Working with students we occasionally encounter defensiveness for one reason or another. Perhaps they did not realize that their behavior was disruptive and now they are denying their involvement. Maybe they think the failed a quiz. If a teacher was unwise enough (or tired – honestly this is the only time it happens to me) to become involved in a power struggle with a student this sort of deconstructive behavior can set in.
What do we do?
First off we avoid the aforementioned power struggle. The discussions of who is right and in control does nothing to help and focus students on their learning. Sometimes we can talk to students privately but with larger and larger class sizes and more requirements for out time this can sometimes be prohibitive. Often we send the student to the hall to gain some privacy but that action has its own onus. I always try to be ready to apologize – sometimes I inadvertently wrong or offend a student. Often times other students provoke the incident and I can impose consequences for uncivilized behavior on them which results in lowered defensiveness in the student I am working with. All these work well including planned ignoring but my favorite – the silver bullet to tense stressfull situations in my class room – is humor.
Intervening Through Humor
Using humor gives the teacher a powerful and positive tool to change disruptive behaviors. Getting a student (or class) to laugh during a tense situation breaks the cycle of the behavior and helps reset the stage of the classroom as a safe, fun place to learn. My one caveat for using humor as an intervention is that it should NEVER be directed at a student. Never use humor at the expense of a student. This not only fails to build a positive climate and destroys any chance of an effective intervention – using humor at a students expense means the teacher bullied that student. The biggest bully in a classroom could easily become the teacher.
How does humor work? I interviewed a colleague, Mrs Sarha, who use humor to diffuse almost all ill-behavior in her classroom. Each use built upon other structures for managing her classroom.
She, like many teachers, uses a sound prompt to get her students attention. In her case she own a beautifully cartoonish bell in the shape of a turtle. She calls her bell Myrtle the Turtle. Early in the year she starts her high school students off by explaining to them that they must “Respect the Turtle!” What results from this is a bit of hilarity and anytime someone goes off task during a discussion another classmate with yell out, “Hey! Respect the turtle.” By turning her attention prompt into something entertaining and easily remembered she removed the focus from herself as the person desiring respect and, through Myrtle, turned the focus back onto the learning regardless of the source for an activity or information.
She also deals with disruptive student behavior in an entertaining fashion. Every teacher has a pet peeve. Sometimes it is the tapping of a pencil during discussion (something that immediately tells me I have a kinesthetic or possibly auditory learner in the room) or something else that disrupts the teacher. Mrs Sarha had a screamer this year. Yes – a student who felt compelled to scream. To distract from the tension that built due to these behaviors she announced one day that, “Each scream means a multiple choice questions becomes an essay question.” By this time she had already established a caring environment and impressed upon her students that it was important that they all help each other overcome difficulties in class. They also knew her well enough to realize that she was unlikely to carry out this threat. What it did was show that the behavior was not acceptable and induced the entire classroom – including the screamer – to laugh. Occasionally the screamer will still blurt out but now the class groans and someone says, “Not another essay question.”
She also has a stock of directional phrases she uses that keep directions light-hearted but serious:
“Be nice or leave.”
“Respect the turtle.”
“Make a mess – clean it up.” – she uses this when feelings are hurt as well. Making a mess of someone’s feelings requires clean up as well.
Some of what she does may seem like sarcasm and she admits that she had a difficult time with that at first. Sarcasm does not help; especially if students do not understand the intent. I find that students respond best when I use humor where I make fun of my own actions or perform a bit of physical humor.
How do you intervene through humor? Feel free to comment.