I never enjoyed setting students straight. They needed it, though. In thirty years of teaching, I saw plenty of student behavior that wasn’t conducive to learning. I couldn’t teach, for example, in the crossfire of spit wads. And students couldn’t learn while they slept. Once I was startled to see that Jenny, at the desk in the back corner, had swallowed a chain. She sat there triumphant, one end of the chain dangling from her left nostril and the other end hanging from her mouth. Jenny had no idea, I was sure, that we had been tracing the motifs in Taylor’s book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
But talking to students about spit wads and swallowing chains didn’t always persuade them to quit messing around and start learning. Sometimes after my reprimands students reverted to using deeper cover to throw even more spit wads. Or they’d switch to destroying a good discussion with snarky comments.
One evening at a dinner with friends, a company vice-president said, “For the past few years, I’ve had a new goal—to fire people, when need be, in such a way that they thank me.”
I decided to borrow that goal, to talk to students about misbehavior in such a way that they’d thank me. I remember the first time this happened. Chrissy stayed after class, as I requested, but she slumped in her seat, her hair draped to hide her eyes. I managed to do a few things right, and our talk actually ended with a hug. As she left the room, she said, “Thanks, Mrs. Swartz, for the scolding.”
This gave me gumption to hone my skills, and students began to thank me more often. So what can you do to turn misbehavior conversations positive?
- Talk like a person, not a frustrated teacher. Students resist tones that smack of nagging.
- Give some love: Look, Eric. I care about you. And I’m worried. Here’s why—you talk so much in class that you miss important things I say and so do your friends.
- Showcase strength: What you say is funny and surprises people and makes them think. People love to hear you talk.
- Focus on the future: With this gift, you could run a company or teach a class. You could lead wherever you go.
- Get to the point: So, here’s the deal. I’ll give you extra chances to lead, to talk in class—so you can get better at it. But you’ve got to stop talking when I’m talking. I care about you too much to let you miss what you need to learn. I want you to succeed. So we’re going to make this happen.
- Ask for buy-in: Now, here’s the question. Can you handle this? Or do we need to pull in more help—like your parents or a reward system?
- End with support: I’m going to hold you to this. You mean this much to me.
This didn’t work every time, but more and more students thanked me at the end and often hugged me and usually changed their ways.