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The Sweet Spot of Shared Responsibility

By Sandy Merz — May 09, 2016 4 min read
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In April, Arizona students completed their yearly standardized tests. At my middle school, we endured marathon testing sessions in the morning, ate lunch, and then sprinted through seven 17 minute periods. The combination of stress, sitting for hours, and then crashing through classes created a highly charged environment.

I gave my classes one assignment and said when they finished, they were done for the week. I added that I didn’t mind if they listened to their devices while they worked. They began, and nearly everyone finished without any problems. I think my students’ devices made the difference.

The Music of Classroom Management

At my school, we expect students to turn off and store all their devices during school hours. Some latitude exists for listening to music as a reward or for help with classwork. But using electronics can be a potential tool for successful classroom management, so in recent years, my practice has been constantly evolving. Previously, I let students listen to their music for a day if they behaved well for the guest teacher when I missed a day. Last year, I relaxed a bit and let students listen to music if we weren’t doing some kind of whole-class activity.

My reasons were defensible. In a typical classroom setting when students work independently on assignments, you see different behaviors related to work ethic and ability. I want to minimize the number and impact of distractions during independent work time. Music mediates both. For example, given the option, some disruptive students will listen to music quietly and leave others alone. Other students use music to turn everything else out.

The policy was mostly successful and popular, but of course, there were challenges. Some students listened from laptops and wasted time looking for online music. Others cruised social networks. One class began to see music as an entitlement and would rebel if I attempted to place any limits on the practice. Furthermore, a colleague related that students would keep their devices out and then get in conflicts with monitors and other teachers. And really, how well could I honestly argue that I was in compliance with our school policy?

Faced with these doubts, I took a risk and re-framed my device policy so that it wouldn’t last unless students took charge and shared responsibility to ensure its success.

Setting Some Boundaries

At the beginning of the year, I taught classes without mentioning devices at all. Then, the first time I knew I was going to be absent, I asked students to be nice to my substitute as a favor to me. They said I should give them a reward, but I told them I didn’t want to buy good behavior. I added, however, that I liked to repay kindness with kindness so maybe they could listen to music.

The guest teacher’s glowing report served as an entry point for my plan. I told them they were entitled to nothing regarding devices. Then I listed the academic reasons to let students listen to music but also the problems that could cancel out the benefits.

I explained that I was making a professional decision to let them listen to music as a strategy to help the class perform better. But they had to ask first, and if I said no, even without a reason, they had to accept it. They could only listen to music from their personal devices, and all devices had to be put away before the end of the period. I also emphasized that we couldn’t let a good thing for us be a bad thing for others.

This approach has worked very well. Everyone understands the inherent fairness of the policy and how it depends on everyone. Students embrace the role they play, and I love being able to thank them for creating high-functioning classes. Sometimes, if a class is having a bad week and I say no to devices for a few days, there is no pushback.

Sharing responsibility has also led to surprises. One day my largest class was particularly rowdy. I had reprimanded them a couple of times to no effect. When a student asked if they could listen to music, I wanted to ask if he was kidding me to even ask such a question. Instead, I was curious if music might calm them and said go ahead. Sure enough the class quieted down and returned to productive work. That would never have been an option if I only used music as a reward.

Lessons Learned

I’ve talked to my administrators about what we do, and they have been only cautiously supportive, since I’m interpreting our school-wide policy. But the assistant principal said we need to have some serious faculty discussions on lots of our practices so sharing my story would be valuable. I look forward to the opportunity to illustrate the potential of sharing responsibility with students.

When that day comes I’ll emphasize these points:

1. Shared responsibility is an alternative approach to all management and instructional challenges, not just devices.

2. Shared responsibility requires giving students the information, choices, and structure they need to regulate their behaviors. It is not about rewards and punishments.

3. Shared responsibility is group-oriented and impersonal. If I notice some students on social networks, I won’t say, “Hey, one person can ruin it for everyone so stop going on Facebook.” Instead, I’ll say, “I see some of you using Facebook. I’ll decide in a couple of days if I need to prohibit devices for a while.” That’s usually all it takes.

4. Once students get used to sharing responsibility for one policy, they’re better prepared to accept it for another, like procedures for starting class.

Testing is over, and now we face the sprint to the last day of school. Students often oscillate between positive and negative behaviors due to the excitement and nervousness about 8th grade promotion and entering high school. We’ll respond with all our tools to dampen the oscillations. And the biggest tool in my box is what we’ve worked on all year: finding the sweet spot of shared responsibility.

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