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On Being a Language TeacherA Personal and Practical Guide to Success$

Norma Lopez-Burton and Denise Minor

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780300186895

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300186895.001.0001

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The Captain of the Ship Classroom Management

The Captain of the Ship Classroom Management

(p.178) 9 The Captain of the Ship Classroom Management
On Being a Language Teacher

Denise Minor

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides language teachers with pointers for classroom management and outlines a six-step intervention process for problem behavior that is beyond what is taught in typical classroom management courses. The three most important principle of classroom management are to establish rules and procedures; to foster a classroom community; and have a behavior intervention plan.

Keywords:   language teachers, teaching, pedagogical approach, classroom instruction, problem students

If you stop to think about it, having one person step in front of thirty other people and take charge of their activities, behavior, and learning for an hour is a remarkable feat. But teachers do it every day, sometimes five times a day, and some of them do that with adolescents, no less. To top it off, we language teachers do this remarkable feat in a language that for all or most of our students is one that they are in the process of learning.

How is this possible? For one thing, by the time they reach junior high school, most students have been socialized to comply with what is expected of them in a class. But beyond that, teachers learn classroom management skills, abilities that (in my opinion) are equally as important as the knowledge of the subject matter they teach.

Those of you who have gone through teacher credential programs will most likely have taken a class dedicated to classroom management. For language teachers, however, there is an additional skill set that is required, because we are not simply teaching an academic subject matter but must also convince this group of twenty, thirty, or forty to communicate in a new language. It is one thing to get fifteen pairs of students to stay focused enough to design the mansion of their future. It is another thing to get them to do it in Chinese, French, or Arabic. In addition to providing pointers in this chapter to keep students speaking in the target language, we are outlining a six-step intervention process for problem (p.179) The Captain of the Ship Classroom Management behavior that is beyond what is taught in typical classroom management courses.

Thirty years of teaching language in a wide variety of circumstances have brought me into contact with many kinds of students. I have taught children in an academy in Spain, doctors and nurses at a medical school, middle-aged people in night classes at a community college, and the typical young-adult students of a university. I have also observed high school classes and spent hours interviewing secondary teachers. These experiences, combined with research in the field, have convinced me of one thing: the same principles work for all environments, although these principles have to be implemented somewhat differently to suit the different environments. These are the principles I believe to be most effective:

Establish rules and procedures: Students learn and behave better in classrooms with clearly established expectations and rules. At the junior high and high school level, this principle is even more important simply because these students are younger. But college students also benefit greatly when they know exactly what is expected of them in the classroom, on the tests, and in their assignments. (Thornberg 2008)

(p.180) Foster a classroom community: Whenever students come together in a class, a community will establish itself. Allegiances will be made, habits will form, and people will start to take on roles. It is your job to establish a community in which everyone is respected and valued and in which you are the recognized leader. You are the “captain of the ship,” a benevolent but firm and consistent captain. (Jackson Hardin 2011)

Have a behavior intervention plan: By creating a supportive and positive classroom environment, by assuming the role of firm and consistent leader, and by establishing classroom rules and procedures, you will minimize the number of behavior problems that you have to deal with in class. But I can promise you this: you will eventually have problems. Whether you teach at an elite Ivy League university, an adult night school, or a high school in a poor area, you will have students that disrupt the class and make your life difficult. The differences between school settings and the ages of your students will have an impact on the number of behavior problems and the degree of difficulty. But no matter what the situation, you need to have a plan.

I will deal with these principles individually, but first I want to establish some parameters for explaining my approach. First and foremost, I am a behaviorist. Although I certainly respect those who critique the behavioral approach, I believe most of them do so because they don’t understand it. Their limited exposure to the theories underpinning behaviorism, or their experience with poor implementation of behavioral plans, has left them with the impression that it is mostly about giving candy to kids for being good. They maintain that students will only be successful if they operate on internal motivations and, further, that the external rewards will make them dependent on things that have nothing to do with the value of the educational goal. But I maintain that the behavioral approach is much more complicated than that.

For those of you unfamiliar with behaviorism, here is a brief description. The first recorded example of scientific study of behavioral response came from Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), who trained his famous dogs to salivate every time he rang a bell or provided other stimuli (Windholz 1983). In the beginning, Pavlov provided the stimulus and then gave his dogs food. But (p.181) very quickly he conditioned the dogs to salivate every time they heard the sound of the bell or experienced the stimulus. Decades later B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) became famous for the behavior modification experiments he employed on animals and humans (Bjork 1997). Skinnerian behaviorism fell out of favor beginning in the 1950s, but it had a resurgence in the 1990s, in part because of work done by Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas at the University of California, Los Angeles, in his development of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for the treatment of children with autism. His success, and the successes of numerous other behaviorists in helping children with special needs, has spawned a movement to incorporate behavioral principles into regular education classrooms.

