One of the frustrations that I think has been common to every teacher, in every location, across the history of time, is that of having your instruction interrupted by someone who’s not paying attention. And I lead with that, because I think it’s important to have the larger context:
Students being off-task is not a problem that is unique to you, caused solely because of you, or that you can ever solve 100%. There is no classroom in which every student is totally engaged every minute of every lesson.
You want to make sure you’re reaching all kids, but it’s impossible to reach all of them at all times. The goal is to engage every student, but not necessarily all at the same time, and certainly not every minute. At any given point in your day, at least a few are going to be tuning out and allowing their minds to wander.
The same people telling you that you should have 100% engagement at all times are unable to get 100% engagement among teachers in staff meetings and workshops, so take any pressure you feel in this area with a grain of salt. We’re all aiming for 100% but no one’s getting that. Engage them all, just not all at once, all the time.
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Since we know some off-task behavior and lack of engagement is a given, how do we respond?
I want to clarify before I go further that I’m talking about normal classroom disruptions like daydreaming, whispering, talking, playing around, doing things to make the other kids laugh, calling out, and so on. Please don’t listen to this episode with your most challenging student in mind and think, “This will never work, this kid throws desks, this kid is not neurotypical and needs more support than I can offer.” That is a different situation and a different podcast topic.
I’m talking about the little interruptions to your instruction all day long that can feel like death by a thousand paper cuts. I’m talking about the behaviors that almost every kid in your class exhibits at some point during the day. Even without any extreme behaviors in your classroom, an excellent lesson that should take 30 minutes can take 45 minutes if we’re responding to minor disruptions and off-task behavior constantly.
I’ve certainly found myself in that trap:
- One group of kids would be off-task during whole-class instruction, and I’d stop the entire lesson for a 30-second lecture to everyone about paying attention
- A pair of students would be playing around during independent work, and I’d jolt the entire class out of their concentration by yelling across the room about it
- One student would give me an attitude, and I’d derail the whole class’ lesson for an entire minute in a standoff, sometimes culminating in an office referral which took up even more instructional time as I called the office, filled out the form, etc.
Given that the average class has an off-task behavior happening somewhere in the room constantly, these inefficient responses were sometimes repeated every couple of minutes. If I fell into that pattern, I’d be constantly interrupting myself and pulling kids’ attention away from their work.
It’s already hard enough to get kids to focus, and the last thing I wanted to do was derail their thinking. So why did I make those choices? Mostly because I was exhausted and not taking care of myself. I had neither the energy nor the patience to respond to kids the way I should have.
So when I started to feel frustrated and disrespected, reprimanding and lecturing in front of the whole class was the easiest response. And, because many of the other teachers in the school did things that way, I didn’t question it. It was the status quo.
This changed for me one day when I interrupted my own instruction to give yet another lecture to a student about paying attention and heard another child sigh, “Come on, I just want to LEARN THIS.” I looked into the face of this child who was rarely off-task and realized how much instruction she was missing out on … not because of the other kids, which is who I normally blamed. She was missing out on instruction because of the way I responded to the other kids.
I could complain all day long about how certain students’ behaviors were disruptive, but I had the power to choose my reaction. I could choose to respond in a way that created an even bigger distraction or minimize the interruption.
I began to change my focus from eliminating all behavioral issues to maximize learning time. This is a major mindset shift, if you really unpack it. The goal most of us have is to eliminate behavioral issues: to have no interruptions or distractions at all. Of course, that’s an impossible goal we’ll never reach, so we’re going to experience failure all day long and get frustrated.
Shifting the goal from getting rid of off-task behavior to instead maximizing learning time is very different. Now the focus is on something realistic, and something you CAN control. Disruptions are expected and anticipated and planned for. They don’t throw you off your course because they are part of the course. You only have to respond in a way that helps you make the most of your instructional time.
When the goal is to eliminate interruptions, you feel like you have to address every single one of them every single time and belabor the point and instill fear in kids so they won’t dare be disruptive again.
When the goal is to maximize learning time, it feels more comfortable to set your ego aside for the greater purpose of keeping the majority of the class on task.
This takes experimentation and a lot of practice. But over time, I learned to make my default response to misbehavior something that maximizes learning time:
- When a pair of students were playing around during independent work, I walked over to them to hold a conversation in a low voice so the rest of the class didn’t notice. Shouting across the room “stop talking” was easier and more satisfying, but it made every kid in the class look up from what they were doing and try to find the person I’d just yelled at. I created a bigger distraction than the kids.
- When one group of kids was off-task during whole-class instruction, I had the class kids do something quick and meaningful (like a turn-and-talk to summarize, or read something briefly to themselves) while I walked over to the group of off-task kids and corrected the behavior quietly. In other words, I got the rest of the class engaged in doing something that kept them focused on the topic while I was addressing the behavioral issues of one child or one group, instead of making all the kids sit and listen while I did it and distracting them further.
- When a student gave me an attitude during a lesson or challenged me in a way that I couldn’t ignore, I avoided a standoff that would escalate the situation and pull the entire class’ attention away from learning. Instead, I’d say “I’ll deal with you on that later; right now, let’s get everybody prepared for this activity,” and move immediately into my next directions for the others. Once the rest of the class was engaged in learning, I could then issue the appropriate consequence privately to the student.
If I was in my feelings, this was very hard to do. It would feel like putting the student in their place and letting them know that I was in charge was the most important thing.
