(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
This “tool” has helped me remain calm in many stressful teaching situations. Without this, I probably would have changed careers many years ago. I discovered this tool during my first month of teaching ESL when I was in Africa in the Peace Corps.
Here is what happened that first time in Africa. One day early in the term, I was conducting a lesson in a class of 35 students. Sitting in the front row were two popular students, Kato (the class president) and his best friend, Abdula. They were have a good time privately whispering and laughing while I was explaining the lesson. I could tell the other students had noticed them, so I knew I had to do something before the other students would start talking and I’d lose control of the class. Because Kato and Abdula were popular, I knew that I could alienate the other students if I didn’t handle this situation delicately. I could feel my stomach churning and blood pressure rising. Probably many teachers would have the same initial inclination that I had which would be to just tell them to stop talking. But what if I did that, and they continued talking? Then what could I do? I decided to not say anything right then and to think about it after class.
After returning home, I spent hours struggling with what to do, when I hit on an idea. Since I didn’t want a confrontation in front of the other students, I decide to write both of them a message that would say something like, “Kato [Abdula], usually you are a serious student, but on Tuesday, you and Abdula [Kato] were have a conversation and laughing during the lesson. You were disturbing other students. I hope that you will be more serious in the future. “
I then realized that if I only give those two the little notes, all the other student would probably ask them what I had written to them, and it could get embarrassing for them. So I decided to write all 35 students a message. For most of them, I wrote, “You are working well in class. You listen well, answer questions and ask questions. Good job!”
That night, my sleep was disturbed by visions of Kato and Abdul laughing at what I had written and throwing the paper at me. But I decided that I needed to try this.
At the beginning of the next class, I handed out the notes, and Kato and Abdul were among the first to get theirs because they were sitting in the front. Soon, I was in the back of the room, giving out the last ones, when I turned to start walking to the front of the room. That’s when I saw Kato and Abdul standing in front waiting for me. My heart sank as I imagined an ugly confrontation. Instead, as I reached the front, the two of them crossed their arms as a sign of respect and said, “We’re sorry. We promise to be serious from now on.” Whew!!! Best of all, they and all the students were great those next couple of days. So to reinforce that, three days later, I wrote them all another message, and that time, I gave Kato and Abdul very positive comments.
I’ve used variations of this kind of feedback in many different classes that I’ve taught (on four continents and with students from over 40 countries) and found the response from students to be overwhelmingly positive. Needless to say, with access to computers/printers and photocopy machines and by using a standardized checklist, the process is much more user-friendly than it was when I had to write out a message to each student.
There are several reasons why this tool is so effective:
1) Students are given positive feedback on what they are doing that is helping them develop their skills. And they can see specifically what the teacher’s expectations are, and if they need to, adjust how they are meeting these.
2) No student is embarrassed in front of his/her classmates. The teacher doesn’t have to feel under pressure to “call out” a student during the class. The feedback can remain private.
3) The feedback is specific, depending on the goals of the course and/or the goals of a specific activity. See sample feedback form handout Feedback to students form
A Vital Step
A very important step is to give follow up feedback forms soon after in a future class to reward and encourage those who improved if they followed the advice in the previous one, and to reward those who have continued to do well.
As I had mentioned at the beginning of this posting, I have never felt as though I needed to react immediately to what a student was doing in class because I knew that I had this tool which I could use to redirect him/her is a non-threatening manner.
In sum, since that experience in Africa, I never again felt my blood pressure rise because I wasn’t sure how to handle a situation.
In my posting, Most Important Tool for Classroom Management (Case two and Caveat) I share another, very different situation in which I was able to use this tool to transform a class (and even a whole program).