Years ago, I worked in a school where faculty members routinely brought laptops to meetings. Everyone would gather in desks facing the front of the room, screens up, fingers furiously typing, while the facilitator spoke. At first, I was determined to sit near the front, maintain eye-contact with the facilitator, and participate meaningfully in discussion. Eventually, though, I gave up. It became clear what my colleagues thought of our meetings: this time was better spent preparing lessons, checking email, or even comparing Fantasy Football stats.
The way faculty meetings were run at this particular school was indicative of a larger, more pervasive problem: a lack of established norms and behavioral standards for everyone. If an outsider were to walk into any classroom, they would see students demonstrating similar behaviors and mirroring this same disengagement.
So what can administrators and teachers do to establish behavioral norms in classroom and school environments?
Step away from the situation
When a teacher comes to me again and again with the same behavioral concerns — students not using tablets or smartphones appropriately, calling out of turn, arriving to class late, using disrespectful language — I will often set the teacher to the task of observing and taking notes on the students in question while I get their class started for the period. This serves a dual purpose: teachers have the opportunity to step away from the situation and observe student behaviors objectively, as an outsider. In addition, the whole class is given a chance to reflect upon and re-establish behavioral expectations. As any effective teacher knows, the first thing you do when you walk into a classroom full of students whom you have never taught, is set norms through student input and empowerment. It’s amazing what happens when they are given the opportunity to reflect upon, and even make adjustments to their classroom behavior guidelines.
Walk in their shoes
Benjy was incredibly bright, intellectually curious, intrinsically motivated, and autistic. He also got kicked out of class a lot. One of the main reasons why this happened was because he couldn’t keep from punching holes in teachers’ logic. His brain was wired in such a way that it literally “itched” (his words) when a storyline contained flaws or loose ends, a complex math problem didn’t add up correctly, or a teacher gave out inaccurate or wholly incorrect information. Once teachers gave credence, and even respect to his practical natures (and supported his social development by teaching him how to properly address “itchy situations”) Benjy was able to stay in the classroom and really add to the intellectual value of discussions. Our brightest students will always be the first to disengage if we don’t make time for empathy and afford them the respect and validation they deserve.
Model academic risk-taking
A colleague recently told me about a social experiment of sorts that his high school conducted a few years back. Everyone swapped classes for one period of the day. English teachers taught Physics, Physics taught History, Math teachers taught English. What started out as nearly a practical joke, morphed into something slightly intimidating, and eventually, became an incredible learning experience not only for teachers, but also for students. Teachers found that they had to deliver instruction much more creatively using what schema they could access. They got really excited about uncovering new ideas and making intellectual breakthroughs (I think we call this “learning”). Their enthusiasm spread like wildfire. Students felt that teachers were as much their guides as they were their intellectual peers on an unexpected adventure in learning. When we allow students to see our humanity – our capacity to make mistakes and willingness to admit to our own lack of knowledge — they’re less likely to push back.
Follow your own rules
Speaking of mistakes, I made one this year. Just one. I covered for a teacher at the last minute when a family emergency arose, and in a hurry, I carried the remainder of my lunch into his classroom and ate it while the kids worked on a quiz. About 5 minutes in, I heard a crinkle. Then a rustle. Then crunch, crunch. Before I knew it, this class of highly-distractible students (all of whom are diagnosed with ADHD by the way) began calling out:
“Can I have a chip?”
“Where’d you get that Rockstar?”
“I don’t like the Cool Ranch Doritos. The orange cheese powder is awesome….”
“You guys, you can’t eat food in there!” I said through mouthfuls of sandwich.
To their credit, they all put the food away and got back to their quiz. But it’s not always this way. It may seem almost too simple to state, but follow your own rules. Don’t pull out your phone in class, speak respectfully to students, arrive on time, and contribute meaningfully to creating a culture of positivity and support.
Changing the way students behave in classrooms, or the way faculty attend to their work, starts with brainstorming and buy-in. If we want to create this environment, we must model key expectations and be flexible and humble enough to reflect and revise when necessary.