Choices and Chances lead to Explosions
Offering multiple chances also blurs lines that need to be clear. Behavior that helps students learn is always acceptable. Behavior that harms students chances to learn is never acceptable. If you establish a classroom where this distinction isn’t clear, students don’t always need to help each other learn. Instead, they need to decide when their behavior should help each other, and when they don’t need to help each other. I’d much rather they focus on word choice in my classroom, or document inspection in social studies, or following a procedure in science, and most of all, on accurate saw control in technology. Whether or not to follow the rules should never be a choice in a student’s or a teacher’s mind.
When students get multiple chances, behavior that harms their classmates chances to learn is sometimes ok. Sometimes is a dangerous word to use to describe your classroom management strategies. Instead of focusing on teaching, the teacher ends up keeping tallies on a whiteboard, or a mental tally which they announce to the problem student in front of their peers. “That’s strike two Dontrell!” Dontrell really has no choice but to scream an obscenity to show that he won’t back down from your audience-building, learning-distracting, rage-fostering management technique. Stories will be told of you in the cafeteria, but you won’t come out looking like a window screaming demigod, that’s for sure.
Multiple chances make students more likely to argue with you. “This is your first chance” the talking or whispering teacher might share with Monica, a student who chats with her neighbor. Monica might argue that the behavior wasn’t her fault. After all, Suzie spread rumors about her on social media last night. Come her second chance, Monica’s confident you’re picking on her, because she saw Gerard doing the same thing she’s doing and you haven’t said anything to Gerard yet. Now that you’ve talked to her twice, every time you crouch to help a student she is rolling her eyes to her friends, making adorable pen stabby motions at the back of your head when you turn around, and in extreme circumstances, throwing up the time honored single finger salute. In short, Monica’s building an audience for her grand finale.
Other students besides her will misbehave that period, and you will give out more first and second chances, but that Monica really makes you mad! You know she’s up to something, but you just can’t catch her. Students are tricky. When you finally silence the class for your well-planned, research-based wrapup, Monica pounces on the moment of silence to say to her neighbor “Oh, can I have help summarizing the final paragraph?” You, naturally, go off your rocker because that’s the strike three you’ve been waiting for to finally dole out your miniscule, five-minute detention consequence!
All multiple chances bought you in this parable is a week talking-to by union representatives and principals and, worst case scenario, reporters and lawyers, about why you gave a detention when a student was requesting academic assistance, and why you ignored her cry for help when she brought up how Suzie bullied her last night. You come out as the bad guy, and she never serves her five-minute detention, but thankfully, you avoid Dignity Act prosecution.
Multiple chances offer students the choice to behave well. They also offer students the choice to behave poorly more than once before anything happens to them. When behavior that harms the learning environment is allowed to happen (because that’s essentially what multiple chances means: students are allowed to behave in a way that harms the learning environment) arguments and explosions will flourish. What then, is the solution? Send students out of your classroom every time they blink when they should be focused on your lecture, or presentation, or assignment?
The answer is easy. Behavior that harms the learning environment is never acceptable. Ever. No, it’s not acceptable the day after Jason’s grandfather died. No, it’s not acceptable even though Theresa has been a model student all year, and it was just this once. No, it is not acceptable even though a behavioral infraction will keep Jeremy benched during the big game and he will hate you forever. No, it is not acceptable the day before a two-week vacation. Behavior that harms the learning environment is never acceptable. Ever. The answer is easy.
Sending a student out of your classroom doesn’t have to be a big deal, and when you establish that it happens every time any student harms the learning environment, you’ll actually have to send out less students than the teacher who lets everything go until February and then gives up on “these kids” who are “so bad this year.” Notice the list of all the ways to politely kick a kid our of your classroom to see a bundle of ways to send a kid to a different learning situation to the benefit of all students -- aka kick out one ‘bad’ kid so that nineteen kids can learn in peace and happiness. There are, of course, other tricks besides limited choices and chances to help enforce unyielding rules in a way that still keeps students, parents, and administration happy. There are a lot of egos to placate in a classroom - your own not least among them, and classrooms run most smoothly when most egos are placated, and most emphasis is placed on learning, not behaviors.
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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.