Notes from Tools for Teaching Part 7

May 8, 2005

Meaning Business
One of the most important attributes natural teachers possess is meaning business. Meaning business seems to keep the class somehow in line without nagging, upset, or exasperation. Meaning business is conveyed to the student through body language. Body language is a constant in our make-up and nature. It will telegraph to the studenets your real thoughts, feelings, and intentions whether you want it to or not. A skilled athlete might be able to fake going right or left, but you cannot fake something as meaning business hour after hour. You have two choices in relation to body language. You can learn about body language so that you can consciously use it to help students succeed, or you can be ignorant of it, in which case the students will always be one step ahead of you.

While you have been reading body language since early childhood, you must learn to read it and speak it at a conscious level so that you can signal to students at any time that you mean business. In addition, you must learn to read how students signal that they will or will not comply.

Imagine that you are helping Robert in class when you look up to see two kids on the far side of the classroom talking when they should be working. Remember, when managing a classroom, you want to find the cheapest response possible. Obviously, looking the students back to work is much cheaper than having to walk over to the disruptive students. This consideration focuses our attention on the beginning of your interaction with the disruptive students — on the turn and the look. If the turn and the look are convincing, you will often save yourself the trip across the classroom.

In the classroom at all times, the following priority must govern your decision making. It is not optional. It is not a suggestion. You live or die by it. Your priority is this: Discipline before Instruction.

Discipline always comes before instruction. It is not up for debate, so don’t think about it in the heat of the moment. If you are in the middle of instructing someone, lean over gently and say, without hesitation, “Excuse me, Robert.” The decision to do this must be made in advance because if you stop to think at this juncture you can rationalize yourself out of responding to the disruption. This would convey to the students that you don’t really mean business. You have to be willing to do apply discipline management now and every time.

Your commitment to act is instantaneous, and so is your fight-flight reflex. Since this is hardly a life-threatening situation, you will not feel a big jolt. You will just have a feeling of exasperation. Before you interact with the disruptive students, take a relaxing breath and slow down. Slowing down is not easy; you must practice the relaxing breath so that you can slow down instantaneously under pressure.

When you see the disruption on the far side of the room, lean over and whisper, “Excuse me, Robert.” Then stay down and take a relaxing breath. Your natural tendency is to stand. When you stay down, you do several things at once:

  • You turn away from the problem. This helps you relax by taking the problem out of your field of vision where it would continue to trigger the fight-flight reflex.
  • You model common courtesy.
  • You deliver a closure message. If you do not excuse yourself, poor Robert has no idea as to why you suddenly quit talking to him and turned your back.
  • You give yourself time to refocus. While your head is down, take the time to clear your mind. When you stand and turn toward the disruptive students, it is “show time.” Before you even straighten up, one of the students might say, “What? I wasn’t doing anything.” If you are not relaxed before this happens, you don’t have a chance.
  • You fill your lungs. If you stand and turn too quickly after excusing yourself from Robert, your lungs will be empty because you just spoke. Then you will be forced to breath in as you face the disruptors. When you breath in, you flex your diaphragm. You will not be able to relax peripheral muscles while flexing the most centrally locagted voluntary muscle in your body.

Upset is fast, and calm is slow. Students can tell by the speed of your movement how upset or impatient your are. But, we also move quickly when we are busy. When we are in “instruction mode,” we are very busy. When we look up and see a disruption, the fight-flight reflex speeds us up even more. Everything is driving us through the transition from instruction to discipline too fast. Slow down so that the disruptive students have no doubt that instruction has been interrupted, and that they are the sole focus of your attention. Only when you commit your time and attention to the problem will the students begin to take you seriously. Furthermore, to be convinced you actually mean business, the students will have to see you actually do something. This is where our body language can trip us up if we allow ourselves to be torn between discipline and instruction. If you are ambivalent, your body language will signal both states of mind and send mixed messages at the very moment when they need to be clear, unequivocal, and convincing.

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