Published Online: October 13, 2010

Teacher Eyes on the Wrong Prize?

In my double period 9th grade English class last week, two boys who sit in the second-to-the-back-row were clearly very sleepy. During our “practice reading” time (the first 20 minutes of class when students read a book of their choice), they kept on putting their heads down.

I went over to speak with them, and told them that I could understand sitting in a school desk and wanting to fall asleep. In fact, I said, just last week I fell asleep at an English Department meeting. My close friend and colleague (and co-author with me of an upcoming book on teaching writing to English-language learners) was running the meeting and woke me up. I then went out, got a drink of water, and came back refreshed.

But, I continued, I should have done that before I fell asleep—sometimes we just have to “suck it up” and take responsibility. I told the students that if they were sleepy, they could ask for a hall pass to get a drink of water, stand in the back of the room and read, or they could sit on the desk right behind them as long as they were just reading—having to sit up should keep them awake. I also said that I was very open to hearing other ideas from them about what they could do to stay awake, and how I could possibly help.

Their ears perked up at the idea of sitting on the desk and reading, so the two of them did it and were soon engrossed in their books. A few minutes later, three other boys in that same row came up to me and said they were sleepy, too, and asked if they could sit on the desks behind them. I told them that would be OK, as long as they were just reading and not trying to show off.

Soon, five teenage boys were sitting silently on desks in the back of the room, all clearly focused on reading their books. It would have made quite a picture—one I would have taken with my brand new iPhone if I had thought of it.

Who knows if they will want to continue the practice, but I think there is a useful lesson for me in this experience, and perhaps for other classroom teachers as well.

We need to keep “our eyes on the prize.” The prize, in this case, was three-fold:

• Students should enjoy reading, and do so in a way that is not disruptive to anyone else.

• Students should learn that if they are having a problem, they need to take responsibility for fixing it (and, by the way, this will connect to a lesson I’m planning on the importance of getting enough sleep).

• My relationship with these students (still developing in these early weeks of the school year) should be constructive and open, which will only help me be a more effective teacher for them and help them to want to learn more.

Of course, I could have decided that the “prize” was compliance, and just kept on going back to them, telling them to keep their heads up, or ordering them to go outside. Or punishing them in some other way. But where’s the learning in that?

Obviously, there are times in class when it is easier to be flexible than others. But how often do we ignore the opportunity to take advantage of flexibility and instead respond punitively out of habit—without thinking of the ground we might gain by following a different course? I just wonder how many times all of us, including me, keep our eyes on the wrong prize.

The next day, everybody chose to read in their seats. However, at one point, one of those same students put his head down. I waited for a minute to see what might happen. Would he decide to do something that would keep him awake? But before he had a chance, his friend who sits at the next desk quickly poked him gently and said, “Why don’t you sit on the desk?”

For me, that’s a prize worth keeping an eye on. How about you?

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