Tuesday, January 18, 2011


On any given day, I might find myself frustrated by a number of things that go on in my classroom.  I've written before about minor calamities (broken pencils! lost folders!) and major ones (suicide threats! thrown chairs!).  For the most part, those incidents -- like many things that happen when you become a teacher -- had nothing to do with my actual teaching ability, but rather my ability to not jump out a window in the face of overwhelming despair.

Lately, though, I've noticed something that does make me worry about my teaching ability: A number of my students, during mini lessons, are deeply engaged.  Deeply engaged, that is, with various activities other than paying attention to my mini lesson.  They are drawing on their folders.  They are playing with their fingers, or with the person's hair in front of them.  They are, in short, paying so little attention to the lesson that they are not even bothering to pretend to pay attention by staring at a space approximately above my head.

Over the years, I've tried a number of methods for bringing these students back to earth.  There's the singsongy, syrupy approach, in which I praise various other students in the vicinity of the offending student who are paying attention: "I can see that A.J. is ready to learn.  I would like to thank Tanya for paying attention..."  This approach has a calming effect, but when you have students who are seriously hardcore not paying attention, they don't even notice you're doing it.  Then there's the cranky bitter teacher approach, in which I zero in on a daydreamer with laser precision: "Manny, can you repeat what Jada just told us?  ...I didn't think so, because you're not paying attention."  I'm not such a fan of this one. 

Recently, though, I realized what does get their attention: not pleading, not "I'm waiting," not barking out orders to "sit on your bottoms, eyes on me."  What does get their attention is when I really get into my teaching; when I use funny voices, or toss in jokes, or act over-the-top animated like I'm just having such a good time teaching and we all will too, ha ha ha!  In short, when I teach like a teacher should teach.  Which leads to a vicious cycle, because when I'm frustrated by looking out into a sea of uninspired third graders who aren't paying attention, it's not easy to throw myself into a lesson that I'm convinced no one's listening to anyway.  So I carry on with the other stuff, and half our day is lost on just getting settled on the rug.

My principal told me once that maybe I focus too much on that management, that I should just concentrate more on my teaching and the rest will follow.  I think I need to experiment with taking his advice.


Anonymous said...

Oh Miss Brave, I have so been there. And yes, we do want them to be paying attention, if only because not paying attention is contagioius. But behind the attention is the learning, and what I finally figured out was that some kids all of the time (and all kids some of the time) need to check out mentally. And quite a few kids who seem to be checked out are actually absorbing what we're teaching. You might feel better if you can ascertain that the kids are absorbing what they need to absorb, even if they're not (seemingly) paying attention.

Another issue is whether they're correctly placed (i.e. able to understand what you're teaching, but not so far ahead that what you're teaching is already in their heads). I understand that you're in an inclusion classroom; is that affecting your children's ability to pay attention?

Anonymous said...

I am very much a cynic, but I don't intentionally mean to be negative (or rude). It's not an attack on what you wrote, just to clarify, but how I have always felt--it just feels like what you're saying is you have to perform for them. That was always my issue when I taught. I could easily get their attention being "over-the-top," but I felt like a circus leader. Why couldn't they just respect me and listen. When I was in school, not that long ago, that's exactly what we did. We did not have teachers perform for us.

So sad this is such a struggle educators must face!

Nacho Lover said...

I too have been there. there is nothing more depressing than looking out into a sea of uninterested faces.
And then there are those lessons that naturally turn into something bigger and better because of personal interest and engagement. Those are the best!

Lis, I agree, teachers should not have to perform to get kids to pay attention!

I think I reconciled this to myself by thinking that there's no way a teacher can be that "on" and "Wow, kids! This is So Much Fun!" in every subject every single day. If there's one in each day, that is fantastic. Sometimes lessons have to be slogged through. And sometimes I would sort of indicate to the kids that I wasn't that into it either and we just had to get through it. (And then save the excitement for another lesson/another time.) Being realistic with the kids can't be a bad thing, can it?

