Isaiah sat with his arms folded across an empty classroom during a short, five-minute detention. “I don’t get why I’m here, I didn’t do anything wrong!” He screamed. His teacher looked back and tilted his head as a puppy might when the puppy thinks you have a treat behind your back, but he’s not quite sure. Several tense seconds passed. “Well she started it! And Jim was doing it too!” Isaiah raged on as his cheeks flushed red. His teacher tilted his head back to it’s normal orientation, lifted his right eyebrow, and leaned forward onto his desk.
Several more seconds passed. “Mrs. Inconsistent lets us do it all the time, I don’t get why it’s such a big deal to you.” At this point, Isaiah was muttering under his breath. His shoulders were slumped forward a bit, and he squinted his eyes in thought. His teacher took a sip from his coffee cup (which had been empty for hours, he just did it for effect), and then resumed his same stoic position. Isaiah looked at the clock as more seconds of his life passed by awkwardly. He looked out the window, then looked at his desk, and mumbled, “It won’t happen again.” His teacher let the silence reign a few precious seconds longer, then nodded once to indicate that Isaiah could leave.
This anecdote shares how silence can be employed in a one-on-one detention or hallway situation. Kids are great at taking directions like “grab your materials” and picking them apart by “grabbing” their materials from the supply cabinet, setting them back down in the supply cabinet, and walking back to their seat without them because you didn’t technically say “carry your materials back to your seat with you and set them on your desk.” Silence avoids this issue.
By employing silence, Isaiah’s teacher allowed Isaiah to reason with himself about what he did. Kids know when they do something wrong. Often they’re looking to their teacher to fill the role of ‘bad guy’ to give them justification for their actions. Not saying anything really doesn’t give a student any leg to stand on to justify their bad behavior. No student ever told a story that went something like “Yea, that Karpie guy, he didn’t say anything to me, then he took a sip of his coffee, and I got him back so good by doing…” Students tell stories all the time that sound like “Yea, that teacher said this to me, so I said that to her, and she said this to me in response, and I was like…” I don’t want students talking about how I manage their behavior in a story. That would destroy the element of the unknown. I just want them to behave better. By being a boring, silent character, it’s possible to achieve better behavior while avoiding being cast as the teacher that the students hate.
Silence in this instance can also help prevent you from saying anything that can be misconstrued by parents or administrators. I’ve definitely had parents call to complain about what I’ve said in conferences, phone calls, and meetings, and I’ve definitely had administrators complain about what I’ve said at meetings, professional development, and in my classroom, but I’ve never once had anyone complain about what I didn’t say.
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.