Notes from Tools for Teaching Part 9May 31, 2005
Beyond “The Turn”
“The turn” is only the beginning of a conversation in body language. If the students intend to continue talking, their body language will usually give it away. The critical feature of body language that allows every teacher to predict the future is the lower body — knees and feet. The body language above the desk top is called “window dressing”; the students are faking compliance with their upper bodies while their lower bodies signal their true intent by continuing to be turned toward each other.
Four phases of pseudo-compliance:
- Smiley face: They give you the look of repentant angels asking, “Who, me?”
- Book posing: They open their books and look back at you as though to ask, “Does this fulfill the requirements of formal education?”
- Pencil posing: They get out a pencil and touch it to paper before looking back at you as though to say, “Look, I’m writing.”
- Pseudo-scholarship: They start to write, but they look up periodically to see if you are still paying attention.
Now that you have turned toward the disruptive students and they seem to have gotten back to work, how can you tell whether they will continue to work?
Let’s imagine that, after committing to the disruptive students, you see only window dressing. You rightly conclude that the students have no intention of continuing to work. You will have to go over to the students in order to deal with the situation. As obvious as this response may seem, it is very common for teachers to act tentatively at this critical point in the “conversation.” No doubt this is because walking over to the students is both distracting and time-consuming.
It is very tempting to try to talk our way out of meaning business by asking silly questions. Shut the mouth, take two relaxing breaths, and walk slowly over to the disruptive students. Pick one of them as your focus, preferably the instigator. Walk to the edge of the student’s desk so that you barely touch her desk with your legs. Stand relaxed but upright and take two relaxing breaths. Check your jaw.
The shrewd student scoots her chair half-way around. Rather than giving you what you want, she has given you only part. You, also being shrewd, notice this partial gesture, even stepping back to look under the desk to see feet if necessary. Using the analogy of a poker game, she has raised rather than folded. You then up the ante by giving her a prompt. Lean over gently, resting your weight on one palm, and gesture with your other hand for her to bring her chair around. Stay down, wait, maintain eye contact, and take a relaxing breath.
Begin with a visual prompt because it is safer than a verbal prompt. Speech, like smiling, is a trigger mechanism. The most predictable way of getting someone to speak to you is by speaking to them.
More than likely the student will bring her chair all of the way around, but should she again give only partial compliance, you can either repeat the visual prompt, or if necessary, up the ante by giving a verbal prompt. You now tell the student to bring her chair all of the way around. A simple sentence in a kindly tone of voice is sufficient (“Please bring your chair all of the way around.”).
The student has now pushed pseudo-compliance as far as it will go. If the student wants to continue the game, she will now have to engage in actual noncompliance. Blatant noncompliance in this situation usually takes the form of backtalk, which will be discussed later.
We will assume that the student has concluded, as most students do in this situation, that discretion is the better part of valor: she has turned all of the way around and is working. You have now arrived at a critical juncture: She may actually get to work, or she may just appear to get to work.
Rest your weight on both palms and lock your elbows as though to say, “I have all day.” Relax your hands, making sure that you are neither up on your fingertips (I want out of here) or making a fist (I am anxious). Take two relaxing breaths as you watch and wait. Watch the student long enough to see a stable pattern of work that represents a commitment to time-on-task.
If the student is still more concerned with you than with the assignment, she will keep checking to see what you are doing. When she finally gives up the game, she will focus on the work and quit worrying about you. The most predictable sign that the student is still playing off of the teacher is eyes up/eyes down. Each time the student checks you out, her behavior tells you to hang in there. The game is not over yet.
A variation on the eyes up/eyes down is for the student to look up and not look down. This could mean any of a number of things; it’s hard to tell. However, this leaves you and the student eye to eye. The situation becomes more awkward the longer you are locked into looking at each other. Finesse the situation by giving the student an “eye prompt”. The simplest eye prompt is to look down at the student’s work; to make the eye prompt more convincing, turn your upper body if you are in front of the student so that you can read her work right side up. What you want to convey is “All I care about is the work.”
After the gaming has stopped and she is fully engaged in working, thank the student for getting to work. A simple sentence is sufficient, and touching is optional. Your emotions go from neutral to warm as you thank the student so that your tone of voice is gentle: “Thank you for getting back to work.”
After you thank the student, stay down and take two relaxing breaths as your emotions again become neutral. Watch and wait until she once again demonstrates a stable pattern of work. The most common error is to thank the student and then stand up. If you do this, do not be surprised if the student quits working, since many students many misinterpret this closure message and go back to pseudo-compliance.
Give both students equal time. Move gently to the other student and stay at palms. Watch her work for a while until you get the definite feeling that she is “into the assignment.” “Second students” are usually in compliance when you get to them since they are trying to disappear. They rarely need a separate prompt. Finally, thank the second student and stay down, just as you did before.
It takes time to wait out the gaming. The students are struggling with the issue of submitting their agenda (socializing) to your agenda (time-on-task). They do not want to submit their entire agenda, so they test to see how much of it they can retain. There is no way to speed up this process of testing.
Stand slowly after thanking the second student, and take two relaxing breaths. Wait until it is clear that everyone is working. As you leave the two students, you may momentarily turn your back toward them as you walk away. Before you become involved with another student, however, turn fully and “point your toes” toward the two disruptors. Should they glance up, they will see a teacher quite willing to return. As you begin to help the next student, buttonhook so that the students you just left are in your direct line of vision. This should serve as a reminder to you to continue tracking them.
The contrast between our normal speed of movement in the classroom and the speed of meaning business is so great that it must be experienced to be appreciated. Of course, this perception only lasts until we get our internal clocks recalibrated. While slowing down is difficult, the relaxing breaths pace you. Relaxed breathing, however, is the first skill of meaning business to be lost after training as forgetting takes its toll on learning. The result is a gradual increase in the speed of performance.
Meaning business is a matter of both skill and consistency. We must be highly predictable. As a dividend to your willingness to pay up front every time in order to make a believer out of a disruptive student, the amount of work required on your part steadily decreases. If students know that they cannot win with any of their tricks, all they eventually need to see is a sign that the inexorable process has begun in order to know that it is time to fold. The time will eventually come when the unwavering enforcement of your standards becomes synonymous with your physical presence. This is when meaning business truly becomes cheap and invisible.
An entirely different way of thinking about making meaning business cheap is to realize that moving in and working the crowd are related. Walking toward a student who is disruptive is always a powerful intervention. You might think of working the crowd and moving in while meaning business as the preventative and remedial versions of the same thing. The more you use your body language to prevent disruptions by working the crowd, the less often you will have to stop what you are doing to mean business.
Working the crowd can also be a natural cover to avoid backing a student into a corner. Don’t go public if can help it. If you embarrass students in front of their peer group, they will embarrass you in front of the same peer group to get even.