At its core, behaviorism involves reinforcing desired behavior when it occurs, and for most students the strongest reinforcement is social, such as verbal praise and a smile from someone the students like or respect. Many teachers have found that students are even more motivated if they receive some kind of material reward in addition to the social praise. That sounds basic, right? But, as any teacher with experience knows, the following problems can get in the way: a student could be more averse to the desired behavior than he or she is motivated by the social reinforcement; a student could be more motivated by negative attention or confrontation than by praise and smiles; a student might not like or respect the teacher. These are some of the issues I will deal with in the final section of this chapter.

In the meantime, I want to assure you that the judicious use of material rewards cannot only modify behavior, but can help to nurture intrinsic motivation to engage in the desired activity. In other words, our students have to come to see or feel the benefits of speaking the language we teach. Sometimes we have to convince them to do that for some time before they begin to realize those benefits. In research for my doctoral dissertation I observed second and third graders at a Spanish immersion elementary school for about three years. In one classroom the teacher employed a system that rewarded the entire class with points for speaking Spanish and, at the same time, gave consequences to the entire class when anyone spoke English. At the beginning of the year, I observed that the children would switch to English as soon as the teacher was out of earshot. By the end of the year, however, they were often speaking Spanish to each other even if she was nowhere near. In interviews with five case study participants, they all told (p.182) me that they were proud to be Spanish speakers and that they liked to speak Spanish, especially with their teacher (Minor 2009). Over the course of the school year, the intrinsic rewards of being bilingual supplanted to some degree the extrinsic rewards.

Now let’s move on to the three most important principles of classroom management.

Establish Rules and Procedures

Humans show it in the way we play games, use languages, create hierarchies, and structure businesses: we like rules. That doesn’t mean that all of us will follow the rules, but in group settings such as classrooms, the majority of us thrive on fair and consistent rules and procedures. My observations over the last two decades have led me to believe that the most effective teachers are good at establishing these parameters for everything from how to turn in homework to how to interact with one another. These effective teachers can be widely divergent in terms of styles and philosophy, but they have this characteristic in common (Thornberg).

The kinds of things that a teacher will need to be specific about will be very different for the different age levels. For example, small children might not know what is expected of them in a classroom, so teachers often post rules such as “Use your indoor voices” and “Raise your hand if you want to speak.” But a high school teacher would run into trouble if he or she put anything that sounded even remotely like elementary school rules in a syllabus (Thornberg). A high school teacher can, however, have rules such as “Participate in communicative activities in German” or “Treat everyone in the classroom with respect.” High school students know very well what respect looks like. If you have a student who talks back, interrupts, or rolls her eyes at you, after class you can tell her that her behavior is not respectful and will hurt her participation grade. If by some strange series of events, this young woman arrived at the age of seventeen without knowing that those things were rude, it will be up to you to explain that to her and then hold her accountable for changing in the future. But you don’t want to make the other twenty-nine students listen to a lecture on the first day that says “Don’t roll your eyes at me” and “Don’t interrupt me.”

It is important to put your expectations in writing. For high school, it might look similar to the following:

(p.183) Classroom Expectations

  • Students will behave in a respectful manner in their interactions with the teacher and other students.

  • During group and pair interactions, students will speak in German.

  • Homework will be turned in at the beginning of each class and placed in the metal basket on the teacher’s desk.

  • During tests and quizzes there will be no talking.

  • Please remove hats during class. There are pegs near the door for anyone with a hat to hang it.

  • Cell phone use is not permitted during class. If one rings or buzzes OR the student is caught texting, the phone will be confiscated and turned over to the principal.

  • Have fun!!!!!!!!

At the college level, you probably will want to step back even further from etiquette rules, although you should include something just in case you find yourself in Intervention Mode (see below). You could include something like the following in your syllabus:

Participation: 10 percent

  • The participation grade is based on participation in communicative activities in French, contributions to group discussions, and positive interaction in the classroom and with the instructor. Cell phones must be turned off during class. (That means no texting!)

The vast get the picture, and most of them will be participating anyway becmajority of university students will ause your class is so much fun and so interesting. Almost everyone in my classes gets an A for participation. But, for the few who are a negative drain on the class’s energy, it is good to have a written policy from the very beginning that you can point to in order to get the attention of the problematic student.

As you reduce the specificity of your relational and etiquette rules with each advancing year in education, you can become more specific for what (p.184) you expect in written work. I prefer short, to-the-point syllabi, but I can get a lot in a three-page syllabus. For instance, give the exact day of all the papers’ due dates, what style is expected (MLA? double-spaced?), and a paradigm for what they will be graded on, such as expected length, communicative abilities, vocabulary, structure, and grammar. STICK TO THE SYLLABUS unless an unanticipated incident occurs. It not only gives the students stability in terms of learning how to organize their time to reach goals for written work, but it also shows them that you are a consistent person.

Last but not least, start off the year on the right foot. Considerable research has shown that establishing from the very beginning the rules and procedures for how your classroom runs is one of the most important factors affecting the outcome. Robert Marzano, Jana Marzano, and Debra Pickering found that “virtually all research points to the beginning of the year as the ‘linchpin’ for effective classroom management” (Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering 2003, p. 92). One of the ways you can get the year off to a good start is by establishing your class as a “zone” where the target language must be spoken.

