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How do you feel at the end of your teaching day?
Do you feel tired, but good? Do you feel like you have put in a good day’s work and you’re ready to go home, relax a bit and then tackle the chores that wait you there?
Or do you feel worn out, worn down and exhausted? Do you feel like you have battled your way through the day, “putting out fires” as they erupted in your classroom? Did you look forward to the end of each class, hoping that the next group of youngsters who walked through the door would behave better? Do you have a stack of infraction slips that you just can’t wait to turn into the office on your way out the door? Are you ready to get home so you can raid the fridge, find some chocolate, or alcohol because “you really need it?”
The difference in the way you answer these questions has a lot to do with whether or not you spent the day proactively, in control of when and how things happened in your classroom or reacting to one and then another and another situation as behavior problems interrupted your lessons again and again.
You can be sure that all of us have had both kinds of days. There are some teachers, however, who consistently experience the better days. These teachers have learned how to use proactive discipline to create a happy, healthy classroom setting. Their students feel comfortable and safe. Both the teacher and the students experience few surprises during the period. There are established routines for nearly every daily task. The students know what they are expected to do when they come into class.
Even though the period may vary from day to day, they know that it will always start the same way and that whatever the teacher has planned for this hour, he or she will lay it out for everyone at the beginning of class.
PRO-ACTION is about being prepared and in control. It’s about knowing what is going to happen and when. In contrast, REACTION is about doing “this”, because some kid did “that!” It’s about dealing with problems as they come up. Soon you’re finding that a second problem comes along while you’re still dealing with the first.
Good preparation gives the teacher time to be proactive. This teacher doesn’t have to scramble between classes setting up materials, printing copies in the office, and hurriedly writing instructions on the board. Instead, because she has handled these details earlier, she is standing outside her classroom, welcoming each of her students as they arrive at her door.
Every child hears her call him by his own name. Before class begins she has good idea who is sad or happy today. She knows who is angry and likely to vent that anger soon. She knows who is going to need a little encouragement, who is going to need a little discouragement and who is going to need a lot of TLC.
The proactive teacher has planned her lessons so that she has a few minutes at the end of each period to get things ready for her next class before passing time. If necessary, she enlists the aid of youngsters in this class to help her set up for the next one. When the bell rings she is at the door again, reminding students about work that is due and sending them off to their next destination with a warm farewell before her next batch of students start to arrive.
Proactive classroom control begins with setting the tenor in your room in the first few minutes, before behaviors can become problems. If you miss the opportunity for a smooth, controlled start, you will spend more of your time trying to calm things down and regain control.
By following a routine that the students can count on, the proactive teacher heads off many discipline problems that the reactive teacher faces daily. Students arrive to class over the course of several minutes during passing time, but the children go right to work on a daily start up activity when they enter the room. The reactive teacher is trying to get attention when the bell rings. He starts the period by interrupting "free time."
When youngsters enter the proactive teacher's classroom they find their classmates already at work. As the reactive teacher's classroom fills up, students are talking, joking and waiting for class to start. Each period, each day the reactive teacher has to break their momentum, cut through the energy, and pull his students onto task. When the bell rings, the proactive teacher's class has been on task for some time, while her colleague is already in a reaction mode, trying to settle his students down.
While the youngsters work, the proactive teacher quietly takes roll, handles the start up chores of getting class going, and always announces her agenda for the period. Knowing this, the students are not excited by uncertainty and anticipation.
Her start up assignment provides practice in skills the students already know. It requires no instruction and very little explanation. Every student, regardless of ability, can complete the task in five to ten minutes. This routine has varied very little from the first days of the term when she took the time to walk them through the steps and practice her expectations. The children know where to find the assignment and what to do when they finish. Those who work quickly find time to talk quietly. Because the tone of the class has already been set, their voices are low and they rarely disrupt the others.
Across the hall, the reactive teacher has finally settled his class down. Less than five minutes into the period, he has already lost his temper. Now his students are waiting while he calls out roll. As he works his way down the list, casual talking begins. A student doesn't hear her name called because she is trying hard to go unnoticed as she continues a conversation the teacher "interrupted" when the bell rang. Again he has to react to misbehavior. His anxiety and frustration build. Class still hasn't started and he is reaching for the pad of infraction slips.
When problems do occur in the proactive teacher’s room, she uses a series of discipline steps designed to help the student change his behavior. In her classroom, a simple reminder is usually all that it takes. If that doesn’t work, she hands an infraction slip to the student. She doesn’t threaten to turn it into the office. Instead she says, “If you still have this at the end of the period you may throw it away.”
