How to Get Students to Do What You Tell Them to Do

On the first day of student teaching, in the first five minutes when I stood in front of my brand-new first hour class and spoke my very first words to them in Spanish, I wondered, "Why should they listen to me?" And so I began to learn one of the most important lessons of teaching:
Lesson #1: Students do what they want.  
Lesson #2: Students will not do what I want unless they are convinced that it will be better for them to do as I ask than to refuse.
Some people think that they already know what will get students to comply with a teacher's directives, but they may not be as correct as they might expect. For example, some may believe that personal appeal will generate within a student the desire to please. Personal appeal does help, and it typically doesn't hurt.

But our perception of the importance of personal appeal is overrated because our experience of its effectiveness is skewed. Outside of a classroom, people who dislike you will simply avoid you; you will generally not have to tell them what to do. Within a classroom, during the course of a career, a teacher will have many students who may simply not enjoy his or her way of doing things; a teacher must nevertheless win their compliance. Furthermore, personal appeal is no guarantee of compliance anyway. Students may like a teacher for all sorts of reasons and will still neglect to do their homework.

Teaching is distinct from most management-type jobs. Typically, in a job where a manager might encounter resistance, an employee is paid for their work, which is incentive enough to elicit compliance (or resignation). And in a club or sport or other voluntary-type activity, participants choose to show up, and the inherit appeal of the program motivates them to comply. 

Students, of course, are not paid. Nor do they attend school for the sheer joy of it. Usually students can think of fifty hundred billion better things to do than go to class, including staring at the wall and clipping their fingernails. Add into the mix an early morning, cafeteria food, and homework, and school in general starts to look like a pretty tough sell. 

To earn student compliance, a teacher must construct a web of understandings and consequences to support every directive given in a classroom. This is a web that takes years to create, one thread at a time, mending holes when a directive falls through, slowly strengthening it with new threads every year. 

The strongest and most useful strands are ones I find vocalizing regularly. A recitation:
  • I don't give you very much homework, but what I do give you is important. If you do not do the homework, you will not do well on the quiz. (And I show them how my words are backed by evidence)
  • I treat you with respect by not calling you names, not screaming at you when I am angry. If you lose your temper at me, you can expect to be ignored and/or referred.
  • I have a good attitude about seeing thirty five of your faces at 7:15 in the morning. If you have a bad attitude, you can either keep it to yourself or you can take it with you into the hallway..
  • I listen to you. If you do not listen to me, then you will not do any activities that allow talking, until I feel that you have proven otherwise.
This web of agreements takes years to create, because that is how long it takes to formulate fair, effective responses to the variety of circumstances which may arise in a classroom. Students have input, too: if the consequence is not strong enough to compel them to do as I ask, I need to either reconsider the importance of my directive, or increase the strength of my consequence.

In a way, it is not unlike politics. If I ever leave education, maybe I will run for president.

How to Get Students to Work Quietly

(...so that you can get some work done too.)

Teenagers love to talk with their friends. They do not particularly care that work left undone now is work that they will have to make up later (because hey, their friends are here now, and they will be alone later. Priorities, people.)

But sometimes, I need them to work, and not socialize. But I also don't want to have to set down a list of rules and subsequently need to monitor their behavior because hey, I want to get work done too. After all, most of the time the goal is not actually silence but focus. Silence is achieved via enforcement, focus is achieved via environment. Silence is teacher-enforced, focus is student-generated. Silence takes a lot of effort on my part, focus is working smarter, not harder.

Here are some helpful strategies I have found that can help produce relatively quiet, focused periods of work without rules, demands, or constant monitoring of behavior.

