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Ask Them to Listen to You Less

In the midst of my student teaching (I was teaching Debate and History at Davis High School), I was meeting in my college education class with my student teaching cohort and we had been assigned into small groups to talk about our classes and to workshop any classroom management issues we may have been experiencing. We each talked about our classes and received some advice from our fellow students. Eventually we arrived at one of the student teachers in the group who had been assigned to teach, apparently, the worst of all choir classes. He talked about how incredibly unruly his students were, how he had tried everything under the sun, how nothing would work, etc. We asked questions and tried to give useful feedback, but he quickly made sure that we knew that nothing, nothing, we could suggest to him would make any difference for these students. The class, he assured us, was beyond retrieval.

One the one hand, his attitude wasn’t too impressive. Collective teacher efficacy, that is teachers holding a collective cultural belief that they can make a difference in their classrooms and in the lives of their students, is one of the most powerful factors in student achievement.

On the other hand, I have a hard time not sympathizing with him. I think every teacher has, at some point, felt frustrated because their classroom has gotten away from them. They mostly want someone to empathize with them instead of offering suggestions. Classroom management can be difficult no matter what you do.

There are plenty of approaches which can help teachers manage a classroom. I would like to focus on one, and one that has demonstrated the largest impact in my personal experience teaching. The reason it works so well is because it is built into the structure of your class, it is a strategy that you plan out well before you are in the classroom, and it largely gets rid of the reason you need classroom management in the first place. The strategy is relatively simple in concept: ask students to listen to you less.

In your classroom, take a moment to think of a number. What percentage of the time in class are you speaking to your class and expecting that they are listening, answering questions, and taking notes? Almost any teacher will tell you that it's important to get students actively engaged in their curriculum, and yet studies suggest that most teachers spend between 70%-80% of their classroom time doing the speaking in class. Not only does this take away opportunities for students to learn, it creates a classroom management nightmare! I hope that this will come as a shock to no one: students don’t like sitting still and listening! It rarely engages higher order thinking and even if it does, the amount of information that a student can process in a single sitting is limited. As a result, the strategy is boring, especially for the almost 10% of students with ADHD (I would think higher in the homeschooling community given that many homeschooled students are homeschooled precisely because traditional strategies aren’t working well for them). In addition, your students are likely sitting next to their friends with whom they enjoy speaking or have their phone overflowing with stimulating information sitting just in their pocket. How to deal with the situation? You could make a seating chart so that they aren’t sitting next to students with whom they will likely chat, you can collect their phones ahead of time. Perhaps these are good strategies. But what if the classroom was structured such that these strategies simply become less necessary because students are more actively engaged in their curriculum?

It takes serious planning to reduce the amount of time you are speaking in class as a teacher. You have to be creative about what your activities will be, you may have to prepare materials ahead of time, you may have to find outside resources that you can use to cover necessary content during homework, you may even have to make some videos ahead of time so that students can cover any necessary lectures at home when they aren’t sitting next to their friends. But the benefits you’ll see in classroom management and student achievement will more than compensate.

Next time you are trying to slog through a lecture shushing all the way, imagine if instead your students were discussing an interesting question in small groups, with an assignment for the group to come up with a theory to be presented to the rest of the class. Or maybe your students could be debating a topic in pairs. Perhaps your students could be doing a jigsaw activity, creating an advertisement for a product that they will explain to the class, doing a simulation, engaging in textual analysis, seeking out evidence on a question, or any other number of activities. This will not solve any and all classroom management issues. You’ll still have to explain the activity to the class, you’ll still have to work to keep students on task, there will still be students who cope with their lives by making sure you know that they don’t approve of your class. But you will have gone an awfully long way toward making your classroom easier for yourself as a teacher. And you will have gone a long way toward making your classroom more meaningful to your students as well.

As a note, when you really commit to active learning as a strategy in your classroom, the result is that you will get to cover less content, but I have found that the tradeoff is almost always worth it. Covering less content well is generally better than getting to some arbitrary point that you feel compelled to cover.

To conclude, there is this stress that I think all teachers have felt. It is the stress of knowing that their students aren’t listening and aren’t really getting much out of a given lecture. Instead of handling that stress by standing in the middle of the river pleading with it to turn back, maybe just get out of the river as quickly as possible. Get the river working for you, not against you, by getting your students actively doing. Because it is what they wanted to do in the first place.


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