Foster a Classroom Community

I remember clearly being educated in classrooms based on a hierarchical model. The teachers were in charge (for the most part) and their favorite students were always the “good” students, the ones that listened quietly, raised their hands to answer questions, and got good grades. Then there were the average students who clearly were in class just because they had to be there and did not want to draw any negative attention to themselves. And there was always a handful of “bad” kids who didn’t work and were as disrespectful as they could get away with being. One of the more interesting dramas of each day was watching to see how far they would go. I considered myself a good student, but I was fascinated by the bad kids. They seemed so powerful!

What I have come to realize after three decades of teaching is that the hierarchical model is only good for the “good” students. Everyone else—the rebels, the kids with learning difficulties, the distracted artists, etc.—are on the second tier. But in a classroom that is more similar to a natural human community, where everyone gets to shine at the things he or she is best at doing, most students will be much more successful. As noted in Chapter 7, (p.185) I think of this as “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker” model because it reminds me of the way each person in a village has an important role. The ideal is for each student in your classroom to believe that he or she has an important role.

What does this model look like in practice? Does everyone get an A for being good at something? No, we can’t revolutionize the grade paradigm of public schools. But all or most of your students can come to feel important in your classroom, and this psychological feeling of belonging could have a positive impact on their grades. For instance, some students are good artists and they will thrive if you incorporate activities such as the game of “pictionary” or the creation of comic strips. There might be students who have good voices or play instruments. Let them shine by incorporating music into your classes. Some students are creative writers and will be able to write beautiful poetry. Have a poetry jam and ask a chosen few to read their masterpieces to the entire class.

When I started very intentionally about fifteen years ago to make sure every student was given a chance to shine, I kept track with a yellow high-lighter. Each time a student won the “regional” championship of Spanish Jeopardy, had her poem voted the best in the class, or drew a remarkable dream house, I put a small yellow dot next to his or her name in the grade book. This helped me keep track of everyone who had gotten some share of positive attention. Within a short time, it became second nature and I no longer used the yellow dots.

One practice I use that might be only appropriate for college is giving a thumbs-up to the people with the highest test scores as I am handing them out, and mouthing Buen trabajo (Good job). I realized that about half of those who receive the top grades on any test in my classes are quiet and don’t stand out socially. Some of them barely speak. By publicly recognizing how well they have done (which is usually a reflection of how much they studied), they gain some status within the community. Every single quarter, at least one of these quiet, excellent test-takers has talked to me for the first time after having been congratulated for doing so well. Also, I see other students gravitating toward them for group projects. I believe that this technique has worked well to draw out shy, hardworking students so that they engage with more confidence in communicative activities.

At the junior high or high school level, public recognition might backfire and end up causing the serious student some flack in the hallway. In that (p.186) case, a teacher might call up the students who got the top exam scores after class to congratulate them individually. I firmly believe that doing well on an exam should be socially recognized in some way more than a letter grade or high number on the exam.

Once in a while you will get a student who doesn’t need to be “allowed” to shine in your classroom because she will always try to grab the spotlight or tend to go on and on when she does take the floor. The fact that you only permit talking in the language you teach will reduce the frequency of this, but you still might need to keep the situation under control. To deal with students who feel the need to steal the limelight, I have developed some interrupting skills. Sometimes I simply say “very interesting” while they are still speaking and turn away to start another activity. Sometimes I grab one of the words in their monologue and use it to launch the next activity.

Only one student (as far as I know) has caught on to my “let everyone shine” methodology, and I only knew that because of the evaluation he wrote at the end of the semester. I can’t be certain of who the author of the comment was, but the handwriting looked exactly like the writing of a young man who had significant physical impairments, used a wheelchair, and had difficulty holding a pencil. The evaluation read, “She figures out what each of us does best and makes us feel good about it.”

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker approach sounds great, right? Everyone is equally as good and as important as any other person, including the excellent students and the struggling students. But one of the important keys to making it work is that you, the teacher, be respected as the leader. You are not their friend, and it is not a democracy. Jackson Hardin put it very well when she wrote, “Teachers who want total control in the classroom will find that students rebel against that control. Teachers who are too lax will lose control of the classroom as students take over the running of the class. What students want is a benevolent dictatorship in which the teacher is in charge of the classroom” (p. 265). It doesn’t mean that you aren’t friendly and that you don’t consider their opinions when making decisions. But you are ultimately the one in charge.

As you become more secure in your position as the “captain of the ship,” you will know when and how to step back to allow students to take charge of some aspects of their own learning. Another benefit of a classroom community in which everyone feels like he or she is a valued member is that (p.187) stronger bonds are formed between students. I greatly enjoy watching as some of my students form relationships that extend beyond the classroom.

Have a Behavior Intervention Plan

Everything I have recommended that you do until now—establishing clear rules and procedures, nurturing the formation of a community, assuming the uncontested role of group leader—all fall into what might be considered “preventative strategies” (Clunies-Ross, Little, and Kiehuis 2008). In other words, by employing these strategies you are reducing the likelihood that you will see problem behaviors emerge.