  • MUSIC. Allow students to listen to music on their headphones. I am not convinced that phones and music are ideal for focusing on work, but they do a great job of minimizing distractions between students, because each student is in his or her own world. At least if students choose to be distracted, they are only distracting themselves.
  • Say "INDIVIDUAL WORK". Take a moment to specify that they are working "individually" when giving directions. Even if I'm not setting a rule by saying it, using this word seems to set the tone I want for how they are going to work that will cut down on talking and socialization.
  • ENOUGH TIME. Give students enough work and time to "get in the zone." Five minutes is too short for full engagement in a task, but ten or more minutes will more naturally result in extended periods of quiet productivity.
  • JUST TEN MINUTES. I sometimes "bribe" my students by saying, if you work quietly for ten minutes, then I will then allow you to move/work with your friends for the remaining time. This not only ensures at least ten minutes of work at the start, but it gives them a chance to build up some momentum, so when they have the go-ahead to move/work together, they are more likely to continue that task even if they are with their friends. Contrast this with allowing "collaborative" work from the start of the work period, which creates an environment in which many students will have a hard time getting started in the first place.
  • WALK AROUND AFTER FIVE MINUTES, and then every ten minutes for the remainder of the work period. No, this is not conducive to my focus on what I want to get done, but making my presence known every five or ten minutes reminds them that they are supposed to be doing something productive.
  • ALLOW SOME TALKING. As a brand-new teacher, I felt compelled to intervene every time it seemed someone was not doing what I asked (I also did not know how to create an environment of focus rather than silence). Unfortunately, continual reminders to students to work quietly can be as destructive as anything to an atmosphere of calm productivity. Some talking is natural, and it really is ok if students' focus comes and goes, as long as they continue to work on the task. When I find myself repeatedly intervening, I try to step back and refocus on maintaining an environment rather than controlling individuals (which is, after all, the point of this post in the first place). Sometimes that means that some individuals may not complete the task, but if the classroom environment is maintained, it is often a fair enough compromise. (Obviously if a student is actually defiant and not just distracted, then a different sort of approach may be appropriate.) (How can you tell? I don't know.) (Isn't it incredible how important the perception and interpretation of nuances in behavior are in order to work well with other people?!)


I feel betrayed.

I love teaching, more than I ever expected. 

My school days pass in one-hour segments filled with jokes, smiles, and as much learning as I can pack in, Spanish and otherwise. Sometimes the kids are great, other times not, but I figure this is what I signed up for, to care about and do what I can for every one of them. 

After the students leave my classroom, it is different.

Vicious parent emails filled with insults and demands that require an hour's worth of careful email wordcrafting in response. 

Administrators who treat your time as though it were Mary Poppin's bottomless carpetbag.

Politicians who pass laws without ever consulting an actual educator, only a budget sheet. 

A local and national community that continually announces their contempt for practicioners of my profession and the dastardly way we have organized to make obnoxious demands, such as compensation comparable to other professions that require the same amount of schooling and expertise.

A public that believes my job requires little effort and less skill, and that probably any parent could do better, when in reality the complexity of what I do makes me (a dedicated overachiever who is actually really good at this) stretched beyond my limits on a daily basis. 

Weekends filled with the week's overflow and hours of catch-up that is never, ever diminished. 

Friends who remark casually about how I am "paid" for two month's summer vacation, not realizing that A) I have a ten-month contract, so my "pay" is only what I asked the school to withhold during the school year, B) I probably work enough during the school year to make up the difference in hours, and C) I still work during the summer developing and improving my curriculum, for free, and D) Have you ever tried to find a job for two months? What else do you want me to do?

I guess I am not surprised by this. I knew all of this on my way in. But I guess I expected it to be more distant, less personal, more abstract. But in fact, all of these negative features - the derision of parents and the community, the insulting comments plastered across the Internet, the laws passed and the administrator responses to disciplinary citations - affect my daily work in tangible ways. I frequently find myself feeling angry, overwhelmed, unappreciated and hurt because of these things. 

If I quit before five years, like almost half of new teachers do, it will not be because I dislike my students, my school, my material, or because it is hard. It will be because a person can only be a national punching bag for so long before it's no longer worth it. 

Who keeps telling my students' parents that I'm out to get their child?

If I ever find out who it is, I'm going to have a word or two for them.


Stop telling me that I am young and female

Sometimes, when I am having a hard time with a student or parent, a sympathetic colleague or well-meaning mentor will occasionally say, "It might just be because you are young and female." 

They say this benignly, meaning that the student might think that I am an easy target, though the speaker will assure me that I am not. This is pointed out particularly when it comes to rebellious boys who resent being bossed around by some girl who looks not much older than his sister. 

Ok. I get it. This is said with sympathy, and not intended in an inappropriate or offensive way. I also understand that the first impression I make on students is largely based on my appearance and age, and that could indeed affect their behavior. 

But I'm growing tired of hearing it nontheless. 

Does no one else have to overcome bias to win their students? Does no one else have to combat an unhelpful first impression? Every teacher must, in some way, win her students. A teacher who is ready to retire will have to overcome bias for his old-fashioned way of doing things. An eccentric will have to help students feel comfortable and learn to accept a different way of seeing the world. A teacher from another culture must come to terms with her host culture, and help her students to understand hers as well. 

Over time, I too win my students. I see the difference from the beginning of the year until now. I see the difference from my level one classes to my level two classes. Eventually, my students and I grow to understand one another, and they respect me, and I care about them. And I make sure every single one of them knows who is in charge. 

