December 12, 2008

Mean It?

Recently, a student complained to me about another teacher’s poor classroom environment. The student observed that my colleague’s class was unruly, no one listened to the teacher, and the students really didn’t learn anything. So sad. I lamented the situation with my beleaguered pupil. Later I tried to think of some simple way to prescribe a remedy for teachers who find themselves in similar disheartening circumstances. When it comes to all aspects of classroom management from rules and consequences to bell-to-bell instruction, the single most important element for the teacher to communicate to their students is that they mean it!

When I tell my students they must arrive on time for class and that I will send them to detention when they arrive late I have to mean it. Then, when a students comes nonchalantly strolling into class two minutes after the tardy bell rings, I have to actually send them to detention. I can’t express enough how much I HATE when a student sits in detention and not in my class learning and doing. Unfortunately, it is in the best interest of all of my students that when one or two of the students are tardy that they pay this penalty because it really does encourage the other students to arrive on time.

Direct communication with both the whole class of students and individual students is another key. Looking directly into their eyes when speaking, and even more importantly, listening, reinforces that you, their teacher, mean everything that you say and that you value how the students respond. I’ve already written about the keys to success in the classroom, patience and respect. Many teachers don’t appreciate the do-unto-others aspect of receiving respect in the classroom. Teachers must respect their students if they wish to enjoy a reciprocal relationship.

I say “spit out your gum” to at least one student in each of my classes at least once a day. Aggravating beyond description. But students who chew gum in class and break my rule are not a major problem. They do not chew out of disrespect for their teacher. Students chew gum because teenagers chew gum (and sometimes I am thankful they do). My reaction is the important thing. If I make a big deal out of the fact that I am irritated by gum then my reaction, and not the gum chewing itself, becomes ammunition for devious fun.

Every time a teacher opens his or her mouth in front of a group of students they must mean every word spoken. That means that forms of speech like sarcasm and even some types of humor are not appropriate when coming from a classroom teacher. Instead of creating a common bond with the students, teachers who try to be “cool” or “down” with their speech in front of class send a mixed message. Be clear, concise, consistent and follow through with every classroom rule, assignment deadline, and promise made in front of students. Most importantly, whatever you say, mean it!


  1. Your advice is perfect. Students have to know teachers mean business. If teachers start giving second chances, kids start to think they can do whatever they want. Also,being fair and consistent establishes a mutual respect.

  2. Thank you for this very timely posting. Lately, I feel like the teacher mentioned. While I mean what I say my class of feral kittens, cute but don't touch, kick my ass on a daily basis.

    This is my goal for the New Year and I will be reading some of your great postings on the topic.

  3. Amen to that! Gum chewing is a pet peeve of mine as well. Did you ever talk to the teacher about the student's concerns?

  4. Maybe it's just me, but isn't it unprofessional to entertain negative dialogue about a colleague with a student? At least suggest that the student raise his concerns with the other teacher himself. Then the student gets some practice advoicating for himself, not just complaining.