But despite all the work you do, there will be some students who disrupt learning, show you disrespect, or both. There can be many reasons for their behavior, and one of them is the fact that some people have rebellious temperaments. Another is the fact that some students haven’t gotten enough attention for positive behavior, so they have long-entrenched patterns of acting out because that guarantees them some attention. Whatever the case, the earlier you intervene successfully, the better school year you will have.

When I returned to the classroom after taking a leave of absence from work in order to spend two years in the behavioral program for my autistic son, I began to approach the issue of problematic students differently. I clearly remember the second week in a Spanish 2 class when a student mumbled something to his neighbor and they both looked at me and laughed. I said to myself, “This guy is going to cause me trouble. I need to come up with a plan.” You might be thinking, so what? They shared a joke? Nope. My original impulse was correct. That student ended up causing me serious problems, and his instructor for Spanish 1 told me he did the same to her.

Let me confess that in my first attempt to employ behaviorism in the classroom, things did not go perfectly. I started out ignoring him and, when that didn’t work, asked to speak to him in the hallway. I will never forget the spark in his intelligent eyes and the tiny smile on his face when we stepped outside. I realized, “He LIKES this added attention. This is probably not going to work!” But I learned from that unfortunate situation, and the following autumn I developed a six-step plan that in ten years has never failed me. I am not telling you that I have changed sullen, rude freshmen into bright-eyed, (p.188) high-performing students. But I will tell you that in every case the problem students started controlling themselves enough that they did not have a negative impact on my class.

I am well aware that there are fewer problem behaviors in college than in junior high or in high school, in part because all college students have decided that they want to be in class and (most of them) are paying for it. But no matter what level you teach, these techniques will help you reduce the degree and the quantity of behavior problems. The steps are:

  1. 1. Identify the problem early.

  2. 2. Decide if a path other than intervention is warranted.

  3. 3. Put the behaviors on extinction.

  4. 4. Invite the student by your actions (not words!) back into the community.

  5. 5. Call the student out for the behaviors.

  6. 6. Implement a consequence.

Before we go any further I must emphasize one thing: you need to know where you are headed in Step 6—and then do everything you can to NOT get there.

If you are in college, does that mean reporting the student to judicial affairs? Does that mean giving her “0” for participation and thereby reducing her final grade by a full letter grade? You must have the specifics of this kind of result spelled out in your syllabus. Don’t dwell on it the first day, but rather go over it very quickly. If you spend too much time on it you are starting on a negative note, and the likelihood is that you will not have significant problems.

If you work at a high school, does this mean sending the student to the principal? To detention? Calling a parent-teacher conference? Very importantly, the consequence has to be something that the student truly cares about. For college students, that is often their grades. For high school students, it might be grades and it might be loss of free time in detention.

Now let’s return to Step 1 to discuss strategies for handling situations in ways that significantly reduce the chances that you and your student will arrive at Step 6.

(p.189) 1. Identify the Problem Early

There was a time when I simply ignored the first sign of rudeness from a student. I did not want to deal with it, and I thought that maybe it would go away. Truth be told, sometimes the bad behavior did go away, at least enough times that it seemed a viable strategy. My classes are fun, and always have been. Some students just decide to get aboard so they can have fun with everyone else.

But there were enough times that it did not go away, and I wished I had done something sooner. Now when I see behavior that is rude, confrontational, or distracting to the other students, I move closer to that area of the classroom and I look the student in the eye. This serves two purposes. First of all, in the whirlwind of getting three classes of thirty students off the ground, it helps me to remember who had done something that was the first sign of possible trouble. I don’t do anything about it yet, but I am now paying particular attention. Secondly, I believe most students know by a look that I am making a mental note. I am certain that I don’t look menacing or angry, but I also don’t look friendly, which is my main mode of interaction with students.

2. Decide If a Path Other Than Intervention Is Warranted

Sometimes behavior that appears to be disrespectful or disruptive can be eliminated with a little bit of empathy and positive attention. For one thing, sometimes there is a personal problem that is seriously impacting a student, and the best thing you can do is initiate a conversation. This step is most appropriate at the high school or junior high level. Over and over again I have had teachers tell me that when they have a student who has been causing trouble stay after class to talk, they often find out that something is going on such as a divorce, an illness, or financial hardship in the family. Some students have really difficult home lives, and they bring all their anger to school. One high school teacher told me that she had a parent-teacher conference with a disruptive student, and when she witnessed how aggres-sively and rudely the father treated the boy, she thought, “No wonder he acts like that in class! It’s the way he is treated.” It didn’t solve her classroom management problem, but it made her more empathetic.

It is important to begin the conversation in the right way. For example, don’t say, “Brittany, you have been really rude and I am sick of it. Either stop (p.190) it or you are in big trouble.” You might say, “Brittany, I’ve noticed that you can’t seem to concentrate on work in my class. Is there anything going on that you want to talk about?” One of the most dynamic and respected junior high teachers I have ever known said that this moment of reaching out to her students is often all that is needed to change the behavior. She lets them know that she is on their side, and she even gives them a break or two on homework, or gives them extra help. When a kid is going through problems at home or out in the world, having a respected teacher in his or her corner can make a huge difference.

