Everything I Really Ever Needed To Know About Teaching . . . .

I remember that wonderful phrase used to help us remember the rules for crossing the street back when crossing the street was quite the adventure for we very wiggly five year olds back in Kindergarten: stop, look, listen, proceed.  Stop: don’t rush into trouble.  Look: take a moment to scan the vicinity.  Listen: make sure there are no clear warning signs being missed.  Proceed: only when you’re sure you understand the situation.

This is, oddly enough, a pretty good rule for students of any age, whether they are 15 year olds in a classroom or a 50 year old standing in front of it.  It always seemed to me that most of the problems and misunderstandings that led to failures of both education and classroom discipline could be solved by following these simple rules.  If you stop before you react to something, look to make sure you know what is actually happening, listen to those around you, and proceed only when you have a complete grasp of both the situation and your initial emotional response, everything runs a whole lot better than everyone snapping at everyone else before they figure out what the reality actually is.

When I worked as a substitute teacher while obtaining my teaching certificate (I was a mid-career entrant into the profession), I found that not reacting to every little thing in the room and focusing on the looking and listening before I said a word worked wonders.  I also got a look at what would happen if I did not when I happened to substitute teach for a few days in the classroom right next to a very haggard-looking first year teacher.  It was a madhouse.  The kids were shouting; the teacher was shouting; nothing even vaguely related to education seemed to be transpiring.  When I looked over at the wall we shared the first day, wondering if I should phone down to the main office after what seemed to be a particularly loud and angry exchange, I was dissuaded by the students in my room: “It’s like that every day, so don’t worry about it.”

No one teacher is going ever win a shouting match with 25 students, nor should a teacher ever try to do so.  The teacher is the adult, the role model, the guardian, and the guide.  It is up to him or her to really focus on the looking and listening before proceeding and model that behavior for the students.  Failing that, education is sure to not follow, and all anyone will learn is that it’s really unpleasant to try to work or learn in an environment where no one ever seems to stop challenging one another.

Not surprisingly, if allowed to get off the carousel of one-upping the teacher, most students can be pretty darned nice.  Also, and this might be surprise to some, the majority of students in the room will actually turn on the one or two kids who persist in disrupting.  More than once I’ve observed students shushing their fellows before I even had a chance because they wanted a calm and supportive atmosphere as much as I did.

Of course, the problem sometimes is that not every teacher in your building is going to obey the stop, look, listen, proceed rules and resort to using their position of authority to intimidate and belittle students who don’t do what they’re told.  Consistency throughout the day matters, and I remember dealing with one student who had become the favorite target for the teacher in the class right before mine.  There were days he came into my door looking like a blood vessel in his head was going to pop because he was working so hard to not lash back and get a detention or worse.  Sometimes the first thing I had to do was walk over, greet him pleasantly, smile, and tell him what a great day we were going to have in class.  Thankfully, he usually believed me—or at least he appreciated my effort to give him a chance to stop and think before he stumbled into trouble for no good reason at all.

Teachers and students: Stop, look, listen, proceed.  You’ll be surprised at how well it works and how much more pleasant and educational the school day can be as a result.  You really can learn a lot in Kindergarten.

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