But it absolutely wasn’t. The most important thing was helping as many kids as possible meet the learning objectives for that lesson. That’s why they’re in my class: to learn about the curriculum, not to learn what happens when they disrespect Ms. Watson.
I made the learning time the priority and only addressed the misbehavior once I knew I could do so without compromising the instruction of the rest of the class.
This takes planning and practice. Since we know that kids WILL be off-task — that is a guarantee and is normal human behavior that is to be expected — we can plan our response in advance. We have to choose how we want to act when students are disrupting our lessons.
In many customer service situations, representatives are prepped for common scenarios they will encounter. Take a helpline for a major hotel chain, or cable company, or something similar —they have a manual they are working from that helps them depersonalize their responses and not become emotional. They do this because, like teachers, they are often subjected to emotional abuse from the people they are responsible for helping. They will have people cuss at them, talk over them, not listen, argue, and so on.
Being prepared for negative responses is part of the job. This is the radical acceptance we talked about in Episode 176, right? We’re not saying that behavior is okay, we’re simply accepting reality instead of working against it.
The reality is that kids will do the same ten annoying, disruptive, and sometimes disrespectful things all day long in the classroom. So instead of trying to power through a lesson and hope it goes well, then reacting to misbehavior, we can instead choose our actions in advance. We can have a playbook we’re working with.
Just like those customer service reps, the best companies have them practice those scenarios in advance. So the moment someone becomes argumentative with them, it feels like a familiar and therefore non-threatening scenario.
The human brain will kick into fight or flight mode when we feel threatened. That’s how we end up screaming at a kid for whispering to their friends while we’re teaching — we have a goal we need to achieve and we feel threatened by the possibility that we won’t be able to achieve that goal because of the interruption, and we react out of that fear.
But when you have a chosen action you have practiced repeatedly, your brain will default into believing “this is not a threat, we know what this is, we have experienced this, this is normal, we have a plan for it, we have a script for it,” and you can go into an auto-pilot response mode.
I’ll give you an example. I had a science teacher in high school who never once argued with us. She’d give us a direction to complete an assignment independently, and we’d question her: “Why do we have to do the whole thing? Can’t we skip this part? Can’t we have an extra day to do it? Can’t we turn it in late? Can’t we talk while we’re working?” You know, all the things students have always said to their teachers.
But after the first couple weeks of school, she stopped answering our questions. Instead, she’d smile and say calmly, “I am firm, fair, and consistent, in that order.”
That drove us crazy. We’d sigh and roll our eyes, and she didn’t respond to that either. If anyone dared to keep pushing her, she’d repeat the same line again: “I am firm, fair, and consistent, in that order.”
I still remember it to this day, obviously. She could not be bated and she did not defend herself. Her response to us was always aligned with her teaching methodology, not based on whims or anger or frustration with us.
I’m not saying that’s an ideal response, nor am I saying that you should never try to help kids understand your reasoning. But when kids are just complaining, “Do we have to, I don’t want to, how come I’m being punished and he’s not, etc.” … don’t get sucked into an endless back and forth. You can lose a quarter of your instructional time doing that with kids.
Instead, choose a response in advance that will be appropriate for your teaching context, your students, and your personality. You might want to have a couple of go-to lines or facial expressions. Practice that action (or actions) over and over, like a customer service representative preparing for an unpleasant phone call. Most of the frustrating stuff they deal with — like the frustrating stuff we deal with — is fairly predictable. It’s the same type of behavior and complaints over and over, and if you can have a default response prepared for those scenarios, you’ll have a lot more energy left when you face an unusual situation that requires more emotional labor.
Shifting your focus from eliminating misbehavior and interruptions to simply maximizing learning time by planning how to act rather than just reacting to problems is a game-changer, I promise! This is going to keep you from exploding over minor things and overreacting, AND it’s going to keep you from wasting class time with lectures, arguing, and so on.
If you want to stop feeling like you are expending energy all day long and yet barely getting through your lessons and the kids aren’t really learning … examine your response to student behavior. You are responsible for your own choices, not student choices.
And, you are responsible for making sure your needs are met to prevent overwhelm and exhaustion so you can show up for kids in the most healthy way possible.
Self-care is absolutely critical when it comes to the ability to regulate our emotions and act rather than react. Your essential self — your true self — is patient, kind and compassionate. So when you respond in ways that are not like that, consider why: Do you need sleep? Are you hangry? Do you need a break? Tune into your own needs throughout the day.
You might recognize when you need to use your lunch break to sit in a quiet, dark room and just decompress for a few minutes. Give yourself small breaks throughout the day to re-center, just 30 seconds here and there while the kids are working. Breathe, clear your head, and refocus on your purpose.
You might also have a meditation practice like we talked about in Episode 173 called Breathe for Change: Teacher tools for well-being and mindfulness. Take care of yourself so you can show up the way you want to for kids.
“The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.” –George Bernard Shaw
When you feel cornered, trapped or bated by your students–like you have no choice but to respond to them with anger or punishment or lecture–remember that your choices ARE limited when you’re reacting to them.
But the possibilities are numerous when you decide to ACT instead of react: when you choose an intentional response based on who you are and how you want to feel instead of an impulsive response to the energy of others.
This episode is sponsored by ViewSonic Education. They’re the creator of ViewBoard, an interactive whiteboard for the classroom and myViewBoard, a digital whiteboarding app. Together they help teachers create engaging lessons at home and present them in the classroom. Search the internet, open your favorite apps, and play educational videos — all from your digital whiteboard. Finally, a solution that teaches the way you do. To learn more, visit viewsonic.com/education.
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