You might not use this second step much at the university level, in part because it could be seen as intrusive into the personal matters of someone who is legally an adult. But, believe me, there are some college students going through some very rough times. I have had freshmen cry in my office because they were very homesick, and others pour out their hearts to me because they felt inferior to their peers. At one university I came to realize that the doctor’s notes for psychological services were a different color from the medical center’s notes. Most of the doctor’s notes I was getting from students were for psychological services. That quarter, I had two students confide in me that they were severely depressed. What an eye-opener!

Another situation in which a bit of understanding and positive attention might help is with students who have rebellious personalities. Remember that in the big picture rebels are wonderful. They launched our nation’s revolutionary war and fought the good fight for women’s and minority rights. Without rebels in our midst, societies would never change. But having them in our classroom can be a challenge. Do what you can to invite your rebels aboard, and try to figure out a way for them to show their rebellious identity in a way that benefits the community. One student wants to write about a famous person not on the list of possibilities for the essay? Meet with her and expect her to explain why she wants to write about that person. Let her write that essay, and if she does a good job, allow her to read her conclusion to the class.

I have also noticed that some ethnic communities foster a type of verbal interaction that can appear rebellious or even disrespectful to those not from that community. For instance, I’ve learned from some of my African American students that there is a style of teasing that is meant to be friendly and is meant to show off the speaker’s proficiency in using that style. One young woman used to ask me tough questions, like what was the Spanish (p.191) term for “doing that thing,” by which she meant having sex. She flashed her ultra bright smile and the class erupted in laughter. I told her hacer el amor (to make love), asked her to repeat it, and then told her she could consult with me afterward for richer vocabulary. I had no intention of teaching her sexual terminology, but rather planned on sending her to a slang dictionary. But there was no need for the referral. After class she simply flashed that winning smile again, said “Adiós,” and left class. From that young woman and others I’ve learned to let them be themselves by using humor, only permitting español, and creating boundaries for this interpersonal style with social reinforcement or ignoring.

Last but not least, I must bring up the issue of extremely intelligent students who cause problems because they feel superior or are bored in general by our educational system. First of all, it is important to remember that they might be right on both accounts. But I’ve learned that it is best to bring them aboard by using humor, providing a class that is not boring, and showing respect for their intelligence. It doesn’t matter how high the student’s IQ is, you still know more about the language and can still teach him or her plenty.

One of the best examples I have in recent memory of this type of student was an English major that I’ll call Marina. During the first week, Marina sat in the back and had what I would consider a skeptical look on her face. When I would initiate interactive activities that called for everyone to stand up and move around, she wouldn’t get out of her seat without a very direct request. Sometimes she would look bored, but then out of the blue she would ask a very penetrating question about grammar. She was clearly the type of person who liked to analyze language.

One day we were reviewing the imperative and I called on a few people to stand up. I gave them some humorous “Simon Says” commands. Marina stood up, but when I told her to shake Kristen’s hand, she looked me in the eyes for a moment and said, “No.” I moved a little closer, smiled, and said, “I’ll give you back the points you lost yesterday for not bringing your textbook to class.” She thought for a moment, turned to Kristen, stuck out her hand, and said, “Buenos días.” Everyone laughed.

That week, students handed in the first version of an essay. I went to town on Marina’s, both by pointing out what she had done well and what could be improved, not just in her use of Spanish but also in her logic and structure. I wanted her to see in my comments feedback that would help her (p.192) English writing as well as her Spanish. The day after I handed back those essays, Marina started sitting in the second-to-front row and participating much better than she had before. By showing her that I had plenty to teach her and by using humor rather than confrontation, I was able to bring Marina psychologically into the community.

3. Put the Behaviors on Extinction

After having identified students that have shown problematic behavior, and first intervening in an empathetic and positive way in the situations where you think it might be warranted, it is time to move on to the next level: putting a behavior “on extinction.” Jackson Hardin describes extinction in this way: “When reinforcement is no longer forthcoming, a response becomes less and less frequent. This process of ending undesired behaviors by with-holding reinforcement is known as extinction” (p. 28).

It is true that sometimes ignoring a behavior is enough to make it go away, but I have found that simply ignoring rudeness or refusal to participate is usually not enough. I have bumped up this strategy to a level in which I intentionally ignore the person in every way that I can. My message is: This is a fun community and I am a competent leader. If you want to stay “aboard,” you have to treat me with respect and you must participate.

What does that look like? The first thing I do is remove his or her name card from my pile of cards. (I create this pile of cards at the beginning of the semester and use them to call on people. It is a method that makes sure people are given equal chances to speak and it keeps people on their toes.) The next step involves providing more positive feedback to students around the problematic student to make the student feel a bit left out. I mostly use physical proximity, eye contact, and smiles. For instance, if Jonathon has been identified as displaying problem behavior and Andrew sits next to him, Andrew will start getting more attention. When I call on Andrew, I will step closer to him and draw out his answers. I will smile and invite comments from other students. I do these things anyway, so it does not look out of place. I will simply do them more intentionally to the students sitting around Jonathon. It is extremely important to NOT even glance at Jonathon because eye contact from the teacher is a form of attention. Even if it is not registered on a conscious level, a student knows that if the teacher looks him or her in the eyes, the teacher is paying attention.

