Jedi mind tricks for teachers

UPDATE: After no discipline problems for months, this week was tough. And the reason is that I ended up teaching several classes with no warning, completely unprepared, as a substitute for another teacher who was on a week’s leave. This made it crystal clear that unless there are other factors (students with long term discipline problems for example) the most important thing a teacher can do to ensure a class runs smoothly is…

BE PREPARED, have a lesson plan, have a series of tasks for students to complete, and give clear instructions.

I am lucky to be in a school where the students all care about grades, however as a substitute teacher I have no say in their grades, and they knew this.

So the three strikes rule detailed below works fine, but two more effective ones for my school are: Tell the students that [xx behaviour] will affect their grades, and that if they do [xx] then they will have to handwrite a letter explaining what they’ve done, why they won’t do it again, and have it signed by their parents. This works in our school because the students care about their grades and what their parents think, which is clearly not true for a lot of schools (including the one I went to).

So I’ve taught part time at an elementary school for years, and run a few summer camps. Now I’m teaching middle school (11-15) and high school (16-18) students. The following is advice that other, more experienced teachers have given me:


I had some bad experiences teaching English, with students who did not want to be in the class and had zero interest in the subject, but otherwise my experiences have been with well-behaved and interested kids. Now I’m two months into teaching at a private school. The high schoolers are great, if reticent. The elementary students are enthusiastic, but also great to teach. Toughest are the middle schoolers, hitting early teen years they seem to have all the worst excesses of elementary students, but rather than lack of self control it’s due to testing boundaries. For elementary and middle schoolers there’s always one student in the class who is way out of line and determined to wreck things, so here’s what the school has in place to deal with that.

Make the rules clear at the start

The discipline rules at my school have not been finalised, but below is what we have at the moment, and for a new class or when a new student comes in I spend a couple minutes going over these so that everyone is clear on procedure:

Classroom Discipline

In my class, talking, talking to yourself or humming, all of this is fine as long as you do not:
·        stop working (keep your pen or brush moving while you’re talking)
·      disrupt other students
The following is unacceptable behaviour:
·        Disruption
·        Profanity / inappropriate conversation
·        Name calling
·        Not following directions
·        Not speaking English
For any of the above you get three strikes, and for each one write the students name on the board with a x1, x2 or x3 (they are still young, the visualisation helps).
1.      Verbal warning
2.      Change of situation (if speaking Chinese, you’ll be moved to sit with someone else etc)
3.      Stand outside and count to 100, and before you come back in explain to me why  you’re behaving as you are, if there’s a problem we can solve.

If you return to the classroom and continue to misbehave you will be removed from the class and sent to have:

[Middle schoolers] lunch with Mr X (on Tuesday) and we’ll inform your parents by email
[Elementary] be sent to spend the rest of the lesson with Mrs Y

and in most situations you will also have a meeting with the Principal.

In addition to this there are other preventative measures you can take that help with an orderly class. These include….

Class Control 1: The silent treatment

Just stand there in front of the class and don’t say anything.

So say class is about to begin, the students are sat down but they are chatting and playing and not focused at all. Just stand at the front of the class, make your presence known, but be completely silent. This is a little socially awkward, and gradually the class will become aware and turn their attention to you.

Similarly for small acts of misbehaviour, passing a note or whispering at the back. It’s not worth pointing this out vocally or calling them on it, that would interrupt the flow of the lesson too much. But just stopping and being silent, looking at those students involved, will get the attention of the rest of the class on them too, and they’ll soon stop and you’ll have their attention.

Never allow the students to talk over you. Always wait quietly.

Class Control 2: Don’t provide distractions

In a middle school art class, I made the mistake of handing out the art supplies before talking to the students. These art supplies included kneadable erasers, which if you’re 11 (or even an adult) is a great thing to fiddle and play with. It became a major distraction. So… Don’t hand out equipment, art supplies, any of that until the students are ready to actually use it.

As a side note, the students immediately lost their art supplies also. So from now on I’ll be collecting everything at the end of each lesson as well.

Class Control 3: Don’t smile until Christmas

A maxim of teaching, apparently. This is especially important for large, unruly classes. Be strict but fair, make the distinction between teacher and student clear. Do not try and be ‘pally,’ do not involve yourself in conversations between students – especially about things like computer games or films.

The key to being a good teacher is mutual respect, and this idea is part of that. If you think back to your own school experience, their should be a very strict, humourless teacher that none-the-less you deeply respected and gave you a great sense of accomplishment.

