob Evans and I was the only one who was on time for my interview. Actually, Devaun, I was seventeen minutes early for my interview. Do you know what got me the job Devaun? I got the job because I was on time. I earned $6,253 over two years at that job. Being on time earned me $6,253. I trust that you’ll take punctuality more seriously next time. Let me tell you about the skills that allowed me to be seventeen minutes early…”
Whispering to students is more effective than the previous two methods because, as we established last chapter, whispering to a student is uncomfortable, and because of this, it is it’s own consequence. Anything but a consequence will just lead to some variety of the endless loop described in The Consta-Reminder.
When you establish a culture of consequences, students begin to manage themselves, allowing the teacher to be silent. The teacher no longer manages the class, but simply manages the consequences -- which are WAY easier to control than 12 year olds. This seems like an exaggeration, but an anecdote will clarify for you.
Pretty Girls From Florida and Behavioral Self Regulation
Imagine if everyone in our country had a firm understanding of the relationship between action and consequence! We probably wouldn’t have the highest rate of incarceration. We probably wouldn’t have the highest rate of obesity. We wouldn’t have huge national and personal debts that people work forever to never pay off. I digress, establishing a culture of management silence in your classroom will probably not solve national debt -- but I’m pretty sure researchers haven’t proved me wrong yet!
Consequences, not yelling, talking, or whispering change student behavior. In 2013, the first day my team enforced our behavioral expectations we had 25 students fail to meet our expectations. On the second day, once students knew that there was a clear, unavoidable consequence, we had 5 students fail to meet our expectations. By November, one teacher had gone into “reminder mode,” “disappointment mode, “and “next time” mode, and his students were, naturally, always inclined to ignore the behavioral expectations. When my students hear the first of three bells, they sprint to ensure their butts are in their assigned seats by the ending chime of the third bell, and then we start learning. Consequences stop me from spending learning time with behavioral reminders. Reminders are always a waste of learning time because the students who would respond to a reminder had already followed the rule, and the students who didn’t follow the rule are the students who only respond to a consequence. I’d mention the great drop in percentage the above change represents, but then I’d fall into the trap of sounding like a researcher. There was an even more dramatic drop in negative behavior in 2012. We never yell. We simply have consequences. Those are real life facts.
Naturally, the preceding anecdote shares how silence can be employed in a full-class setting. One advantage is students’ self regulation, but if I’m honest, students self regulating their behavior will likely be the exception, and not the rule. There are some way more realistic applications of silence as a classroom management tool.
Ms. Undertone made her superiority clear by catching Jeremy in the act of misbehavior. This strategy can be accomplished even without whispering, and when achieved silently, you don’t have the downfall of spending a minute out of your room with an ornery, misbehaving student, nor do you have the unfortunate experience of moving your mouth close to a student’s ear.
Much like whispering is better than talking, silence is better than whispering. Let’s say you’re wandering around your classroom as students are working in groups on a reading passage about photosynthesis and the accompanying graphic organizer and comprehension questions. When you talk to students, even at a whisper, it’s apparent that YOU are the teacher. If, instead, you walked by and noticed a group making an academic mistake, you could raise an eyebrow, and point back at the book. Instead of standing with that group for three minutes and explaining the mistake they made, such a silent prompt puts the onus on them to reflect about their mistake, revise, and find a better answer. I’d much rather my students be trained in the art of reflecting and finding the right answer than trained in the art of “Mr. Karpie, I don’t get this! What do I need to do? Explain it to me!” They do the latter quite naturally. Many teachers give away many answers and many free grades because of this natural tendency among students. I’d much rather they practice the former.