(p.193) The third step involves “forgetting” something. For instance, I will forget to return Jonathon’s work or forget to assign him to a group when everyone is getting involved in a fun project. This usually obliges Jonathon to step forward and ask to be included or ask to get his work back.

4 . Invite the Student Back into the Community

If the student asks to be included in a project or to have his work returned, this is a psychological step in the right direction, and the moment is extremely important. In essence, Jonathon is asking to be included, and you should welcome him back warmly. I usually pause just for a moment (silence is powerful), and then I smile broadly and apologize for having forgotten him. I speak to him briefly, using eye contact, and then either return his work to him or put him in a group. You might not feel like warmly welcoming back a wayward student, because you are still angry at his rudeness and the impact he has had on other students. But remember, your goal is to improve his behavior, and this is a strategy that works. So, put on your best smile.

If I did not return an assignment to him and he does not ask to get it back, I hold onto it until the next assignment goes back to students and return it then without saying a word. If I did not include him in a group project and he does not ask to be included, I will wait until students get going on their activity and ask him with as little eye contact as possible to please go find a group.

If “forgetting” the student doesn’t work, I continue with the intentional ignoring for one more week. The following week I “invite” him back into the community by calling on him to answer a question, usually an interesting one. I move close and smile as I ask the question. I give him lots of positive feedback for any kind of appropriate response. I put his name card back in the pile.

If the problem behavior continues, I give it one more round of ignoring and forgetting. This whole procedure usually takes about two weeks, and it has worked in most of the cases in which I have identified a student early on as having problematic behaviors. The best part about this technique is that it works. The second-best part about it is that nobody even knows I am doing it, or at least nobody has brought it up. I am under the impression that it works on a subconscious level.

(p.194) 5. Call the Student Out for the Behaviors

In the past ten years, the strategies I have described up until this point have only failed me six times. In those six cases, the rudeness of the students left me feeling that I had no alternative but to speak to them directly about their behavior. I usually wait until about ten minutes before class ends, and always wait until everyone is involved in a pair activity so that my comment is only obvious to the student and his or her partner. I go up to the student in question and touch the desk with my finger. When he or she looks up, I say, “I need to speak with you after class.” One time, a young woman got a look of panic on her face, a look that said, “Uh-oh. I’m in trouble.” She responded with, “I can’t. I have to get clear across campus to my other class.” I said, “Then I will dismiss class five minutes early so we have time.” Secondary teachers often cannot dismiss class early, but they can write a note for a student to arrive late to the next class.

When class ends, I don’t look at the student or say anything until the room has cleared. The moment needs to be slightly uncomfortable. Then I say something like, “I have found your behavior in my class to be _____ (disrespectful, disruptive, etc.). For instance, you have _____ (spoken to me rudely, interrupted other students working, etc.). Do you have an explanation for your behavior?” You must be VERY specific about the behavior that you want to change. Don’t demand that they change the way they feel or think because you don’t have the right to do that and, in truth, you have no idea what is going on in their heads. Stick with behavior that is observable and measurable in some way.

It has been extremely surprising to me that at this point three students that I had judged to be disrespectful and unmotivated appeared to feel quite bad and apologized. I accepted their apologies, reminded them that participation is 10 percent of the grade, and told them that if the behavior continued they would get an F. Even though a student’s apology can appear very sincere, I believe it is important to remain slightly distant and objective. The student will get back in your good graces by changing his or her behavior, not by apologizing profusely.

Calling a student out is as far as I have ever had to take my intervention strategy. I have only once seen a problematic student switch and become a hardworking and respectful student after having been called out. But in (p.195) every incidence their rude or disruptive behaviors have diminished enough that they no longer took away from the quality of my class.

6 . Implement a Consequence

If calling the student out for the behavior does nothing to change it, you will have to follow through with the consequence the very first time it appears again. I recommend that you put the infraction and the consequence in writing. For instance, if any of the students I had “called out” had continued with the problematic behavior, my plan was to inform them in writing that their 10 percent participation grade had been reduced by half. That would mean that a person ending a term with a final grade of 74 would instead get a 69. If they had continued, the final participation grade would have been reduced to zero, which would bring a 74 down to 64. That would mean that a C for the class would become a D. In both universities where I have worked, I have also investigated the process for reporting disruptive students to judicial affairs. If bringing down the participation grade did not work, I would have initiated the process of requesting that they be removed from my class. However, as I said, I’ve never had to go beyond the step of “calling out” a student.

At the high school and junior high level, you will have to design a consequence meaningful to your students. It is likely that some of your students will care about grades and others will not, so you might have two consequences—one of them the participation grade and the other a loss of time or privileges. This could mean spending time in detention or missing the class pizza party. Whatever the case, you must follow through or there is little chance that you will reduce the problem behavior.

My Semester from Hell

To provide you with some specific examples of how differently this approach can be implemented with different students, I will tell you the story of the worst semester of my life: four problem students in an 8:00 a.m. Spanish 1 university class.

