Miss Wimple, a sixty year old, thirty year veteran teacher, is never questioned about anything she does. When her student Josh makes a silly monster face at his classmate when her back is turned, Miss Wimple snaps her fingers toward the time out desk, and Josh walks there immediately and focuses back on his paper -- the established norm for harming your classmates chances to learn.
Later in the day, three students haven’t finished their Frayer Method vocabulary assignment because they were daydreaming and staring out the window while everyone else worked. It’s time for recess, and the three students line up for playground time with the rest of the class. Miss Wimple simply stands in the door. The three students get antsy in line, knowing they didn’t meet the expectations required for recess. They move from foot to foot. They wring their hands. They look down, and at each other, and at the clock. Miss Wimple raises her eyes to the class. One student turns around and looks at the three students with incomplete work. In under a minute, the students with incomplete work get out of line, grab their assignment, and walk over to Mr. Mulkin’s room to finish their assignment -- the established procedure when students need to finish work during recess.
At a demolition derby last summer, there were clearly marked ‘out of bounds’ lines. Cars needed to stay in bounds in order to compete, the announcer made the rules very clear. The derby started, and in no time, one big, black Dodge strategically backed a green Ford into a corner, and promptly out of bounds. The Dodge turned around to start terrorizing other vehicles when it was rumped by the green Ford! Shouting commenced and the derby was stopped. After heated moments, it was announced that because the track was so muddy, the out of bounds marks were more guidelines than actual rules. So instead of enforcing the out of bounds rule, the referee decided that as long as cars tried to stay in the lines it was ok. If the car was really out of bounds, then it would be a disqualification but if they were close-ish to in bounds it was ok.
At a professional hockey game, there was a trivia contest. Get the question right, and you earned tickets to a rap concert at the stadium. What a great opportunity! The challenge was to listen to fifteen seconds of music, and identify which of the rapper’s songs you were hearing. Naturally, everyone likes to see a winner, so the stadium chose to play the fifteen seconds of the song refrain where the lyrics ARE the title of the song. When the music stopped, and the hockey fan was asked the title of the song, he said “Willis.?.?.?” Willis was not the name of the song. Naturally, the stadium people, who have not read this blog, gave the fan another chance. “Will...ish...is?.?.?” the fan said.
The announcer had no choice! He announced that Willishis is not in fact the song title, and he was sorry that the fan did not earn the free tickets. Twenty seconds later, the camera focused back on the disappointed fan, and the announcer decided that even though the fan answered incorrectly, he would still receive the tickets.
Wow. That was a complicated, three-parted parable. It’s hard to follow, I know. Obviously, Miss Wimple doesn’t give multiple chances, and she enforces clear consequences silently. Everyone knows how to succeed, and they know the consequences, or more appropriately, the follow-up that occurs when expectations are not met. There is no chance for argument or explosion in Miss Wimple’s class.
Fast forward to the demolition derby. Green Ford knew the rules, and chose not to follow them. This caused the referee to be in an awkward position. It feels mean to disqualify someone! Maybe he didn’t listen when the rules were shared. Green Ford guy deserves another chance! What does this decision allow for though? What does this one decision cause to happen to the rules? What was once a clear rule, when broken, was amended to be fuzzier and harder to break.
What would have happened if Green Ford guy had won the derby? I know Black Dodge guy, for one, would have exploded with argument, and rightly so. What would have happened if Green Ford guy had honorably recognized he was bested, and left the competition? The rule probably would have stood until it needed to be enforced, at which point the referee would have backed down from confrontation. All of a sudden, the results from two days of derby would come into question causing, you guessed it, more arguments and explosions.
The same problem can be seen in the hockey game trivia contest. The contests are to entertain the crowd during down time. It was entertaining when the guy didn’t get the question right, when it was so easy. The fact that he did not win the tickets, to some extent, made the contest entertaining. No one wants to watch a sporting event where no one scores points, there are no penalties, and everyone ties all the time. No one wants to watch a television show where the characters are always happy and ok. No one wants to read a story about a year when nothing bad happened. Drama is created by consequences, both good and bad. We love stories about extreme weight loss. We watch stories about underdogs working hard to defeat their better-funded rivals. We love stories where the bad guy finally gets what he deserves from the morally upstanding hero! By giving the losing contestant the winning tickets anyway, the hockey stadium immediately killed the drama of the event, and thereby made it entirely ineffective at entertaining the audience during the downtime of the hockey game itself. Furthermore, they opened themselves up to criticism, arguments, and explosions should they ever not give the winning prize to a losing contestant. ...if only Miss Wimple were in charge...