She controls the situation by putting the student in control of the infraction slip. He doesn’t have to see his name on the board. He doesn’t have to wait to see if she is going to put a check after his name. This child doesn’t worry about what the teacher is going to do next. He only has to worry about what he is going to do next.
At the beginning of the term the proactive teacher has carefully explained these steps. They are posted on the wall of her classroom. The student has just been given the opportunity avoid a detention or some other consequence. The slip sits right on his desk as a reminder that if he stays on task, all will be fine. Usually no further intervention is required.
On those rare occasions, when a student continues to have difficulty making appropriate choices, the proactive teacher takes the slip back to be turned into the office. Even now she is still helping the student understand that he owns his own behavior. She is not giving him a detention; he has forced her to take the slip away. It is easier for him to see that this is not something that she is doing to him. Someday he may even realize it is something she has done for him.
The final step in her discipline plan is to send the student to the office if the behavior doesn’t change in the classroom. The proactive teacher may need to use this step only a few times a year with the more extreme cases.
In addition to posting these steps and going over them with each class, this proactive teacher has a short list classroom rules posted on the wall:
1. Follow directions
2. Come to class prepared and on time
3. Leave gum, food and beverages in your locker
4. Keep your hands, feet and other objects away from others
During class she may feel a need to remind a student by whispering, “Debbie, do you see this list on the wall? Look at number 1. Are you doing that right now? … But you can, though, can’t you?”
Her students rarely feel threatened by these reminders. This teacher has learned to spot problems even before the student knows he is headed that way.
The reactive teacher sends students to the office time and again. Usually this is the result of confrontational escalation. Too often we see a youngster sitting in the office, upset and confused. When asked what he did, he says, “I don’t know.”
Then after talking it through we find out at that something very minor progressed to a major problem in no time at all. The teacher asks a student to go pick up a crumpled paper that was thrown towards the wastebasket. Five seconds later they are arguing and the teacher reacts: “Get yourself to the office, now!”
The teacher scolds Jimmy, “Stop talking, turn around and do your work.” Jimmy tosses his head and snaps, “I wasn’t talking!”
“Don’t tell me you weren’t talking!” Like a trap spring releasing, another minor offense has just escalated into a major discipline problem. Another student will soon be headed for the office.
The proactive teacher, on the other hand, focuses on the behavior she wants from the very beginning, without drawing attention to the misbehavior. “Jimmy, the rest of the class is working quietly now. You need to turn around and get going with your assignment, too.”
There is not a lot there for Jimmy to challenge. He doesn’t feel threatened or rebuffed. If he becomes a bit obstinate and attempts to argue, the proactive teacher sees where this is headed before he does. She calmly repeats what he says before telling him again what he needs to do.
It is very difficult to argue with someone who repeats everything you say. If Jimmy is getting upset and anxious, if his voice tenses up and gets louder, she repeats his own words slowly and calmly. Instead of taking the confrontation up a notch, she brings it back down.
A proactive teacher doesn’t deliver ultimatums. During a classroom discussion, Mary is repeatedly turning around to speak with the students around her. “Mary, “ her teacher directs, “I think it would be better if you come sit over here for the rest of the period.”
Mary’s face darkens and she folds her arms across her chest. “I don’t want to sit over there!”
Calmly, but firmly, her teacher repeats Mary’s challenge. “You don’t want to sit over here. I can understand that. I know you would rather sit with your friends, but I think we can help you stay out of trouble if you move over here.”
Mary becomes a little more anxious. She is reluctant to get up and move in front of her peers. “Why do I have to move?”
“Why do you have to move?” her teacher rephrases the question. “I have tried to give you the opportunity to make things work where you are sitting. You are leaving me with fewer and fewer choices. I would like you to come sit over here. Remember our first classroom rule, Mary. I expect you to follow directions.”
Mary reluctantly makes her way across the room. “This isn’t fair.”
“I’m sorry you don’t think this is fair. We can talk about this later when you’re less upset. Thank you for moving now.”
As always, the proactive teacher is hoping to see a change in behavior. She hopes that there is a way her student can stay in the classroom and not be sent somewhere else. Her principal knows that if and when she does send a student to the office, that she has really made an effort to make things work in the classroom. He is quick to follow up on the problem and support the teacher.
Once a teacher gets caught in the reactive mode, classroom problems seem to multiply. The stress builds and his patience drops. Switching from a reactive mode to a proactive one is not easy, but it can be done. The first step can be as simple as greeting the students with a warm and friendly smile as they walk through the door.