A couple years before I retired, I was teaching fifth grade mathematics at my Title 1 elementary school – despite the fact that I was the principal. The teacher was out on a medical procedure that week, and her class was a challenging group of students that would severely test even the most experienced substitute. Besides, the student issues that would surely arise in this class, I would own – anyway – by day’s end. Hence, I rearranged my normal administrative schedule for the week and opted to be their math teacher.
As I was providing examples during the direct teach of the math lesson, I verbally encouraged and pressed students in their work. I made a comment to one of the most challenging students on the grade level to pick-up his pace. Unfortunately, he took my comment personally and replied, “At least I am not going bald like you.” A collective ‘Ohhhh’ floated across the classroom and then, the classroom grew quiet. The other students were waiting. They wanted to know what I was going to say and do – after all, I was the principal – and I was going bald.
Fortunately, I had established a positive relationship with this young man over the years, since he had been a frequent flyer to the office for differing behavioral reasons. First, there can be no doubt that the student was out of line. Second, he is only ten years old, and I was nearly fifty years old. Third, as one would expect, his comment unsettled me. Finally, I was more than aware that what I did and said to him in the next 30 seconds was key to maintaining a positive relationship as well as preventing a negative impact on student learning in the classroom.
I responded to him in a calm, unaffected voice, “My friend, when you get to be my age, any hair on your head is a blessing from God.” He and the class laughed, and I continued, “Now, let’s get back to work – the learning is not going to stop because your teacher is out this week.” The entire class returned their attention to completing their math problem. After class was over, I talked privately to the young man, and we discussed respectful responses and conduct toward one another. He agreed with me and to my surprise, apologized. In the end, I tried to make the incident a learning lesson.
Educators guide children in all facets of their lives at school – socially, emotionally and academically. We must demonstrate self-control and model the behavior we expect from our students despite the small relational flair-ups that will frequently occur. When emotional situations are not handled with a measured response in the classroom, they often turn a 15-second incident into several hours of parent-teacher-administrative meetings to find mutual resolution. The time lost over avoidable meetings is not the only negative impact. It will take the teacher significant time to reestablish a positive trustful relationship with the child and especially the parent. A molehill must not escalate into a mountain.
Pragmatic Recommendations: How to ‘Keep a minor disruption….MINOR!’
It is imperative that a teacher or a principal “Not allow a minor disruption to disproportionately escalate.” The educator is the adult at the school. Always evaluate and consider options in advance to contain a situation when minor flair ups occur. Below are a couple practical suggestions that I stressed during the August professional development sessions each school year to guide classroom teachers in the event of unanticipated disrespectful student conduct.
Remain calm. Do not let your voice emotively rise. The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference. It is time for the teacher or administrator to be indifferent and not become emotional. If the educator is calm and deliberate, the situation will likely remain the same. Fundamentally established and sound relationships endure over tumultuous emotions.
Provide children a small amount of time to compose themselves. Put time on your side.
If a child is prone to emotional flair-ups, proactively plan with the student. Hence, the child is aware during an emotional outbreak that they may have a safe place or set a fixed period of minutes to regain their self-control.
Can the teacher make a neutral, de-escalating joke to defuse the situation?
The teacher may always tell a student, “Please continue with your work. We will discuss this in a little while.” However, a conversation should only occur when the student is calm and prepared to participate and respond appropriately.
When talking to the student, be reasonable. None of us can change yesterday – it has already happened. Thus, during a student-teacher discussion, guide and make a proactive plan that is fair, effective and reasonable.
Finally, at the end of the discussion, there must be an equitable consequence to disrespectful student behavior. The outcome may only be a conversation on appropriate conduct, as I described above. It is a serious mistake for the child’s disrespectful behavior to remain unaddressed.
All classroom environments must demand respect and order. Of course, if the teacher is instructionally prepared each day and establishes sound, equitable classroom management, they are much more equipped to handle undesirable student conduct. Furthermore, it is highly recommended that the principal provide professional development training at the onset of each school year so all classroom teachers are pragmatically and mentally prepared to address disrespectful student conduct.