Posted by Ariel Sacks on Friday, 08/16/2013
As a new teacher, I was concerned with the important things—lesson planning, student learning, and building relationships. I wasn’t an “old school” teacher who sweated the little things (Yes, I was totally trying to be “cool”.) As long as students were engaged, I was happy. Some of you are probably laughing at me as you read this, because you know I was naive to think that small behaviors in the classroom have no relationship to student learning. I gradually figured out how to sweat the small stuff in a way that still seemed to put important things, like student learning, first.
Here are five pesky behaviors I’ve decided aren’t allowed in my eighth grade classroom. They are not “rules” I post on the walls. I deal with most of these behaviors as they come up. However, I make sure to explain to students why they aren’t appropriate for the classroom environment, so I don’t seem arbitrary or overly controlling. Because I've arrived at my position based on experience, I am very confident in my authority on these small matters. A calm, authoritative tone that shows the matter is not personal is key to shutting these behaviors down before they become issues.
1. Loud entry into class. In most schools, students tend to be loud in hallways. Hallways and classrooms, however, are two distinct spaces, with very different functions. The way students enter the classroom sets a tone for themselves and their classmates for the period. What’s the tone of an ideal learning environment? I ask students. How does it feel? It might be happy and upbeat, but it needs to have space for quiet thinking as well. Shouting as one enters a classroom doesn’t create the tone of the learning environment we want. Whether you require a silent entry or just a calm one, it’s worth having some talking points prepared when students test the boundaries.
The quiet entry can become a tempting moment for an attention-craving adolescent to claim as his or her own. Find ways to give a student like that some attention at the start of class that won’t disrupt the environment, such a classroom job (watering the plants, passing out notebooks, etc.) or an energetic high five.
If a student has anxiety about the class (for academic or social reasons), shouting to a friend across the room and creating a disturbance is a way to deflect that feeling. The student puts everyone's attention on the teacher—testing your authority and character through your reaction. For this reason, it’s especially important not to show anger toward the student, as annoying as the behavior may be, because this will get in the way of you and the student addressing the underlying problem. Sometimes, showing that you won’t “dislike” the student for this behavior, but you will redirect him or her actually solves the problem, because you’ve begun to gain the student’s trust. In other cases, additional problem solving will be necessary (not in that moment, but later).
2. Leaving backpacks on during class. Some students seem to have anxiety parting with their book bags during class. Students have various reasons for this—some are conditioned to protect their property by keeping it close at all times. Some adolescents feel physically awkward, and keeping their backpacks on makes them feel less exposed (same goes for coats in the winter time, even if it’s warm enough in the room). Either way, I have found that this small behavior sends a message to the group that the student is not fully present in the classroom. The student is uncomfortable for some reason.
On the first day of school, after students enter, I’ll publicly ask them all to remove their bags and put them on the backs of their chairs or on the floor, “if you haven’t already.” If a student clearly hears me, but doesn’t follow this direction, I will try to address it with him or her individually, rather than having the interaction in front of the class, because the reasons for this behavior are not always simple. However, I won’t bend on the rule—just try to find a solution that the student feels comfortable with. Often, simply acknowledging the student's perspective is enough to earn the student's flexibility. (“I understand that your bag is your property and you want to keep it close, but I can’t bend on this rule. What I can do is make sure no one feels like they can touch your belongings.”)
3. Sitting with book bags on laps during class. The reasons for this behavior also vary. Some students want to keep their book bag out of reach of other students and don’t want the bag to get dirty resting on the floor. However, students often want to rest their bag in their lap so they can slickly check their phone and send some texts during class. That is a distraction for them and others, so I definitely don’t allow it. Again, if a student is defiant about the placement of the bag, I’ll try to address it privately in the beginning of the year to figure out what’s going on; however, once we’ve established the expectation and discussed any obstacles, I’ll be very strict on this.
4. Grooming during class. This is one of my biggest classroom pet peeves! Whether it’s boys obsessively brushing their short haircuts, or girls trying to do one another’s hair or put on make-up during class, grooming can easily become a big distraction. The next thing you know, someone takes out lotion for their dry hands and four other students suddenly “need” lotion. Then it somehow spills all over another student’s desk. I could actually go on and on about the chain reactions that a little innocent grooming can create in the classroom… but I won’t.
So, grooming is not allowed in class. My message to students about this? We need to arrive to class ready to focus on learning. Any emergency grooming must be dealt with in the bathroom. Most things are not emergencies though. I explain this by describing the expectations for behavior in the professional world. Brushing your hair during a business meeting makes you look unprofessional. Doing your nails in a work meeting might even get you fired!
5. Eating during class. This is sometimes a tough one for me to enforce. I feel for the student who arrives to school in the morning hungry, because she didn’t have time to eat that egg and cheese sandwich before the first bell, because the line at the corner store was too long. I do understand this. I have also been known to occasionally eat something during class. However, eating easily turns into a distraction, because kids want to share with each other. The intention is great, but conflict will quickly arise when there isn’t enough for everyone. And this will distract students from their work.
Even worse, if word gets around that you allow eating in your classroom (while most other teachers don’t), students will start bringing food specifically to eat in your class. The next thing you know, everyone will know that Tommy brings chips to English class and everyone will start making excuses to walk past Tommy’s desk. Tommy loves the attention and starts bringing lots and lots of bags of chips, and the focus of your students has quickly drifted far from academics.
Every now and then, if a student asks to eat some of his sandwich and he looks really hungry, I’ll tell him he has 30 seconds to discreetly eat whatever he can of his sandwich, and that’s it. This usually takes care of any real hunger emergency. (Diabetic students have special privileges when it comes to eating.) If I eat something, and students catch me, I make a joke of it, exaggerating the unfairness of it. “Sorry guys. I’m the only one who gets to eat in here! I can eat, and you can’t, and that’s because I’ve already graduated 8th grade. One day, you can become a teacher and eat in class whenever you want...” This seems to work with middle school age students, in part because they know I’m not a power-tripping kind of teacher, so it’s funny to see me mocking my own “abuse” of power.
What pesky behaviors do you disinvite to your class? Since my experience is with middle school students, what “small stuff” do you sweat or forget for your age group?