Early in my career, I didn’t have big reservations about yelling at a class. It was the only way to get through. Sometimes I needed to vent, and I felt better afterward. Students needed to know my limits. Yelling knocked them off-balance.
Wait. Beyond the first sentence, nothing in the above paragraph is true.
Yelling gets through to no one. Yes, I’ve done my share, but have learned it makes me feel angrier (not better) and embarrassed. Yelling shows my limitations—not my limits. Regrettably, hearing a teacher rant is common, so yelling doesn’t really keep students off-balance. Many kind of like it.
Several years ago, I was teaching kids in my lab-based engineering class, and it seemed like just about every one of them had found a way to go “off-task.” I had tried redirecting. I had called out a couple students by name. And I had sent one student out of class. I was aware of my frustration, of the building anger. So: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ... and no BOOM!
I went silent, using hand gestures to get my students’ attention. I started pointing at students, directing them to their seats. A funny thing happened: The students went silent, too. No one even said, “Why? I’m doing my work!” or “I’m not doing anything!”
What on earth was Mr. Merz doing? This wasn’t how teachers were supposed to act when the class got out of control.
I signaled for them to get out a pen and paper. If anyone had a question, they mimed it and I answered by nodding or shaking my head. I went to the overhead (no computers then), put on a clean sheet, and began writing something like this:
“Write down every word. Do not talk. Any student who talks or doesn’t copy gets a referral. This is no longer a lab class. We are only going to take notes and have tests. It’s easier that way for me, and you’re not doing the lab work anyway. A couple of you are being punished unfairly, but as I looked around the room, EVERY SINGLE TABLE had people clowning. The students who are innocent probably understand my desperation and support my attempt to create a learning environment. But that’s not what we have right now. For crying out loud, you’re going to high school next year and many of you are still acting like you should be in elementary school.”
The class was copying furiously. If I made a mistake and crossed it out, I’d hear a gasp of frustration, but no one spoke. I noticed that I was calming down and the kids were, too. I continued writing, taking a softer tack:
“I want to have fun in this class, and I know you’d rather work on projects than take notes. Most of the time the work involves collaboration, so you get to talk plenty. But use your self-discipline. Recognize the difference between, ‘How do you cut those corners at an angle?’ and ‘Did you see all that drama at lunch? She’s always starting things.’” [A little laughter and surprise that I was aware of all the conversations they were having. A stern look from me. And ... silence.] “But today, it wasn’t happening. That’s why we’re doing this. On to engineering. Remember: A structure is an assemblage of materials designed to withstand a load ...”
I went on for a while, pausing more frequently to give kids a chance to catch up. Near the end, I wrote that we could try lab work again, but that they now knew what to expect if so many kids were off-task again.
An Element of Surprise
A silent, focused rant surprises students. But it’s not threatening. Copying the notes give them invisibility. No one gets called out or shamed or put on the defensive. Without talking, there’s no talking back.
It gives us all a chance to reset.
Rarely do I have to do it more than once during the year. After the first time, whenever a class begins to slide out of control, I say something like, “You all remember what happened last time,” or “You all like to take notes, huh?” This generally does the trick.
Here are a few things to keep in mind before you hit the mute button:
Make sure you’re justified. The lesson is great. You have established routines within the class. Yet a large majority of students (say, 75 percent or more) are just not engaged.
Point out that you recognize some kids are being treated unfairly. Well into the rant, consider walking around to signal to a couple of kids who were “innocent” that they can stop copying.
Keep it silent. This is vital. As soon as you explain anything aloud, you give them an opening to argue.
Now, deep in my career, I don’t have too much trouble keeping a class on task. But every now and again, I draw on a trusty classroom-management tool: the silent rant.