Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati
Accompanying podcast episode:
Our cover teacher was late to class and we were having a right old laugh! It wouldn’t be allowed these days, but we walked into the empty chemistry lab and sat at our seats.
Some of us were chatting, some were making silly noises that inspired a raucous of laughter. We were chilling-out like pros!
Then he walked in.
As the most notorious maths teacher in the school all he had to do was walk in with a grumpy look on his face to cause instant retreat into silence.
“Oh no!” was the look that was plastered across everyone’s faces.
“Get up off your backsides!” He snarled.
We stood, and gulped, and he stared at us. He waited until absolutely everyone was paying full attention. It didn’t take long.
“You all know what you’re supposed to be doing, don’t you?”
“I can’t hear you!”
“Yes” we all synchronistically chimed.
We got on with our work without a fuss. Some of us itched with the desire to chat, but we didn’t dare to.
Fighting fire with water
This maths teacher had what only the best teachers possess: presence. One of his defining techniques was the power of waiting, or more succinctly, pausing.
Pausing provides the modern teacher with a number of distinct benefits:
- It can be used as an effective behavior management tool
- It can be used to make concepts and content really clear
- It allows students time to articulate their answers
- It generates that enchanted and mysterious teacher quality known as presence
- It can increase the perceived seriousness of a situation, which may be appropriate in certain situations
- It de-escalates conflict
That last point is an important one: as a new teacher all of those years ago I would often try to ‘fight fire with fire’, which almost always failed. If a class was chatty I would shout at them to calm them down (N.B. – it had the opposite effect).
Sometimes I would even shout on a one-to-one basis with individual students.
I soon learned that shouting was almost always a bad idea. It creates an atmosphere of instant negativity, and that affects everyone: even the compliant, hard-working, ‘good’ kids.
Ways to use pausing as a behavior management tool:
For whole-class low-level disruption (e.g. at the very start of a lesson, or at the end of a task), simply wait, silently. Look at the students with a look of “I’m waiting” on your face. After waiting a short-time, you can say something such as “Thank you to those who are listening, and thank you to those who are facing me. I’m still waiting for one-or-two.” Normally, in this scenario, the students will say ‘shh’ and ‘be quiet’ to each other, removing the need for the teacher to get loud and aggressive (which usually doesn’t work as a long-term strategy anyway).
At those times when you need to have a serious one-to-one talk with individuals or small groups, pausing can really have a dramatic effect and can emphasize the seriousness of the situation. A good example I can think of from my practice happened a few years ago. A group of boys had been chatting for a large part of the lesson, instead of doing the work I had assigned them. They thought I hadn’t noticed, but I had.
I called the boys to my desk at the end of the lesson and waited for them, silently, to sit and listen. I then asked to see their work, which they reluctantly gave me. I must have stared at the dismal trash that was handed to me for a good minute, not saying a word. The boys looked mortified.
”This simply isn’t good enough” I said.
”Err, sorry. Sorry sir” piped in one of them.
”We’ll hand it in tomorrow”
”Yes, you’d better, and it had better be a lot better than this” I concluded.
They left the classroom and I got that work back the next day. I said “Thank you, let’s have a fresh start next lesson”.
That’s important isn’t it – a fresh start. We all need one of those at some point in our lives.
I rarely had a problem from those boys after that. Sure, I had to reel-them-in once or twice, but generally they got on with their work because they knew I was serious, and they knew that I wanted what was best for them.
The ‘Shouting Myth’
Is it still a myth? I’m not even sure.
I, like many teachers, have found that pausing works much better than shouting, almost every single time. In fact, unless a student is in an emergency situation (e.g. about to fall down the stairs), shouting is never effective.
Here are the problems I have with shouting:
- Over time, it ruins the teacher’s health. It creates internal stress that permeates the body tissues deeply. Stress is not good for us – it even accelerates the ageing process.
- It immediately creates an atmosphere of negativity in the classroom, and it can be hard to flip-that later on when you have control of the kids and you want them to approach you and ask questions.
- When shouting is adopted as a consistent teacher behavior, it loses its effectiveness over time. Like a drug that one has become dependent on, larger doses are needed to maintain control in the future. It’s intimidating and can make students fear you, rather than respect you.
There are many advantages of using pauses as a behavior management tool (such as avoiding the consequences I just listed above), but the main reason pausing is so effective is that it creates an atmosphere of willful clarity, where excellence is achievable and desirable, rather than mandatory and burdensome.
Pausing as an instructional tool
One obvious adavantage of pausing in an instructional context is that it allows students time to think and process information. When used effectively it can also be a great way to ‘coax’ answers and responses out of students who would otherwise be shy or disinterested (or simply too tired to focus in the moment).
Try the following techniques and watch miracles happen!:
- Pause halfway when saying a key word or phrase, and coax the rest of the word from the students. “The stomach produces digestive en, en…………., enzymes! Yes, well done. Enzymes is correct”. This technique aids memory and gets kids focused on the content.
- Stop part-way through a lesson and do a quick review. Bring the kids to the front of the class if you must. Ask individual students some pertinent questions. Pause and allow enough time for the students to answer.
- Pause and check that the students understand what you have said thus far. “Okay, put your thumbs up if you understand everything so far. Does anyone have any questions? (Pause). Okay, in that case can I move on? Thank you.”
- Did you just notice the pause after asking if anyone has any questions? That’s important isn’t it? We must pause for ‘question time’ at least once every 30 minutes. Sometimes our pace can be very fast (especially with exam-level classes) and students may not feel confident enough to ‘butt-in’ and ask questions when you are mid-sentence. Allow them time to ask. Make your students feel that asking questions is a good thing, and that you are happy, very happy, to help when needed.
- Pause between topics and sub-topics, and allow students to think for a moment. When you’re teaching at the pace of a steam-train it can become quite overwhelming for your students.
- Look at your students and notice how many have finished writing their notes. Pause to allow time to finish the note-taking. If you’re not sure who’s not finished, then you can simply ask “Does anyone need more time?”.
Pausing is a very powerful technique, when it is used properly. Use pausing to:
- Get your students focused and listening without being confrontational in the process
- Reinforce the seriousness of a situation (e.g. when homework isn’t handed in)
- Aid instruction through response ‘coaxing’, pausing for ‘question-time’, checking that students understand everything, allowing students to think between topics and subtopics and allowing adequate time for note-taking