Notes from Tools for Teaching Part 10June 1, 2005
Imagine that you walk over to Larry who is goofing off, and you give him a prompt to get back to work as previously described. Instead of facing forward as most students would, Larry looks up at you and says, “I wasn’t doin’ anything. Why don’t you just get out of my face and leave me alone?”
All eyes in the class immediately snap toward you. Larry has “gone public” — exactly what meaning business tries to avoid. There are very few things more calculated to upset the teacher than backtalk. You will naturally experience a fight-flight reflex, and thus be predisposed to speak. When students confront you verbally, everything they are doing seems calculated to get you to speak. When you were four years old, you already had the social skills required to have the last word in an argument if you wanted it badly enough. All it takes is perseverance.
First rule of backtalk: It takes one fool to backtalk. It takes two fools to make a conversation out of it.
It is the teacher’s backtalk that will get this student sent to the office. Think of backtalk as a melodrama which is written, produced, and directed by the student. In this melodrama there is a speaking part for you. If you accept your speaking part in the melodrama, it is “show time.” But if you do not, the show bombs.
Second rule of backtalk: Open your mouth, and slit your throat.
Students may try to keep the show going for a while, but they cannot keep it going all by themselves. When they run out of material, embarrassment sets in. When students begin to feel foolish, they usually fold. Getting back to work suddenly becomes the quickest way to disappear. If you talk, you actually rescue backtalkers from their dilemma.
Third rule of backtalk: If the student wants to backtalk, at least make him do all of the work. Don’t do half of it for him!
Opening your mouth is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Do you want it to die down or blow up in your face? With adequate preparation, you can respond to backtalk with emotional nonchalance. When you completely relax your jaw in this situation, you look bored — a lack of expression often described as “withering boredom.” Backtalkers find this lack of response most disheartening.
Switching the Agenda
There are three agendas in classroom management: discipline, instruction, and motivation. If students can seduce the teacher from discipline into either of the other two agendas, discipline management is left behind. The most common switch is from discipline to instruction. You prompt a student who is talking to neighbors to turn around and get to work, only to have the student respond, “But, I don’t understand how to do this problem.”
Not too surprisingly, over 70 percent of backtalk in the classroom is switching the agenda to instruction. It is a no-lose strategy: even if students do not get off the hook, they run no risk of getting into trouble because teachers never identify switching the agenda as backtalk. Teachers seem to think backtalk has to be obnoxious; it does not.
The way you recognize backtalk is very simple: the kid’s mouth is open.
What should you do? Easy answer first: Take two relaxing breaths, check your jaw, clear your mind, and keep your mouth shut as you kill time. When the backtalker runs out of gas, take two more relaxing breaths and then, if you need to, give a nonverbal prompt to get back to work. Sometimes this actually works. Sometimes, the student ups the ante by saying, “Well, I don’t know how! What am I supposed to do? Are you just going to look at me?”
This move exposes the vulnerability of our previous strategy. Maybe the student really does not know how to do the problem. Or, maybe the student does know and is just messing with you. How would you know? The student has you over a barrel, and the student knows it.
The only satisfactory answer to this question lies in all of the instructional procedures described in the first half of the book With them, you know very well that the students were approaching mastery before you made your transition to Guided Practice. Consequently, the students don’t have a leg to stand on when making a case for genuinely needing help.
While not as common as switching the agenda to instruction, switching the agenda to motivation has one big advantage (“I’m not doing this.” “This is dumb.” “We did this last year.”). It gives the student control. As a simple issue of power and control, you cannot make students work. Therefore, forcing unmotivated students to work is a dead issue. In the long run, if you want students to do schoolwork, you must give them a positive reason to do so. In the short run, in lieu of incentives, you can always cut your losses. Whisper privately to the student, “If you are not going to do your work, we can talk about that later. For right now, I will at least expect you to allow your neighbors to do their work.” Most students will take this opportunity to cut their losses.
Whiny backtalk is garden variety backtalk that students most often use when they are trying to get off the hook (“I wasn’t doin’ anything.”). These are the types of backtalk that “good kids” have used since the beginning of time. Take two relaxing breaths, kill some time, and keep your mouth shut. This too shall pass.
Sometimes the student blames the teacher (“I had to ask him because you went over it so fast.”). An accusation of incompetence can make a person defensive. Resist it.