In the same situation, let’s say a student is staring out the window. Instead of saying “STOP LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW!” it establishes your superiority and omnipotence more to print a picture of a window, cut out the panes, and place it on the passage the student should be reading. In this way, the student is still alerted that he should focus on the reading, is still allowed to ‘look out the window’, but is also aware that you see everything in your classroom (more on this in a future chapter). Also, the only student that this management technique disrupts is the one looking out the window. Such a management need is not academic. Dealing with it immediately and silently, with the placement of a single paper, frees your time and words to help students through difficult academic problems. Again, using the window-pane technique (which I can confidently say is NOT research based) enforces your expectations without you as the teacher being the bad guy. This kind of thinking-ahead classroom management shows your students that you know them well enough to anticipate their every move. You are no longer a reactive manager, you’re a proactive one. Once, in the multimedia presentation I created for a day a substitute was in my room, an entire slide was devoted to “Danny, stop prank calling my classroom with your cellular phone.” As you may have guessed, Danny had a tendency to prank call my classroom from his cellular phone. While this slide did not apply for three out of five teaching periods on that day, it clearly established that I knew what Danny would do before Danny did it. Danny later mentioned to me that he was very impressed by my strategy -- no that is not a lie, and no, Danny was not the average student. The fact remains that Danny, a real student, hung up his real cellular phone and stopped disrupting a real class because of a simple, silent classroom management technique that allowed his teacher to be at a doctor’s appointment. The classes without Danny in them laughed because they knew Danny prank called teachers classrooms with his cellular phone when they had substitute teachers. The classroom with Danny in it laughed at Danny when the classroom phone was ringing for the 17th time as the slide popped up telling him to stop calling. Danny also placed a dollar in his letter to himself at graduation, because he knew inflation would make the dollar worth more than an Arizona Iced Tea by the time he graduated. Using a creative solution to a management problem seems to actually win you some street-credibility in my experience. “Yo, that Karpie guy had this window thing…” You get the picture.
Before you send me hate mail about how you don’t have time to print and cut windows while you teach, think about how many students have looked aimlessly out your window during your career, and ask yourself, is the ten minutes of prep period time to create ten fake paper windows worth the fun, silent, and whimsical solution to a problem that might otherwise end up in a disruptive argument? Heck, use the kids you actually give five-minute detentions to cut out the fake windows; then it doesn’t even cost you time. Also consider mirrors for the ceiling tile counters out there. Walk up and angle a mirror over them so they can read their paper through the mirror, and they almost always look back down at the paper. Reading through a mirror is obnoxious. Try it, you’ll agree.
The applications of silence listed above are minute in comparison to the myriad applications that silent classroom management could include. Some other fan favorites include offering a hard hat and safety goggles to the tattle tale who can never focus because she’s always crying about what other people do to her. It’s a silent solution, and the student either feels safe with the helmet on, or realizes her problems are not that big a deal, it’s all a bit silly, and she focuses back on her school work. Stuffed animals are also great classroom managers. One of my esteemed co workers would face her flight of penguin stuffed animals and figurines toward a particularly difficult student during high-stakes testing. For whatever reason, he didn’t misbehave when he knew the penguins were watching. To give you some indication of the absurd effectiveness of this recommendation, the student who worked so hard as a fourteen year old under the watchful eyes of penguins, when last I heard, was in jail for stabbing someone. Presumably, no penguins were present during his criminal transgression. It was silent, it was simple, and it worked. Penguin stuffed animals as guard dogs would never be recommended by research-based literature. You’re welcome. I can’t prove this, but I assume the results translate to populations full of dog-, cat-, or elephant-shaped stuffed animals. There is probably some form of deviation depending on the animal’s perceived cuteness-osity.
Volume is just one of the basic tools used to manage a classroom. There are many others, and, in conjunction with your newly honed silent managing techniques, they might just make your classroom run a bit smoother. Even if you never get past the basic, volume based classroom management skills, your classroom will run much smoother than someone who just plans on students’ great love for their class being enough to satisfy any management needs.
So much of the writing published about education is published by people who don't teach. I figured it was time for a teacher to write about teaching. I've been proud to teach 8th-grade ELA in Dunkirk City Schools since 2007, and to serve at Fredonia State University as an adjunct professor, teaching educational technology since 2017.