It is interesting to think about the connection between teaching and management. You can't teach kids who aren't under control, and if you teach in a certain way, there might be less management to deal with.

Ashley said...

I teach inner-city 5th graders, and seriously struggled with what you are talking about here. It's the most frustrating part of teaching, in my opinion (not the hardest--just the most frustrating).

This year, things have gone a bit better in this department for my students. They are regularly engaged during mini-lessons and it shocks me EVERY SINGLE TIME. I typically preface the lesson by telling them that we're working on X skill because I noticed some of them were having trouble with it in their writing. They like that, for some reason. And they know that I will be looking for them to correct their use of X skill in their writing. They tend to at least try.

I don't know if that will translate into your classroom, but it's something that's currently working for me (along with "putting on a show" or using music to get their attention).

Keep us updated!

Anonymous said...

My 7th/8th grade math teacher was the most boring instructor I ever had. Toneless voice. No variation at all in his affect. No sense of humor; occasionally a weak smile. BUT, he totally knew how to structure lessons so that the material was clear; he encouraged questions if we got confused; he was patient, and you could go to him after school if need be. That taught me that the need to be constantly entertaining students indicates flaws in the system -- either the students are incorrectly placed and therefore frustrated; entertainment is used to get them to engage even when it might be painful. Or, the students haven't learned to do without sugar coating.

David Coffey said...

The best classroom management IS engagement. I would suggest reading this article by Brian Cambourne about the conditions of learning -


Key idea: "Engagement occurs when learners are convinced that: 1. They are potential doers or performers of these demon- strations they are observing. 2. Engaging with these demonstra- tions will further the purposes of their lives. 3. They can engage and try to emulate without fear of physical or psycho- logical hurt if their attempts are not fully correct."

Anonymous said...

I'll comment from the other side of this equation. On two levels; I was in the place of some of the students you are talking about, as a boy. As a man, newly credentialed to teach multiple subject, and several years of subbing (I know, not the same as teaching full time, but at least exposed to your concern.)

Getting a child's attention to have them learn, is a it like leading a horse to water and making them drink; if the horse ain't thirsty, he won't drink! You just can't do it. And as it has been mentioned before, 'performing' to get their attention sends the wrong message in my mind.

Yes, it is frustrating to not be able to engage all of the students all of the time, but that's an unfair burden for you to put on yourself, and for others to put on you. True, it is not right to give up on any student who is difficult to engage, but you have to get to know them. Find out what interests them.

As for my own experience as a boy in elementary school; I was a daydreamer. I could be looking right at the teacher, but my mind would be somewhere else. When called on, I had no idea what was being discussed. I was more like Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbs) than I like to admit. And the teacher standing on her head might have had my eyes tracking her every move, but my mind would not have been engaged.

I find it very disturbing that ALL of the pressure for success has been put firmly on the shoulders of teachers. Teachers are not the only variable in the mix! Students are ready for different levels and types of learning at different times.

Expecting the same thing from all students, at the same time, in the same format, without any variability in how they approach and respond to learning and 'products' showing progress, is how we kill the imagination and thirst for learning.

When you can't get a student's attention, take a few minutes for one-on-one, find out what they are interested in, what they like to do, what kind of shows they watch, or hobbies, and try to tie that into your lesson. Yes, that is a lot of work, other students may be jealous of the extra attention on that student, but it's better than entertaining.

Get their imagination, and you'll have them hooked. I only had a couple of teachers who did that for me. But those were the best years of my own education. The rest were more like prison for me. Some years, I dreaded school so much I would become sick, and the anxiety and anguish at test time was only made worse because that is what the bulk of my grade was based on.

Teachinfourth said...

Teaching really is a big act...the more you put your energy into it, the more engaged the students are. Of course, you end up going home feeling exhausted, but it's a good exhausted.

Rock on.