Class Control 4: Cutting down mild chatter

If the students are all doing the work, but there is just a little too much chatter, but not enough to make a big deal out of it, there are work arounds. The simplest way is to change the seating arrangement, break up chatty partners, and when working in pairs give students new partners.

General Principles

One teacher I talked to had these key rules for all classes, she has a poster up in the classroom and makes them clear at the start of term:

  1. Listen first. Remind them that there’s more of them than there are of you, I can’t talk over you.
  2. Be prepared.
  3. Maintain personal space.
  4. Do YOUR best.
  5. Don’t be the reason we need another rule :)

Leaving a messy classroom

The bell goes, the students storm out, and as the dust settles you notice the room is in a messy chaos, paper, pens, erasers everywhere. And it’s another ten minutes of clean up for you.

So make it a rule that no one leaves until the classroom is in perfect shape. Set your alarm for five minutes before the class ends, and get everyone to clear up together.

The obnoxious trouble maker

Golden rule: Do not react, do not get angry, be calm and collected in the face of all provocation. Just have a stone face – it’s difficult, but it shuts things down really quickly.

This is far harder than it sounds, and just takes practice. However, psychologically, it does help to know that the children are looking for a reaction, they are trying to cause it. This tells you it’s not something you’ve done, it’s something external, all the drama is not about you. It also means that a ‘win’ for the teacher is not giving in, not giving them that reaction.

To go into this more in depth….

So as a beginner teacher, my main problem with discipline was going from 0 to 100mph. My thinking was to nip bad behaviour in the bud, but this had the result of making the student feel hard-done-by. So stage one, if encountering unwanted behaviour, is to approach it calmly, (physically) get down to the students level, explain why the behaviour was bad and ask if they could alter it to fit with the class atmosphere. Then if they continue give a proper warning. Then a ‘conduct mark’ or the equivalent, and so on.

One of my students, who had been good up to this point, decided he would disrupt the lesson. He started making incoherent noises, beeping and chattering, and rocking the desk so it banged the floor. I warned him twice that his behaviour would lead to detention, and on the third time gave him detention. But he carried on humming and being disruptive, when I took him up on it he said, ‘What are you going to do? You’ve already given me detention.’ I said I’d give him another detention, and the disruptive noises went down to a barely audible level – just enough everyone could hear, but so quiet that if I pulled him up on it I would seem like I was overly strict.

I was told by the school that the next stage is to talk to the student one-to-one to see what the problem is. Then talk to the student’s parents. I took the student aside and told him he had to change his behaviour or I’d need to talk to his parents, he said ‘Go ahead, I didn’t do anything!’ and was extremely argumentative and combative.

As a teacher I realise that I should try and find common ground, build toward some kind of a goal and get the student back on track. As a human being I’d like to slap the little shit six ways from Sunday. So I called on more experienced teachers and here is the advice I got. First of all ways to look at his behaviour:

  • Imagine being him. He is his own punishment. He will also be attracting negative attention from the shadows from all the other pupils. He probably has a major lack in the father department.
  • He almost certainly has multiple problems of the kind most systems would document heavily.
  • The most painful thing about such people is often the realisation that they cannot be helped. Some people cannot be helped. Bust most can, which is OK.

And strategies to resolve the problem:

  • What do the other teachers think and what do they do to manage him? One teacher told me that he tells him to stand outside the class and count to 100 to cool down, then he can come back in.
  • He wants a confrontation. Never, ever give him this. See over time whether you can notice anything he wants. It may be to be given an errand or to be allowed to do something. Find that and you may learn something about him.
  • Actually who is responsible for discipline in his year group? That person has to be formally addressed to do something. Usually a report card is the answer, where if he doesn’t meet his targets, he will lose whatever it is that the pastoral staff realise matters to him. Refer it higher. Discipline at this level is not your job – it is someone’s job though.
  • In general never give him attention or acknowledge his existence in any way. Conversely, never ridicule him – because it is almost certainly the case that he has experienced far more of this already than is fair.

A different teacher explained her longer term strategy, which is to build relationships with the children. Once there is mutual respect, with the idea that you all have a common goal, any misbehaviour comes down to ‘you are now taking advantage of me’, ‘hey, I don’t talk over you,’ essentially to guilt-trip them into good behaviour. Although I’m not an experienced teacher, I have seen glimpses of this, students who catch themselves and do have a guilty look.