In another version of whiny backtalk, the student is telling you, in effect, to go take a hike (“All right, I’ll do it.”). As always, relax, be quiet and wait. Do not allow yourself to be suckered into the Cardinal Error.
Sometimes a student will give the teacher a “goodie-two-shoes” compliment. The student is attempting to get off the hook while scoring a few brownie points by diverting the teacher’s attention. Think of it as just another flavor of baloney.
This may sound like an oxymoron, but it is a title for control tactics that function like backtalk without the risk of “lipping off.”
If all else fails, some kids may start crying. If blubbering gets kids off the hook at home, they may try it at school. Stay down, relax, and wait. If you hang in there, blubbering students will eventually dry up. Then they will look up to see if you are still there. If the tears are interminable, however, handle it the same way as the motivational card player: lean over and whisper gently, “We can talk about your crying later. For right now, the least I will expect from you is that you get your work done.” Leave, but return as soon as the student’s head comes up. Rather than getting rid of you, the student who used crying to get off the hook receives some follow through and “instructional supervision” from close range.
Sometimes students will push your arm away if you lean on the desk. Is this a big deal or not? You could make a big deal out of it, but chances are, it was more reflex than strategy on the part of the student. Try “rubber arm”. Relax the arm that has been pushed aside and stay down. Hang in there and wait without backing off. Students, confronted by an immovable object, must now finally deal with your presence. At this point, they usually realize that getting back to work is the cheapest way out. You can always talk to the student later if you want.
As a general rule for dealing with the unexpected: When in doubt, do nothing.
What do you do with your body in the short-term when a student backtalks? Imagine that you are giving a prompt of are at “palms” when the student mouths off. Also, imagine typical kids and whiny backtalk. The simplest thing to do, of course, is nothing. Just remain at palms. In response to continued backtalk (i.e. the student’s second sentence), bend one elbow and gently move down so that your elbow is resting on the table. This gets you closer to the student and improves eye contact. Take two relaxing breaths, keep your mouth shut, and wait. This move usually dashes the student’s hopes.
Do not be surprised if backtalking students try to go two-on-one if you fail to rise to their bait. When the backtalker’s game plan is failing, he may turn to an accomplice in order to “double-team” you (“Jennifer was just asking me a question, weren’t you?”). Often the second student would rather disappear than up the ante, so if you hang in there and wait quietly in this situation, the first student almost always folds. But if the second student chimes in, you have a more serious problem if they start to feed off each other. Kill some time in order to check it out; often, the gambit will fizzle after a few whiny self-justifications.
If the gambit takes wings so that the two students are working you over, you will have to switch strategies. You need to reestablish one-on-one with the backtalker, and you cannot separate the two students with your mouth. Rather you will need to separate the students with your body. Stand slowly and walk slowly around the desks so that you are standing behind and between the two students. Then, slowly move down between them so that your elbow is on the table and you are facing the first student. This isolates the backtalker. Once isolated, the backtalker usually folds, and you can handle as before.
Camping out from behind actually happens most often as a low-key interaction when you are working the crowd. If, for example, you were standing behind the disruptive students, you would probably just stroll over and stand between them. You might even lean down to give a prompt just to make your presence felt.
Sometimes, just as you relax, thinking that the backtalk is over, a student hits you with something that you did not expect. If your relaxation is less than it should be, this jolt may send you over the edge. The two most common curve balls are the last hurrah and the cheap shot.
After the backtalk dies out and the disruptive student returns to work, you would thank him or her as a closure message to indicate that the “incident” was over. But, sometimes the student does not want the “incident” to be over. At such times, your “thank you” may trigger a sarcastic comeback by the student (“Yeah, right.” or “Whatever.”). If the kid had kept quiet, you would be gone. Instead, stay down, take two relaxing breaths, and deliver some withering boredom as you wait. After the student once again returns to work and shows a stable pattern of work, thank him or her once again just as you did before. The student will most likely remain silent this time.
Sometimes as you turn your back to walk away after thanking the disruptor, the student hits you with a parting “cheap shot.” It is usually just a word or two muttered under the breath (“Big deal.” or “I’m scared.”). You need a plan; if you are trying to figure out what to do as classmates giggle, you will probably overreact. Naturally, you cannot allow the student to have a mocking “last word”. On the other hand, it would be nice to keep your response cheap. The most efficient response, called “Instant Replay,” simply repeats moving in and moving out with a few slight alterations.
