Cause a Commotion

I taught next to Mr. Woodruff once when I was still new to the classroom. And he gave me wise words.

“If I don’t cause a commotion,” he told me, “the kids will.”

And I knew he was right. I remembered all too well the commotion students had caused in my high school chemistry class. Mr. Mitchell had lectured in a monotone and assigned the same homework every night—read the chapter and answer the questions. He brought no excitement to class. So students set off stick bombs during science labs and dropped calcium metal into pens to make them explode like firecrackers. They talked while he talked and threw spit wads when he turned his back. Even school-smart people didn’t like learning in Mr. Mitchell’s class.

Mr. Woodruff was the opposite of Mr. Mitchell. Students could tell he was in the room. His voice boomed. He’d lecture from the top of a lab desk, gesturing wildly and smashing a fist into his other hand when he made a point. He’d bang books on the table and twirl yard sticks. And students listened to Mr. Woodruff. In his room, they wanted to learn.

The trouble was that my voice didn’t boom like Mr. Woodruff’s. Still I gradually learned some strategies to show students I was in the room. Here are some ways you can get and hold attention:

  • Vary your voice. Even if it doesn’t carry, your voice still has a range of volume and a variety of tone. Each change in your voice invites attention.
  • Use sound beyond your own voice. Ringing a bell, slamming a door, playing chimes all alert students without a nagging voice.
  • Stand tall and in a grounded way as if to say, “I am here.” But don’t stay in one place, move around the room and enter student space—sit next to them, lean on their desks, pat a shoulder.
  • Look at students, moving your eyes from person to person, engaging every student directly.

I never walked on table tops like Mr. Woodruff. But students seemed to know I was in the room, and they didn’t often throw spit wads. Not often, at least.

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