You’ve told THAT student to sit down 943 times this morning and you may just lose your mind if you have to tell him to sit down one more time! You already know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is one definition for insanity – and THAT student has pushed you right up to the edge of sanity!
My godmother used to say, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to.” I always thought it was just a funny saying until I came to analyze my teaching strategies.
The majority of teachers in K-12 are female. Let’s face it: girls are raised differently than boys, and that means their language is different. No, I don’t mean men speak Martian and women speak Venusian as a popular book in the 80s would say. Both men and women speak English, or Spanish, or French, or whatever. But the way we use language is different.
There are many studies and articles that show that women tend to speak more “cooperatively” whereas men tend to use more commanding language. Both styles of language have their strengths and both have their weaknesses.
Weakness in this case has to do with how the listener hears what the other person is saying. It is not a condemnation of the way women speak or the way men speak. That more cooperative speaking style is very useful in some situations. A more commanding styles is useful in other situations. The reverse is also true: either style can be perceived very differently than the way the speaker means the listener to hear.
So why is this something to think about when we’re reading this because we are trying to find a way to keep our cool when THAT student it pushing our buttons? Well, we express what we want students to do using language. In fact, it is the only real tool we have in the classroom. Teachers explain, ask questions, and tell students what to do and when. How we use language, how we phrase a directive is often received by the listener in ways that we do not intend.
One of the things that females are often raised to do is to up a rising inflection at the end of our statements. In English, that rising inflection changes any statement into a question. .
Look at these sentences. If possible, read them aloud.
- Sit down!
- Sit down?
- Time for lunch!
- Time for lunch?
You probably read these with a bit different inflection. The way you said the ones with the question mark was a little bit different than the way you said the ones without. That difference is that probably you gave the questions a rising inflection.
Listeners respond differently when they are asked a question than when they are told something. Take the “Time for lunch” statement. If we give that a falling inflection, it means we are saying it is definitely time for lunch. If it is said with a rising inflection it means we are asking if it is time for lunch. We aren’t certain, and the response could be “Yes, it is time for lunch” or “No, it is not time for lunch.”
Really, whenever we ask a question, there are essentially two answers: yes. Or no.
Let’s take this back into the classroom. If we say “Sit down” with that rising inflection, we’ve just asked the student a question instead of giving him or her a directive. Because it is a question, the student can answer “yes” by sitting down, or s/he can answer “no” by continuing to stand up or walk around.
The problem is we want students to do what we’ve just told them to do. Making that directive into a question allows the student to choose to do it or to not do it.
Another way we have been conditioned to be polite is by ending directives with “okay?” It might sound like this: “Boys and girls, put your books away now, okay?”
We think we are being polite or asking if the listener understands the directive. What the listener hears is a question, and a question can be answered “yes” or “no”.
We don’t really want students to think of our directives as optional, as being something they can choose to do or choose not to do. What we really want is for students to do what they are told. And doing what the teacher tells them to do is one of the things with which THAT student has difficulty.
Some people might think, “If I stop saying okay, and if I stop using rising inflection, the students will think I’m being mean and rebel!” We don’t have to give directives in a mean tone. We can change the inflection and still be polite.
It is possible to make statements sound mean just as there is a way to make statements sound like questions. Let’s take a closer look at how we make statements sound different in different situations.
Try this experiment. You are going to say two words in some different ways. (Okay, you can say these in your head if you are reading this where others would see or hear you.) The two words you will say are “Now Aaron”.
- The teacher is angry because the student hasn’t done what s/he was told to do, and she says, “Now, Aaron”.
- The teacher is telling the students which one can line up right now, and he says, “Now, Aaron.”
- The student has told the teacher a tall tale and the teacher doesn’t really believe what the student has said. The teacher says, “Now, Aaron . . .”
- The student has told a joke and the teacher is laughing and says, “Now, Aaron.”
- The teacher is introducing the student who will give the next speech during an assembly, and he says, “Now, Aaron.”
- The teacher has just brought the class back from a break where students were supposed to have used the bathroom. The student walks up to the teacher and asks if he can use the bathroom right now. The teacher says, “Now, Aaron?”
The words we use (in English) are the same in each of the scenarios, but the sound of our voices saying those same two words is different. That was six different ways we use inflection in our voices to get our message across. It is likely someone could come up with other ways to say those two words that would give them even more shades of meaning.
In the classroom, we want students to do what we’ve told them to do, and barring any misunderstandings the student might have, we expect students to do what we are when we ask it.
Whoops! Ask? Remember, if we ask something we have to be prepared for a positive response or a negative response. So if we ask students to sit down (“Aaron, will you please sit down?”) the student could respond by sitting down – a positive response — or by remaining standing which would be a negative response.
If we were to use a polite, authoritative, but firm tone without the rising inflection at the end, then the student hears that they are supposed to do X. Period.
This means we are putting our voices into neutral. We are not using either the cooperative style or the commanding style. If we are in neutral, we are not asking students for their cooperation, nor are we trying to force it.
A bit more about the word “okay”: You may want to try recording yourself when teaching or ask a colleague to come in and observe you. Either way, what you want to check for is how often you use the word “okay”. In all seriousness, I’ve listened to many, many teachers who might say “okay?” 20 times in 5 minutes!
The next thing to think about in our use of language also has to do with how we ask students to do something.
Let’s remember THAT student doesn’t especially like teachers. S/he may have had a rocky relationship with all of his/her teachers since kindergarten. S/he may just not like you, especially if the two of you have butted heads already this school year. So what do you think might go on in his/her head if s/he hears the teacher say, “I want you to sit down now” or “I need you to sit down now” or “I would like you to sit down now”?
Phrasing directives in terms of “I want”, “I need”, or “I would like” could be considered a more cooperative style of giving a directive because the speaker is asking the listener to make a choice about whether or not to fulfill the speaker’s wants, needs, or likes.
Yes, there are those who say that “I statements” are the best way to phrase a statement, however that works best if the other person actually cares or is concerned with the speaker’s wants, needs, or feelings. They are much less effective when the listener does not care if the speaker has a positive outcome.
But, let’s face it, THAT student doesn’t really care what the teacher wants or needs. So it is worth the effort to change what we are saying to THAT student.
The same is true when we phrase things in terms of the student’s needs. An example of this would be the teacher saying, “Aaron, you need to sit down now.” If you think about it, does Aaron really think he needs to sit down? If he is up and about, the answer is probably not. It is likely that being up and out of his seat is what he thinks he needs right now.
The solution is to put our language in neutral. Try rephrasing these kinds of statements to:
Aaron, sit down.
The difference is subtle yet the rephrased comments carry a very different connotation.
Of course, it is also important to make sure how we say things is neutral. Saying “Sit down” with a rising inflection is not perceived well, and neither is saying it in an authoritarian way.
It is not always easy to change our language habits. You may want to create a reminder system for yourself. When I wanted to change something I was doing in the classroom, and I didn’t want the students to know or help me with the change, I would create a set of symbols that were designed to remind me of the change I wanted to make. I would cut them out and tape them in places where I would likely look regularly. For example, I would tape them to the lesson plan book, the student desk I used to prop up my copy of the textbook, by the door, etc. I would see those little symbols and it would remind me to make the change I was trying to make. In this care, these two signs would help me remember to not say “I” or “you” and to put my language in neutral.
Changing the way you use language will not change THAT student’s behavior instantly, however it is a step towards being able to work with THAT student calmly and in a way where THAT student is more likely to do what you really want him/her to do: be a productive member of the class.