So when someone tells me, "It is because you are young and female," I do not hear "Your student is obviously a terrible person," though I am sure that is the way it is intended (mostly). Instead, I interpret it as, "You have somehow not managed to demonstrate to this child that age and gender have nothing to do with respectability. Maybe it is because your age and gender have actually made you less respectable." 

In other words, when people bring up my appearance, I think it is because they themselves have not yet come to believe that I am a competent professional, because, well, after all, I am only 26 and female.

You would not tell someone that a student was disrespecting him "because you are old and fat." You wouldn't say "It is because you are black/Asian/Mexican."  You wouldn't say, "It is because your face looks like a potato." People don't do that, because everybody knows that people with potato faces can, in fact, manage classrooms well. And so do 26-year-old women. 


Your story is not as funny as you think it is.

When people learn that I am a teacher, I often become the recipient of peculiar and informative anecdotes. Through these stories, I have realized that many people see their childhood and adolescent misbehavior as clever, even laudable.

For example, pranks played on teachers are often remembered with cheerfulness. The time that every student fell asleep, the time they kept unplugging the computer, the time they lied and got away with it.

I am told these stories as though I understand, ha ha, aren't kids so funny? But my actual, internal response is one of horror. I immediately wonder, what if my students did that to me? Whenever one of my students act out, no matter how minor it is, I am, at minimum, upset. I would feel disrespected and demoralized. For some things, I have to involve administration or parents. And, if it became bad enough, I would begin to reconsider if teaching is actually the job for me.

These types of actions, at their extreme, can even fall under the umbrella of bullying and/or harassment. These actions can cause psychological trauma for the teacher, endanger his or her job, and endanger others in the environment. It doesn't matter if the teacher "should have been able to handle it". That's not the point. We are adults, and we should all agree and teach our children that this type of behavior is not ok.

I am not opposed to telling nostalgic stories about past misdeeds with humor. I think my students are funny and I tell stories about what they do, including their misbehavior, all the time. But the proper attitude of an adult telling a story should not be, Ha ha! Weren't we hilarious? but, Oh, how stupid (and even cruel) we were back then. 

What is the difference? The first response makes someone the victim of a not-very-funny joke, and it suggests (to me, at least) that the speaker has not progressed beyond an adolescent way of perceiving their past. The second indicates that some maturity has been gained.

I can deal with fourteen year olds. I can deal with their misbehavior and I consider it part of my job to teach them better ways to do things. I think it is terrifying to deal with fourteen year olds who are being encouraged and egged on by their still-adolescent-minded parents. 


The Importance of Establishing Group Norms

I had the opportunity to listen in on a conversation between two teachers last week that helped me to understand how certain things work at my school.

(I wasn't eavesdropping, btw. These teachers were talking to each other while I was working nearby, and occasionally I had a contribution or question, but I mostly listened.)

They were talking about school trips. During their conversations, I learned that:

  • If a teacher takes you on a trip with them, you should offer them the choice of joining you if and when you plan your own trip, before offering the opportunity to another teacher.
  • It is inappropriate to ask to be invited on a trip, you should wait until you are asked.
  • Teachers should coordinate with one another to make sure that they are not competing for the same students, such as alternating the summers that they plan their trips, etc. 
As a person who has not participated in a school trip before, it was helpful for me to hear what some expectations might be. But what interested me was that these teachers spoke as though these norms were obvious, which was not actually the case. I could easily envision circumstances in which the norms were different or even opposite of what these teachers assumed. For example, if I was going to ask another teacher to join me on a trip, I might be inclined to ask the teacher who speaks the language, which may not be the same teacher who asked me to join their trip the previous year. And if I heard a teacher was going to a certain country that I really wanted to visit, I might have volunteered to help without realizing that it was not considered appropriate to put myself forward in that way. 

These group norms are neutral, neither good nor bad. They have been established in response to dynamics that are specific to my school. As a new person and without knowing those dynamics, it would be easy to misread a situation and inadvertently offend another.  

I have been a part of groups before where, at the very first meeting, the leader would establish "group norms". While slightly cheesy, it seems to me that those groups are able to work productively together much more quickly than those groups that leave it up to their members to slowly and sometimes painfully learn how to work with one another. And when a new member joins the group, they can hear from the start what the expectations are, rather than talking one-on-one with all the different members, each of whom may have a different interpretation on what is ok and what is not. 

Moral of the story: Make it easy for new people. Tell them what you expect, and they'll feel much more comfortable jumping right in.