One of the skills Dr. Duke identified last semester as an element of expert teaching is “behavior management” in lessons.
This term is usually used to discuss the particular ways children are wrangled so that they do exactly what we want them to in lessons. But Duke asked us to look beyond student behavior to the sum and meaning of relational behaviors between students, parents, and teachers.
Trained in our family units, school, and communities to be socially appropriate (for efficiency and comfort’s sake), socialized humans are compelled to be polite. We ignore issues, we resist conflict, we justify bad behavior, we avoid hard conversations, we deliver fluffy compliments, and we seek simple, clean solutions to discomfort. These compulsions are the oil that keep our social machine running smoothly.
So the biggest challenge new teachers face is in switching their mindsets and behaviors from friend to teacher. As a teacher it is irresponsible to be polite. It is irresponsible to ignore issues, conflict, and bad behavior because those are often symptoms of challenges it is your job to help students overcome.
In a teacher to student relationship you are managing at all times the health of your student. Sure, as a bi-product of that healthful development your student will make some beautiful sounds on a violin, but much more importantly you will guide them toward becoming a beautiful human.
So if you are having issues with student behavior, take a close look at your own behavior. Are you acting as the teacher? Or are you acting as you’ve been socially conditioned, as a friend?
The complex dynamics of your relationship with your student can be hard to sort out while teaching. So I recommend you follow this process Dr. Duke led me through last semester.
- Take a video of your teaching (at least 20 minutes)
- Watch the video one time through, don’t do anything- just watch
- Watch the video again and stop every time your student’s unproductive behavior (off task, talking back, not following instructions, violent to self or others, etc.) occurs
- Now consider each of the following factors before, during and after the unproductive behavior…
- Attention flow. Where, why, and how does it operate?
- Lesson control. Who determines the pace, frame, content? When? How? Why?
- Teacher behavior. What is your body language, tone of voice?
- Parent behavior. What is their body language, tone of voice, engagement in the lesson?
After doing so you should have a much clearer idea of ALL of the factors related to the issue– not just your student’s behavior.
If you are anything like me, becoming aware of the ways your behavior might be enabling your student’s behavior is scary. See when you are in an adversarial mindset and the student’s behavior is a threat to you, then the side stepping you do just to survive is noble. You think the easy way is the right way.
You might have been trapped into thinking, “I’m the teacher, I should win,” or “This student is threatening me, their learning, and the learning of others so it is my responsibility to contain them,” or even, “This one’s just a bad egg. Right?”
But if you think through the the following set of questions…
– Do you respect your student?
– Will the behaviors you allow them to demonstrate enrich their life?
And answer a resounding yes to the first and a defeated no to the second, then for you to ignore, or merely weather the storm of their behavior, is downright irresponsible. You are harming your student by yielding to typical social conventions. This is not skilled teaching.
If you are ready to change, I recommend deploying the following strategies. These strategies take guts; they are uncomfortable. But the strategies also have the potential to turn around your unhealthy teacher/student relationships.
- Put your lesson in a container. I talk about the security for students that come from clear lesson boundaries. Make sure your student knows where to stand during a lesson, which language is appropriate and which is inappropriate, and exactly when the lesson starts and when it ends. (Read more)
- Break social forms. Use eye contact and the student’s name to reward good behavior, but be ruthless in turning off your eye contact and verbal acknowledgement when bad behavior persists. The most shocking way to grab your student’s attention is to rob them of yours.
- Offer choice. Ultimately it is your student’s decision to participate and to engage. It is also your student’s decision to have fun. Recognize the autonomy they do have in the lesson by inviting them into well timed, carefully crafted decision making opportunities. For example, ask “Do you want to play Lightly Row or Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” instead of, “Do you want to start your violin lesson.”
- Play the trump card. The most powerful tool you have as a teacher is the ability to start and finish of the lesson, and your student might not even realize this. It is possible that your lessons have always started at 4:30 on Wednesday afternoons before soccer practice, and your student thinks the lesson has a lot more to do with the clock than it does with your willingness to teach them. Show them that the lesson time is not automatic, it is not something that can be taken for granted, and that their decision not to stay inside the established boundaries and make appropriate decisions will jeopardize their lesson time. If poor behavior persists, you need to be persistent in ending a lesson immediately and walking out of the room. Kreitman calls this the Million Dollar Lesson.
None of these strategies are part of our daily, acceptable peer to peer interactions, and therefore require time to skill-build.
Set up some if-then-that scenarios so that if a behavior occurs in a lesson, you automatically perform your resulting behavior. If you need to, you can even write these formula on a sticky note to remind yourself. Breaking habitual behaviors does require deliberate practice, as I’m sure you know.
The final piece of wisdom to add is a helpful, and hopefully hopeful one. When you are on the road to correcting a teacher/student relationship you must remember that it will always get worse before it gets better. If you are doing the right thing — setting clear boundaries, redistributing control, giving unexpected social cues, and doing what your student never thought you would– it will feel like the bedrock of your relationship is shifting, and maybe crumbling. Take heart in knowing that it is the agitation of this foundation that will allow for fertile soil and new growth.