Stop when you hear the cheap shot, take a relaxing breath, and turn slowly to face the student. The student was gambling that you would pretend not to hear the remark and keep walking while the student got in the last word while showing off. Walk to the edge of the student’s desk so that you barely touch it with your legs as you normally would in moving in, and take two relaxing breaths. Then slowly move down to “palms.” Now, just kill time from close range. The longer you stay, the higher the cost of the cheap shot becomes. Had the student remained quiet, you would be gone. After you get a stable commitment to work, thank the student and stay down. Then, stand, take a relaxing breath or two, and move out. You have made your point: cheap shots are not cheap.
One wrinkle occurs when the disruptive students are of the same gender so that you cannot tell from the voice who made the remark. Never overplay your hand by pretending to know more than you actually do. Finesse the situation by going to palms between the two students so that you camp out in the general vicinity. Then, when you thank the students for getting back to work, just say, “I appreciate your getting back to work.” If one of them says, “I didn’t do it,” relax and give him a dose of withering boredom.
If you do a good job of working the crowd and have established that you mean business, subtle gestures signal your intent to the students, and you almost never even have to walk over to the students.
Nasty backtalk definitely increases the price of playing poker. The student is risking all in order to get control. What separates nasty backtalk from whiny backtalk is that it is personal. The backtalker is probing for a nerve ending; if you take what is said personally, you are likely to overreact. If you do, the student has succeeded. There are two types of nasty backtalk: insult and profanity.
There are a limited number of topics that students can use for insults. The main ones are dress, grooming, and hygiene. Take two relaxing breaths, check your jaw, and stay down. The kid will run out of gas sooner or later. When the sniggering dies down, the kid is still on the hook. If you are in your cortex, you can make a plan.
There are also a limited number of swear words that students can use in the classroom. There are your everyday vulgarisms, and then there are your “biggies”. Now ask yourself, what is the real agenda underlying this vulgarity? As always, it has to do with power. Naturally, the question of power boils down to a question of control. Who controls the classroom? This in turn boils down to the question of who controls you.
Can a four-letter monosyllable control you and determine your emotions and your behavior? If so, then the student possesses a great deal of power packaged in the form of a single word, and if you give a student this much power, it will be used.
To understand the management of backtalk, and especially nasty backtalk, you must conceptualize your response in terms of two time frames: short-term and long-term. The correct short-term response, as you might imagine, has to do with the fight-flight reflex. Take two relaxing breaths, remain quiet, and deliver some withering boredom. Your lack of an immediate response is very powerful body language. If the student runs out of gas and takes refuge in getting back to work, you have “finessed” the incident (and gotten somewhat lucky). Count your blessings and consider getting on with the lesson. You can always talk to the student after class. Do not worry that students will think that you didn’t do anything about the profanity. Give them some credit for social intelligence. They will certainly know that profanity is not taken lightly when, on the way out of class, you say, “Larry, I would like to speak with you for a moment.” Of course, you need to be standing in the doorway when you say this.
Your short-term response does not foreclose any management options; it simply gives you time to think while avoid the Cardinal Error. In the long-term, you can do whatever you think is appropriate. You know what options are available to you at your school site. If in your opinion the student should be sent to the office, then do it. Whatever you choose to do, if you are calm, your actions come across with an air of cool professionalism; you are above the storm. This calm helps students accept responsibility for their own actions.
When you have a conversation with the student after the others have left, you become a clinician. The student is upset about something, but that something is probably not you since you have not seen this student for the past 23 hours. People seek therapy for one reason: they are in pain. They seek one outcome: the alleviation of pain. These two simple realities give you your starting poing for a conversation about the inappropriate behavior in class. “Vanessa, what you said in class today was not at all like you. Tell me, what has you so upset?”
Take two relaxing breaths and thwart the desire to say anything else. This is called “wait time”. You do not know what will happen next. Vanessa might say, “Nothing! I just want to leave!” But, before you go to “consequences”, play for time. Silence is truly golden since young people have a very low tolerance for it. If you wait calmly, the whole story will probably come spilling out.
The goal of meaning business is reconciliation. Our calmness and skill allow us to say “no” to backtalking while potentially strengthening the fabric of our relationship with the student rather than tearing it.