Education Commentary

Are Your Students High-Maintenance?

By Tracy McCalla — February 04, 2009 3 min read

May I throw this away?
Do we have homework?
May we use pen?
What are we doing today?
Do we need our books?
What page did you say we need to turn to again?
What did you say we should do when we are done?

As a classroom teacher, does this sound familiar? My five sections of 8th graders were draining me with the number of questions asked on a daily basis. No matter how clear my directives were, five minutes later students were asking questions concerning what they should do next. In addition, no matter how many times I told them they did not have to ask permission to throw something away or use my stapler or tape dispenser, students continued to ask.

During sixth period one day in November, I counted 19 questions in nine minutes. I realized that I needed to change my students’ behavior. I told them the truth. They were one of my favorite groups of students whom I had taught during my 21 years of teaching. I loved their personalities, their work ethic, and their behavior, but I had one complaint. They were high-maintenance.

There are three categories of high-maintenance questions, I explained.
1. Non-listening type questions: For example, I have previously stated what you are to do when you are finished but you ask, “What do we do when we are done?”
2. Functioning-type questions: For example, “Can we use pen?” “Can I use your stapler?” “Where should we put our tests?” The answers have always been the same to these questions, but they continued to be asked.
3. Future-type questions: These are questions that I am eventually going to answer if you are patient. For example, “Are we getting our tests back today?” “What are we doing today?”

Sensing a fierce competitive nature in my 8th graders, I had an idea. “Let’s start a contest and see which of my classes can ask the least number of high-maintenance questions in 12 weeks. The class who wins the contest will get a two-day holiday from social studies. Instead, they will get to watch a movie and have snacks.” I was correct; my students were competitive, and they were eager to start the competition and win. Two days later, after I proposed the idea to my other four sections, we were off and running.

For 12 weeks, I kept track of high-maintenance questions by class periods on the chalkboard. Most of the time, I said nothing but turned around and made a mark under the appropriate class period. Within days of initiating the contest, the number of high-maintenance questions dropped dramatically. On day three, a student called out, “Where do we put these when we are done?” and loud groans permeated the classroom. The positive use of peer pressure was incredible. Students thought before they asked because they did not want to be responsible for giving their class a mark. Listening skills were enhanced; I only had to give directions once.

Students also began to rely on one another to answer questions. Early in the competition, we established the rule, “Ask three before you ask me.” With this rule, students could ask other students a question as long as it caused little disruption. It turned out to be the perfect motto for our high-maintenance competition.

Although my 8th period class ultimately won the competition by having the least number of marks, all classes made tremendous improvement in reducing the number of high-maintenance questions.

Not only did I see a change in my students’ behavior, but I also saw a change in my own. I learned that I do not always state my directions or objectives as clearly as I think I do. On various occasions, I heard a student whisper to another student, “She did not tell us what we should do after finishing the last step. Does anyone know what we should do next?” I began to pay more attention to my directives to make sure that I was being precise. Additionally, it caused me to reflect on the directives that I give at the beginning of the year. Perhaps I had helped create high-maintenance students during the first few weeks of school, by not giving specific instructions with constant reinforcement. Next fall I will be more specific with my directives and objectives, and if that doesn’t change their behavior, we will start the high-maintenance game much earlier in the year.