by Rachel Babbs
Rachel Babbs is an ENVoY trainer and coach, is an Oregon school district staff trainer and teaches A Healthy Classroom. You can contact her at email@example.com.
I was talking with a teacher friend the other day, and, as is typical of most educators at the holiday time of the year, we started grousing about the usual seasonal difficulties we experience during the pre-holiday season.
One of our key frustrations is regarding the class responses to certain individuals; individuals whom the teacher has spent a lot of time in the months prior, teaching the class to ignore. And, until very recently, the class had been doing a fine of job of just that.
But in the two weeks before the holidays, even our most on-task and academically motivated students were getting hooked by these highly entertaining future HBO comedians. Instead of moaning and groaning about it as we do every year, we thought it might be more beneficial for us to try to figure out why this occurs and what can be done about it.
Seasons of the Classroom
We started doing some research and found that if we look at what Michael Grinder teaches us in the book, A Healthy Classroom, during certain seasons of the school year, students become more right brain-oriented. Even our so called “good students” become more random and kinesthetic. They all become more motivated by entertainment than by learning. There is an increased amount of attention towards inappropriate humor.
And, at the same time, when they are not giggling over some snide comment made by someone “in the peanut gallery” of the classroom, the students are breaking down in tears over something as minor and trivial as a broken pencil. We’ve all heard of “Seasonal Giggles”. What about “Seasonal Sobbing”? They cry at the drop of a hat. And, since the relationship between the teacher and the class has shrunk to the size of a peanut, the teacher can no longer call upon the student’s ability to reason.
We find that if the teacher asks anything of the class during this time period, the response time is very slow or nonexistent. It is as if they’ve all been invaded by an internet virus that has slowed their programming to a crawl. We give the command and they have about a minute delayed response. Or, if they’ve really been infected, the command is completely ignored.
In order to better understand the teacher’s frustration over classroom behavior during this time of the year, let’s back it up to before the season begins. Let’s look at a regular day, in a regular classroom. If it is late September and early October, the students are more linear and logical. They are more academically motivated.
Even if they are not, they will comply because the teacher is asking a favor of them. The relationship at this time of the year between the teacher and the class is strong enough that the class will do something because they want to please the teacher. The routines have been established and the students have a sense of the teacher’s expectations. The class hums along like a well oiled machine.
Fostering the Well-Oiled Classroom
Now, please understand that this machine didn’t just build itself. No. The teacher starts putting together the parts of this machine on the first day of school. And, the key to the functioning of this engine is the establishment of relationships between the teacher and individuals in the class and the between the teacher and the class as a whole. Once these relationships are in place, by the time late September rolls around, the teacher is, for the most part, able to operate through something we all love, called “influence”.
And, one of the most important aspects of “influence” is a strategy the teacher utilizes to build a healthy classroom called “fostering”. With fostering, the teacher can utilize relationships to foster behaviors that the teacher values, values that may be missing from the class as a whole.
So, even though individuals in the class might exhibit these behaviors, the desired behaviors are not present with the group as a unit. In math, we say that the value equals the sum of its parts. In group dynamics, we say that the value of the class equals the value of the class leaders.
For example, many of us have a high value in “working hard”, or “curiosity”, or “kindness”, or “appropriate humor”, or “ambition”, to name a few. If these values are not being exhibited by the class’s current leaders, the teacher looks for individuals who exhibit the desired behaviors and start to give these students attention in such a way that the class sees the teacher doing the fostering. The rest of the group sees the fostering being done and, if the group likes the teacher, the group will take on the same behaviors. They say, “Oh, that’s what I need to do to get the teacher’s attention around here.” Since a leader is anyone who is noticed, the teacher can increase the noticing of the individuals who have the values that the teacher wants to foster.
Now, let’s tie in with the idea of the sub-groups that make up the class culture. The teacher, once they have established a certain amount of rapport with the class, has a tremendous influence over which students the class will notice as their leaders. A leader is anyone who is noticed, positive or negative. Each leader is a member of a sub group.
A sub group is made up of a group of students who have the same values. Each sub group has a leader and each classroom is made up of several sub-groups. These sub-groups can include the “humor group”, the “likes to work hard group”, the “slow to grasp group”, or the “likes to help group”, to name a few. And, in the classroom, there is a hierarchy of these groups, a pecking order if you will.
In other words, there are certain sub-groups that influence the culture of the entire class, certain groups that are noticed, just like leaders are noticed. The rest of the needs of the other sub groups in the class are subordinate to the needs of the sub-group at the top of the food chain. The leaders of those sub groups are noticed by the rest of the class. And, that is why a smart teacher will find students who exhibit values that the teacher wants to foster and increase the leadership of those students. This will, in turn, cause the sub-group that those students are members of, to move up the hierarchal ladder. The more positive sub-groups will now have influence over the rest of the class.
The Right Brain Season
And, this brings us back around to the initial conversation and our frustration during the two weeks before any kind of a break. My friend felt like she had taken all of the above steps towards creating a very positive and healthy atmosphere in her classroom. She had squelched the negative sub groups that had dominated her class at the beginning of the year and had fostered the more positive sub groups that had the attributes that she wanted present in her class.