First there was “Brian.” Brian would often walk in late, hood pulled over his eyes, and bump desks as he made his way to the back of the room. He would (p.196) drop his backpack loudly and lean over to say something in English to one of the two star female athletes who sat in the back. When pair- and group-work assignments were made, he would at first pretend to be doing the work but then quickly start telling stories in English. He would groan loudly when the class was given homework assignments. A few times he fell asleep with his head leaned against the back wall.

Second came the dynamic duo, “Evan” and “Justin.” They had graduated from the same high school in a prosperous town two hours south of our university. Their Spanish was good enough that they should have been in Spanish 3, and I suggested that they transfer to a more advanced class, but they shrugged and did not do it. I was under the impression that they wanted an easy A and were “punching the clock” in my class. One of the things they both did (one more than the other) was always speak in an exaggerated “gringo” accent in Spanish, mostly by drawing out their vowels. For instance, Evan would often say, “Kay Ba-WAY-no” for “¡Qué bueno!” (How nice!). They would look each other in the eye and laugh, delighted with their performance. I very clearly remember considering, just for a moment, changing my syllabus that semester to eliminate my mandatory attendance policy. I thought that maybe, by doing that, 75 percent of my behavior problems would stay home in bed and I would enjoy teaching more. It was just a passing thought.

Finally, there was “Tony,” who sat in the back left corner of the room. He gave the impression that he was angry and bored. Sometimes when I asked him a question he would glare at me for one or two seconds before answering.

By the second week I was fairly certain that these four were not just fresh-men showing adjustment to college issues, and I decided that the empathetic conversation was not in order with any of these gentlemen. I moved straight to the isolation technique. All four name cards were put away and, because of that, Evan and Justin no longer got to display their exaggerated gringo accents to the class.

The isolation technique immediately started to work with Tony. I was lucky in that the student sitting next to him was a dynamic, hardworking student who seemed to genuinely want to learn Spanish. “John” was an Iraq war veteran who told me after class that he was thrilled to be going to college. One day when I walked up very close to hear John talk about his family, Tony immediately joined the conversation! It was a great moment, because (p.197) he was inviting himself back into the community. In that conversation, I learned a little about his five brothers and sisters and his grandmother. That little bit of information was all I needed to strike up a conversation after class. I learned that Tony was indeed a heritage speaker, that he was the youngest in his family, and that his Spanish was the “worst” of the siblings. Now his behavior made sense. Tony was insecure about his Spanish! I told him that his pronunciation was fantastic and that I was really happy he was in the class because the other students would get to hear a native accent. He gave me the only smile I got out of him the entire semester. After that, Tony still had a somewhat angry look on his face, but I came to think that was simply his personality. From then on he always participated willingly and treated me with respect. I have no doubt that sitting next to John helped in that regard. One on board, three to go.

Evan and Justin did not seem to care that they were no longer called upon to answer questions. They slouched in their seats, acted bored, whispered things to each other, and laughed. I decided to move it up one notch. That day, students were learning vocabulary associated with household chores. I brought aprons, rags, a broom, and a bucket, and put them in groups of three to come up with skits that involved chores and some kind of conflict. I told Evan and Justin that they could work together without anyone else. While the students were coming up with the skits I walked from group to group to help with ideas and Spanish phrases for conveying their meaning. I stayed clear of Evan and Justin.

When it came time to put on the skits, I called up all the groups except for the dynamic duo, and then said, “Now, let’s move on to the next section.” One of them said out loud, “Pero, nosotros no hemos presentado” (But we haven’t presented). I turned to look at them for a few seconds before saying, “Oh, you want to participate?” They looked at each other, and I felt certain that they knew what was going on. One of them said, “Sí.” I looked down and stayed quiet for a few more seconds, and then said, “Bien,” moving out of the way.

I don’t remember what their skit was about, but it was somewhat confusing and seemed to involve a drunken motel custodian. If I had helped them with their skit as I did the others, it probably would have been more understandable. But as it turned out, they were the only ones laughing because nobody else got it. Normally, when skits deteriorate, I rescue the students and clarify their stories or jokes. But I allowed Evan and Justin to (p.198) flounder, and they received weak applause from the class. They were clearly embarrassed.

I said nothing for a few moments. Then I smiled broadly, thanked them, and moved close to chat a little about what they had just presented. One of them spoke to me, for the first time, without the exaggerated gringo accent. Maybe they realized that I did have some power to make their experience in my class better or worse. Maybe they had simply been humiliated. Whatever the case, neither of them became attentive and respectful students. But after that day, the bad accents and the smirks disappeared. I put their name cards back in the pile.

