Dysfunctional Classes Need Multiple Influences: Part II

This is the second part of a series from John Jensen on how to effectively manage dysfunctional classrooms. [Part I]

While many opening gambits might serve to start the day, one I refer to as a Consult (accent first syllable) has many uses. With it, you ask a question to which everyone has a personal, brief, relevant answer, and hear them all quickly. You might say, for instance, "Occasionally, just to check out how you're doing, I'll ask you a question that invites an answer from everyone. For instance, right now are you feeling up, down, or in the middle? Let's start over here and go around. Jason, are you feeling up, down, or in the middle? If you want to answer with a hand signal, you can do that too."

John Jensen, Ph.D.

Because "everyone is doing it," and it's personally relevant, brief, and easy, the hand signal costs them little effort. They can even give a thumbs down just to hint to you that they're in no mood to be trifled with.

Let's say as worst case that you receive several thumbs-down signals and want to build on their just-completed cooperation with another easy yes. You remain inside their frame of reference by saying, "Hmm. Several have given a thumbs-down signal. I'm sorry about that. It concerns me that when people aren't feeling good, it can be harder to learn. Isn't that your experience?" You nod and watch them. Probably you'll get a little more eye contact, and several will nod along with you. You continue:

"Let's just hear what the down-feeling is about. It's much different, for instance, if you were angry at someone even before you came to school, versus being sad because of a loss in your life, or worried about something happening. If we can, we'd like to lay those feelings to rest before we start into learning."

Note the embedded suggestion: "We're going to solve a problem, and then we'll get down to learning," two vital assumptions presented in passing as though accepted by all. To call out the material that warrants more attention, you do the same as before but more personalized. You say, "Could we go around again, and this time give a specific feeling-word to your inner experience, like sad, loss, angry, worried, or whatever fits. If you're feeling good, try to put a word to it–interested, happy, anticipating, grateful, or whatever. You're the only one who knows what you feel, and no one is going to correct you about your feeling."

Listen carefully to what they say, and notice what might warrant followup. Sad, angry, or worried feelings might concern a personal experience to talk out right then. Stand closer to the student expressing the feeling, say to everyone, "These kinds of feelings can really get in the way," and then to the girl, "Jessica, would you like to tell us what made you sad?" Hear the story. If you notice a spontaneous response in others, invite it out. "Anyone like to say anything to Jessica? One at a time please. Okay, Arianna?"

For many common problematic feelings, a general tactic is to ask the class, "Think when you or others have felt like that. What kinds of things do people do to get past that feeling?" Note however that an unhappy feeling invites problem-solving about the feeling. It's a different matter to solve the problem the feeling concerns, which may not be accessible to influence from those present. The feeling, however, is different. That's what's going to hinder learning. It's inside the student, the student brought it into the room, the student has offered it vocally for a collective response, and now it's present and ready for surgery.

The invitation to the class to tell how they (or someone) might handle such a feeling may or may not uncover a solution that the speaker can adopt directly. What's most important, however, is that every response implies that such things are to be handled—not coddled, claimed as one's identity, exaggerated, nor dramatized. You're telling them gently that "People handle feelings." Furthermore, every comment by another student implies personal connection: "I've been in your shoes. I know what you're feeling. I want to get through this with you." The process hints at camaraderie, acceptance, and understanding.

But let's assume Alan has doubled-down on his feeling, and grumpily says to the class "None of those things would work," what do you say?

You tell the truth while assuming a constructive course of action. Say to the class, "Thanks to you all for your help. Often one person's solution doesn't work for someone else. The most we can offer may be clues that the person can think about and arrange in their own way for their own solution."

The message to Alan is, "You're going to sift through these clues and come up with your own solution." You may take him aside later with your own suggestion: "Alan, I thought of something that might help," On subsequent days, observing an altered affect in him, you ask, "So Alan, what has changed about the issue? Did a new angle on it come up for you?"

Learning that concerns personal, emotionally-significant material is most helpful when stretched out. Episodes may provoke a deep reaction, but long-term change involves an intricate interplay of information, perception, choice, and action. Ideas that start the process can be offered even briefly. Then students notice how they apply to their ongoing experience; modify their thoughts or actions a little, and return to class with a slightly different stance. Everyday attention just drives a single piece a little deeper, knowing we can return to it on subsequent days for watering and pruning. If an early discussion takes twenty minutes for them to grasp one good idea worth followup, this is a high-value use of time. As their attitudes and behavior turn positive and cooperative, the time needed is likely to diminish, leaving them better able to concentrate on learning with less transition time.

The Consult can be used anytime an event occurs that impacts everyone. In a chaotic classroom, from their body position and expression you can tell that the experience variously may generate distress, worry, disgust, or excitement. With the Consult, you help return them to basic group norms: "Could we hear a word from everyone on what they're feeling about what just happened?" You're likely to get a sprinkling of "When will they grow up?", "boring," or "lame." letting perpetrators hear thin class support for their behavior.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at [email protected].

References. "At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 24, 2011, and also, "A Teacher's Worst Nightmare, " Walt Gardner, Edweek, Sept. 27, 2011.

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at [email protected]
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