Aim for the best behaved students and the best learning atmosphere. To achieve superlative status is not important. It will never happen. For one, researchers will tell you that identifying ‘best’ when it comes to behavior and atmosphere are not quantifiable, easily defined terms, so it’s impossible to prove. If it’s impossible to achieve, why strive for it? Because aiming for the best behaved students and the best learning atmosphere, even when it never happens, is enough to improve student behavior and learning atmosphere.
As with all things management, you have to make expectations quantifiable for kids, and you have to have consequences as concrete and unyielding as the expectations. You might explain that during the discussion today, you expect no more than three off-task words at any one time, whether shared as a whisper or shared out loud as an emotional response to a question. When someone shares more than three off-task words, you don’t hate them, but it’s your job to create the best learning environment possible for kids. That’s what they pay you for afterall, to teach kids. So you explain that more than three off-task words will DESTROY the learning environment. You can’t have that, so students who speak more than three off-task words at one time will still get credit for the assignment, but because they can’t earn the credit in a discussion forum, they will have to earn the credit by writing their thoughts and feelings in response to each talking point. Because they can’t responsibly interact with their classmates to hear opposing viewpoints, they’ll need to read some passages from historical figures with opposing viewpoints. It’s no big deal, you insist, it’s the same assignment. It’s simply better catered for the chatty student to learn in a non-distracting environment where they won’t be off task.
Are kids laying on the floor? Yes. Are kids sitting with friends? Yes. Are anyone's eyes NOT on learning materials? No. Are anyone's hands causing disruption? No. Manage your classroom based on what truly matters. Eyes, and hands. If eyes and hands are where they belong, behavior is where it belongs, and learning flourishes.
The three words rule works better than the three strikes rule. For one, it is almost impossible for anyone to say anything in under three words, so effectively, you’re enforcing no off-task discussion during the discussion. Also, for the future lawyers and adorable scamps that thrive on the adrenaline of bad behavior, it offers them a structured outlet to vent their energy. They can look to their classmate and whisper “what’s for lunch” and their equally savvy classmate can whisper back “taco pizza”. Allowing such simple discussion will not destroy the atmosphere of the discussion, and, at worst, will alert you to a delicious and reasonably priced lunch entree. If they say any more though, each is removed from the discussion. Not something they want. Even if everyone has such a conversation during each talking point, it does not ruin the classroom structure.
Plus, words are clearly defined and easy to understand. Students and administrators can argue about what constitutes a strike, but a word is pretty obvious for everyone. This rule is also good because, as explained above, it does not remove any students from the learning environment, it simply offers them a new medium better suited to their learning styles based on the formative observations you’ve made. The consequence isn’t a punishment anymore, now it is differentiation. Instead of being looked at as the manager who has to throw kids out all the time, you’re looked at as the teacher who differentiates every lesson. Success. Explosionless, argumentless success.
This goes right back to the three strike rule, which says “It’s ok to break rules or otherwise cause disruptions twice.” Is that what the best behaved students would do? No. Instead, expect that no one will break a rule or cause a disruption even once. When they do, hand them a writing-intensive version of the work everyone else is discussing with their partners, and explain that his new assignment is only writing intensive because his own behavior prevents you from observing him interacting with his classmates. Explain that you can’t observe him interacting with his classmates because when he was allowed to interact with his classmates, he caused them to learn less. Explain that you don’t hate him, and you think he should stay, but it’s not your decision. This decision was made primarily by him, who failed to meet the expectations you’re required to uphold by his classmates first, their parents second, and the administrators of your building third.
Parents and students trust you to provide the best learning environment possible for their children, and to tell him that his behavior is stopping his classmates from learning. You don’t mind, but THEY certainly mind. Tell him you can’t wait to see him back tomorrow, because you really need to hear his voice contributing to the academic discussions, and then send him to the class next door to work quietly in the back. I’d even check in with him later to see if the quieter atmosphere worked better for him. Make it obvious that it’s a teaching and learning decision, not an “I hate you get out of my sight” decision. This brings us to the next trick to eliminate arguments and explosions.
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.