Finally, there was Brian. It appeared that he could not care less if he wasn’t called upon or if he was ignored. In contrast, the young women sitting around him seemed to thrive on my additional attention. One morning, I smelled beer on him—at 8 a.m!—and he looked a little drunk. I couldn’t even imagine how that could happen. Had he stayed out all night drinking, or had he started his day with beer and cereal? I had never had a drunken student in class before, and I didn’t know what to do. Should I pull him out of class right then and there and ask him in the hallway if he was drunk? If he said no, then what? And if I didn’t pull him out of class, who was going to get stuck with him for the communicative activity? I decided to make the interactive part of class a small group conversation to dilute his impact on any one person. But, as it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about that for long because he fell asleep quickly with his head leaning back against the wall and his mouth open. He started to snore. I walked over and stood next to him. All twenty-nine pairs of eyes turned to follow me. Many started to snigger. One of the women sitting nearby poked Brian and he jerked awake. I said in English, “I need to speak with you after class.” He slunk down in his chair and stayed that way the rest of class.

When we spoke, I tried to control my anger, but I could feel it seeping out as I told him to never come to my class drunk again, to never sleep in my class again, and, if he could not control his disruptive behavior, that he should sit on the far side of the room away from the other students. To my surprise, he kept his eyes down and kept saying over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” I told him that he was already getting a D for participation, and that if there were any more problems the grade would drop to zero. Given the fact that he was getting a C– thus far in the class, it would take his final grade down to a D.

(p.199) When I turned to the door I saw that one of the students had returned, a straight-A young woman who worked very hard and always sat near the front. “I’m sorry you had to hear that,” I said after Brian left. “No, no. I really liked that you told him,” she said. Serious students truly do want teachers to keep disruptive students in line.

Brian wasn’t in class the rest of the week. The following week, and every week after that, he was always on time. He didn’t fall asleep again, and I never smelled alcohol on him. He kept his eyes down and only spoke as much as he had to in order to participate in the communicative activities. His final grade was a C–. Although I can’t be certain, I imagine that the scathing evaluation I got from one student in that class was Brian’s. It was a small price to pay.

As you will soon learn, it is not enough to know our subject matter and be adept at methodology for teaching a second language. We must also learn classroom management techniques to motivate everyone and to deal with behavior problems. The three most important principles are: Establish clear expectations and rules, foster a positive community in your classroom, and develop an intervention plan for problem behavior. Your intervention plan will involve early identification of students with potentially problematic behavior, an empathetic response when it is warranted, and strategic ignoring of the student followed by a nonverbal invitation to return to the community. In difficult situations, you will have to resort to some kind of consequence. At first, this approach might feel burdensome with all of its steps, but with practice it can become second nature.

It could take anywhere from one to four weeks to firmly establish a classroom community and to deal with any behavior problems that you identify. One seasoned professor I know calls that moment when she can feel that everyone in the class is aboard “the click.”“I wait for that day, that moment when I am certain that we are all together in this voyage, that they are MY class,” she said. Once that happens, once you have concentrated on establishing yourself as the credible leader, have done everything in your power to bring the rebels aboard, and have begun using strategies to better include students with disabilities, don’t forget to turn your attention to the others. Speak to the quiet ones and pay attention to the writing assignments of (p.200) those who don’t grab your attention for either good or bad reasons. They’re all your students, and you need to reinforce their feeling of belonging and development of the target language.

Summary Questions

  1. 1. What are the differences in the rules and expectations that a teacher would make explicit for elementary school students in comparison with high school students? What are the differences in the rules and expectations that a teacher would make explicit for high school students in comparison with college students?

    • __________

  2. 2. What are some of the ways that a teacher can foster a sense of community in a classroom?

    • __________

  3. 3. Do you agree that a teacher should be a “benevolent dictator”? Do you remember excellent teachers that either proved or disproved this idea?

    • __________

  4. 4. Name the steps involved in the author’s behavior intervention plan for students that are disrespectful or disruptive to the class. As a teacher, would you change that plan for use in your class?

    • __________


Scenario 1

For their final project, your students must interview a native speaker about cultural practices that are kept alive in his or her family, such as celebrations, ways of food preparation, or storytelling. On your syllabus the assignment is described in the following way:

(p.201) FINAL PROJECT—20 percent

For your final project you must interview a French speaker about the traditional cultural practices that have been kept alive by his or her family. Then you must write a paper comparing or contrasting the ways people engage in this practice in her/his country of origin and the ways her/his family engages in this practice. The paper will be due at the end of the semester.

A month before the semester ends, you tell students that the paper is due in two weeks. The following week you receive so many complaints that you change the date to the last day of class. The papers you end up receiving are not nearly as good as you would expect given the students’ level of French. Other problems include the fact that some of the students interviewed each other even though none of them come from families of French descent, and the fact that some of the students wrote their papers in English. A master teacher tells you that you need to break up the final project goals into small chunks that students can work on during the semester. She also tells you that you need to be much more specific about your expectations. Rewrite the Final Project description for your syllabus using a calendar of the current year.


Scenario 2

It is your first week of school, and you are both delighted and concerned about the strong personalities in your class. There is one student who sits in front, is full of energy, and constantly interrupts. She often looks around to see if the others are looking at her. One student shows up early and draws on the white board with your erasable markers. One student keeps his cap low over his eyes and is constantly texting. Two heritage speakers are animated in the beginning of class and like to answer your warm-up questions, but as soon as class gets going they seem to be bored and often start doing work for other classes. What are some strategies you might employ to pull this community together?