So, what happens every time there is any kind of break? Since the relationship between the teacher and the class diminishes, the teacher loses his or her ability to influence which sub-groups the rest of the class is going to notice. The value of the entire class changes during the Right Brain Season.
Unfortunately, before any kind of vacation comes, the sub-groups of entertainment, drama, and humor will emerge as the top sub groups in the pecking order. And, because the teacher’s influence is greatly diminished during this time of year, there is very little the teacher can do about it.
This phenomenon usually happens right around Thanksgiving. Suddenly this fantastically functioning, highly productive and motivated class, evolves into a different beast altogether. And, every year, even though we’ve been through it the before, we walk around scratching our heads, saying, “Who are these gremlins and what have they done with our students?” They are no longer functioning as a unit. Their motivation is not towards academic achievement. It is towards the inane. Our ability to inspire or push them has gone down the tubes. We whine, we plead, we berate, we yell, we bribe. We will try anything to get them to return to the yesteryears of a class well-stocked with students full of curiosity, productivity, and motivation.
So, the question becomes, “How can we still manage to make this time period educationally productive when we have such little influence over the class?” In our research, we spoke with many legendary teachers and looked at what they did during the difficult seasons of the school. We trust the some of the following suggestions will offer some tips that other teacher will find useful. One teacher said that he aligns himself with the current class leaders. The teacher does this by showing the rest of the class that he or she has a relationship with these students, that he likes these students. The rest of the class sees that the teacher is part of the “in-crowd” and will associate positive intention towards the teacher.
For example, this particular (high-school level) teacher said that in one of his more difficult classes, he has a student who has an audience addicted personality. The student, because his behavior is so belligerent and constant, quickly used up his tokens with the rest of the class. By early October the class, along with the teacher, would just ignore this student when he would start doing his usual antics.
But recently, just before the holiday vacation was to start, the class started to give this student attention again. The teacher, seeing this newly established leadership with the class knew that he had to figure out how to align himself with this re-emerging leader. The teacher also knew that this student was a bit of a hypochondriac.
So, one day in the middle of the right-brained season, just as class was about to begin, the teacher stepped away from his teaching area. He looked at the student and in front of the entire class said, “J.R., are you okay? You look a little pale.”
The student’s response was that he was fine, but did feel a little bit like he was getting a cold. The teacher then said, “Well, keep me posted. Let me know if I can do anything to help.” The teacher looked down, stepped back to his teaching area, and started the lesson. The rest of the class watching this interaction noticed that the teacher was concerned and that the teacher liked the student. And the student, who was normally such a problem, got the much desired attention he craved and was perfectly well behaved for the rest of the class period.
Another teacher said that she changes how she teaches during this time period. She shifts her teaching style in such a way that satisfies the needs of the current dominant sub group. For example, she will do more project based activities during this time period to meet the needs of the kinesthetic sub-group. Similarly, another teacher said that he uses humor more often during this time period or tells more stories to reinforce a concept. Another teacher said the she focuses on more review activities that reinforce previously taught concepts.
When Influence Doesn’t Work
There is one more strategy that may need to be implemented. Whether we want to admit to it or not, during this educationally challenging time of the year, we may need to resort to appropriate use of power to maintain the safety and functionality of the classroom. Influence is no longer effective. We would all like to be able to operate with influence throughout the entire year, but we know that it is just not possible. In order for influence to work, there has to be a relationship between the teacher and the students. And since the relationship between the teacher and the class shrinks during the two weeks before the vacation comes, utilizing influence during this time period is ineffective.
So, what is our back-up to influence? We want to suggest appropriate use of power. We know that for most teachers, this is not our preferred mode of operating. We tend to shy away from it because we philosophically don’t believe in it. But there are times, such as the two weeks before Christmas, that the students will need us to go to power to maintain safety and order in the classroom. So the question becomes, how do we use power in such a way that is effective for the students and lets the teacher feel okay about it?
In the book A Healthy Classroom, the author, Micheal Grinder, helps us understand the difference between Power and Influence by using the metaphor of Flight Attendant versus Captain. The Flight Attendant is in service to and the Captain is in charge of. On days of the school year when the group is functioning as a cohesive unit, the teacher gets to operate as the Flight Attendant, also known as influence. On days of the school year when the group is operating more as a group of individuals rather than as one unit, the suggestion is that that teacher has to operate as the Captain, or with power.
If we look at the behaviors of real flight attendants and real captains and adopt some of those behaviors, we find that we can operate with power in such a way as to not personalize it. Taking on the behaviors of a captain of an airplane when we go to power allows us to stay dissociated and not in touch with our feelings. Grinder likes to say, “We are paid to feel when we teach. We are not paid to feel when we manage.” Taking on the behaviors of a Captain gives us a way to do just that.
In summary, my friend and I both agreed that while right-brained days will always be a difficult time of year, it is no longer an impossible time of year. We now have some new strategies to implement and we will no longer take it personally when the students don’t respond to us as they did in early October. We learned a lot and trust that we can now approach Right Brained Days with renewed fervor. And, I’m sure we will continue to find time to moan and groan about the difficulties of our profession. At least now we will have one less moan to groan about.