And this is from the most amazing elementary school teacher I have seen, the kids love her but she has the ability to walk into a classroom and have everyone fall silent without saying a word. She says:

“the school behaviour management procedure is on your side. It is not a failure on your part to send a student to the principal or to call the parents. You will probably only need to do it once and then he will behave. All schools have a policy that they do not have to continue to teach a disruptive child and that is the ultimate penalty – to expel or suspend… If the parents are not cooperative in assisting school discipline, then the school does have the right to expel. Anyway, all that is at the extreme end of things, but it’s all there to help the teacher and ultimately the children.

“[The behaviour itself is often not bad, it’s the effect it causes that is unacceptable, ]It’s disrupting the class (harms the learning of others), disobeying the teacher (which is totally unacceptable) and with the intention of being annoying to others if not just you – unkind, which is not the ethos of the school. So it’s not true that the kid “didn’t do anything.” He’s just testing your boundaries. Once he knows you mean what you say, eg. you’ll have detention, you’ll call his parents, he’ll go to the principal, he will probably respect that. If he doesn’t, then his underlying problems are big – it could be a variety of issues, temporary or otherwise, eg. family loss/stress/transition/lack of attention at home, lack of discipline at home, then you’re facing a much more difficult task and it would take investment into this kid one on one (like youth workers we have here in NZ in schools – it makes a huge difference when someone takes time to spend with the kid and believe in them).

“Do you have any other behaviour management system in the classroom? Do other teachers at that level? The highest level I’ve seen have that was a Grade 7 class – certain individuals and groups and the whole class even got class points – at a certain amount of points the class earned a class party, eg. the teacher bought pizza for lunch or something. Make them work for it though – eg. need a certain number of points by the end of the term/semester and they get that, but might have to be more often. If you have/had a system like that then peer pressure works great and it can be a positive experience for all, eg. if noone disrupts the class this period the whole class gets 10 points. It might depend how well liked this kid already is by the others, but he can win back favour by not being disruptive and earning his class points.

Preventative Measures

So at the school I’m at now (which includes kindergarten through to high school) there are preventative lessons designed to encourage could behaviour. We are told to remind and encourage students’

  • Kindness 
  • Self-Control 
  • Common Sense 
  • Before you speak…THINK  
    • Is it True? 
    • Is it Helpful? 
    • Is it Inspiring? 
    • Is it Necessary? 
    • Is it Kind? 

Teaching Tips

Learning Names

Name tags, stickers that kind of thing is not always practical or possible. You can draw a seating plan, a map of the classroom with who sits where.

Kids attentions span = age + 2 minutes.

As a general rule, you should change up activities more frequently the younger the students are. So for high schoolers this would mean dividing a lesson into two or three distinct parts, say. Or for young elementary students no activity should last more than ten minutes.

This also means teaching the same material but in different ways.

Read the room

Be flexible in your lesson plan, if you’re handing out too much information you’ll see that as the students’ eyes glaze over. If you’re rushing through so that they don’t get to finish individual projects, you’ll see the frustration it causes. Slow down and adjust.

How to deal with the student who finishes everything quickly in a slap-dash manner, just to get it out the way

This might sound a bit specific, but I’ve now had two students with the same behaviour in two different classes. The first would get any task I set done in the quickest manner possible, they had no interest in the class, did not care about the quality of their work, and just wanted to get it done and over-with so they could move on to something worthwhile.

The second student was a little different. While the rest of the class were painstakingly finishing their first piece, he would have finished six different pieces of work. These were all scribbled down with little care for details, but he clearly enjoyed himself and liked what he was doing. He also had a bit of a problem concentrating and slowing down, so for example his stories would not make sense. Even after he explained them for five minutes, I only had a vague grasp over what was supposed to be going on.

So there are several ways to deal with this. The best advice from a teacher of many years was:

‘It seems to me that the key there is your word: Story.

‘Get him to explain what he wants the observer to notice, and in what order, about his piece of work. If this becomes incoherent (which would very strongly indicate what is called a processing problem, and is often connected to syntax and explanation) then he could produce two lists of words. One – words that describe the sketch he INTENDS to do next. Two – a list of words that describe the feelings he wants the observer to encounter when they see it.

‘There is then the opportunity for a third list, which could be of features that might evoke these feelings. So I want the observer to feel CURIOUS about the VASE in the sketch, and to make them CURIOUS I will present the VASE to be STRANGELY COLOURED and REFLECTIVE.

‘Sorry if that is rather an English teacher’s explanation – but it seems to me he needs to break the issues down into separate categories.’

Force them to think about their work. For art, for example, before they put pen to paper get the whole class to stare at the blank page and imagine where each element will go, even if it’s just for 20 seconds (which is actually quite a long time to stare at a blank page).

And give the students a checklist of targets they should be meeting in their own work, a self-assessment. This has two good points: It makes them re-evaluate and think about their own work, and their is the satisfaction of ticking off a checklist (children seem to love doing this, I never imagined that scavenger hunt check lists would be so consistently popular).

Lastly praise what you want to encourage, both for the pupil in question and in their classmate’s work. So if it’s neatness and clarity, make sure to be vocal in praising that quality.

One piece of advice from my head teacher: She said she has never, ever met a single young person she didn’t like one-to-one. In groups however, people can be dicks. Those were not her exact words.

Example Class

I had an afterschool art class, one and a half hours, 15 students. Discipline was difficult, especially getting them to be quiet while I was explaining things. I had no way to deal with the two or three disruptive students, if I put them outside the classroom they’d run into other rooms and disrupt those classes (which did not make me a favourite with the students).

The elementary principal is an excellent experience teacher, here’s how she organised my class:

1 Exercise

So this is an after school class where the students have already spent the day in the classrooms. They are full of pent up energy, and thinking that school is now over so the regular rules don’t apply. This is partly why they are tearing up the place. The first thing is to do ten minutes of exercise to get some of that energy out of the system. Go to the classroom, drop off the bags, then go out to the playground and play run around games (British bulldog etc). Can theme it to the art class (so freeze tag becomes ‘statues’ etc).

If during this time they do not listen to what your are saying, are chatting etc then make them walk laps. This means they’ll still be getting exercise, but not having fun – even though they’ll see the other students enjoying themselves.

If they want to eat, now is the time to do it. There is no eating in the art room or outside the art room at all. There is no eating of any sugary drinks or candy (sweets) during this time. Only healthy snacks and 100% fruit or milk. If the students are hungry and have food they can eat now, but that’s it. There should be a box for snacks that have not been finished.

When the exercise/eating time is up, tell them now is the only time they can use the bathroom. (They also have one ’emergency’ each, they can leave the classroom, go on a toilet break etc during the class, but they only get to do this once).

2 Classroom Setup – Assigned Seating

Every class assign seating. Tape their names to the desks before the class starts, making sure those students who are disruptive together are sitting far apart. They do not get to sit with their friends – this leads to endless chatting. Every time assign the seating first, if there are problems of students being too chatty, move them.

3 How to get students to be quiet, pay attention

Instruct the students that when you put your finger over your mouth and raise two fingers in the air they should all be quiet and copy you. If there are one or two students who are still talking or not paying attention, they will soon be quiet when they realise the entire class is watching them in silence and they’re the only ones who haven’t joined in.

Alternatively/ in addition, have a chant. For example, the teacher says ‘Class, class, class!’ and everyone chants ‘Yes, yes, yes!‘ and then falls silent, ready to quietly listen to the next set of instructions.

4 Play music – reduce chatter

As this is an art class where the students will be working on their own individual projects, it is easy for them to get distracted by the background noise – the scratching of pencils, scraping of chairs. They speak to each other over this noise, and then as they try to compete with other conversations the noise level goes up and up.

To curb this, it is a good idea to play background music. Youtube has videos hours long that can be found with a ‘class background instrumental,’ ‘Disney instrumental,’ ‘film soundtrack’ etc. Make sure that it tends toward the classical or gentle instrumental, without lyrics.

To reduce the scrape of chairs, buy tennis balls and fit them to the bottom of the chairs, this will dramatically reduce the background noise.

5 Discipline

First, a verbal warning – ‘What did I ask you to do?’ Make sure they understand the rules, that they agree to follow the rules, and that there will be consequences if they don’t.

Second, consequence. In most cases, this will be because they have been interacting in a distracting way with another student, either larking about or arguing. The consequence is then separation – the student who misbehaved is sat on a chair at the back to the room, they are not allowed to talk, and a timer is set for five minutes (or two minutes for younger children).

Third. If they do not listen to verbal warnings and the consequence does not alter their behaviour, remove them from the classroom (call Wendy first, and arrange with her to come pick up the student).

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