Teaching Without Screaming: A General Perspective
by Nicole Neil
When I started my first year teaching, I said to myself, “No need to yell or scream,” but I did just that. It was frustrating at times because my 5th grade students would not stop talking. It did not matter where they were going, what they were doing, or if they were punished or not, they just had to talk. Other teachers in the school told me that this is the norm with all of the students, so I should not feel discouraged. I did not think that their talking would be beneficial to their learning, so something had to change.
At first I found myself ridiculing certain students in front of the entire class, but then I would see the look on their faces and feel awful. I decided to try something new. Rather than yell or scream or publicly ridicule, I would simply stop talking during a lesson, give the student a look to stop the inappropriate behavior, tap them on the shoulder and redirect them to the board or their books, write a note telling them to please be quiet, or talk to them outside of the classroom when the other students were working.
I did achieve better results this way. Students were not as embarrassed and quickly returned to the appropriate behavior. To improve the issue with the entire class, I would stress to them that we are a community and family. We need to look after and help each other. The reason I started telling them to help each other is that some of them would laugh at other students if they were doing the wrong thing, or if they were not able to complete their work. I used the person who was ridiculing a classmate as an example.
I would ask, “How would you feel if someone made fun of you?” I told them to put themselves in the shoes of the other person. Whatever chance I had, I made sure to remind them that they would not want someone to make fun of them. I told them that helping each other would make our class better.
This was not an overnight success, but after about a month, the students started to cooperate more. They began to “shhh” each other or tell classmates to do the right thing. At times, I did not even have to say “Be quiet;” they knew what was wrong and how to fix it. If there was laughter, it was shared and not specifically towards one student. This made my reluctant speakers more eager to offer answers or to ask questions because they did not fear ridicule. They knew that everyone makes mistakes and not everyone always has the correct answer, even the teacher.
Sometimes, I would call a class meeting, and we would discuss problems in the classroom and solutions. The meetings would always end with us all saying something positive about the other students and making promises to help classmates stay focused.
For example, there was an issue between John, the class clown, and three other students at his table. John rarely finished his work and was always disrupting the class. Those at his table complained that John made too much noise and that he was teasing them. I had a class meeting because this was a recurring problem at whichever table John was seated. During the meeting, I asked how we could solve the problem of teasing. They gave excellent answers: “We should not tease the person because we are a family and community…we should put ourselves in their shoes…it is not respectful to tease someone” etc.
Then I said, “Let’s try to solve a specific problem that we have been having.” I made eye contact with John and then asked him if he would be comfortable discussing the problem. He shrugged and said, “Yes.” I asked the students to address John with their complaints. John refused to answer and slumped down in his chair looking at the floor. I asked John what was wrong. He shrugged and said, “Nothing.” I asked him why he teases his classmates. After two minutes of silence, John still did not answer, so I asked another student why he teases John, and he replied angrily and loudly, “Because he does it to me, so I do it back.”
I asked the class what we can do to solve this. John interrupted and said, “I tease them because they are always teasing me.” At this point he began to cry. He said that in every class [they switch for three classes], he is always automatically blamed for everything. No one wants to help him, so he acts up. He said that sometimes he does not understand his work, but he is afraid to ask for help because he knows his other teachers won’t help him, and the students will laugh at him.
I gave John a few minutes to calm down. Then a student decided to tell John that he
was sorry and promised to help him if he becomes serious and focused in class. John said O.K. and smiled. I told the class that we must keep our promises and try our best to treat each other with respect and kindness. The students all agreed.
In the several months that passed, John did revert back to his old ways at times, but the students were more patient with him and helped rather than teased him. I decided to meet with his other teachers to tell them how he was feeling, and they agreed to include him more in their classes and listen to his side of the story rather than just blaming him all of the time. As a result of all of this support, his grades improved from D’s and F’s to C’s.
My Second Year
At the beginning of my second year, I decided to make some changes. For example, during my first year, I had to constantly remind students of what they were supposed to do in the morning before class began. I decided to create a poster that would list the steps they needed to take every morning to get prepared for the day:
Say “Good Morning,” and unpack your book bags quickly and quietly.
Make sure you have all the materials you need for your classes.
Sit quietly; talk using library voices or read a book until announcements begin.
After five minutes of being in the classroom, I closed the closet doors so that the students knew they could not return to the closet and must develop the habit of getting everything they need from their book bags. I did not mind if they talked quietly in the morning. I felt that they needed that time to relax and catch up with their friends. However, they knew that as soon as the morning announcements began, the talking stops and the day begins. This saved me from a lot of stress, yelling and repetition. All I had to do was point to the poster and the students knew what was expected of them. This did take two weeks to perfect, because in my school, 5th grade is the first time the students have to switch classes. It took them time to get used to changing rooms and having everything for the two other teachers.
Focusing more on routines and being more consistent with consequences were positive changes I made. Rather than answering the same questions over and over such as what pages to read, how to answer questions, what I expect from an assignment or how to spell a word, I told the students to “Ask three before me.” They were to ask the members at their table for help, and if they really could not get the help they needed, then they could come to me.
I continued to stress respect in my classroom, and I pointed out positive behaviors that students exhibited. Rather than yelling and screaming because students were not listening or completing their work, I would say, “(student’s name) did such a great job with the first two questions, so now he/she needs to stay focused and finish the other two or three;” Or “(student’s name) usually has such great behavior so let’s all help him/her get back on track.”
Students watched everything that I did, and many times I would hear them use one of my phrases to help their peers. Here is an example:
I had a student who couldn’t complete any of the assignments; she was always too slow. She would become frustrated and just stop working. One day she became upset because she had five questions to answer, but had only completed one question; the period was almost over. This student never came to me when she needed help, which the students at her table realized. They decided to help her. They said, “Hey, you know you did such a good job on the first question; just keep trying and you can finish the other ones.” They actually stopped their work and showed the student how to better search for answers in the book so that she could complete her work faster. They said,”Don’t worry; we will help you.” The student smiled, said “OK” and kept working. I did allow her to complete the remainder for homework. I also gave her special acknowledgement for working so hard and for not giving up.
After about two weeks, she was getting better at completing her work correctly. She had support from her table and became comfortable talking to me, so in my mind, she achieved success!
I read a quote once by Joseph Joubert that stuck with me: “Children need models rather than critics,” and another from James Baldwin: ”Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” So I knew that if I continued to model positive behavior, and not just tell them, eventually I would get good results.
Screaming and yelling does not necessarily make a class want to quiet down. What I found is that when you show them respect; give them routines and consequences that you follow all of the time, that is when the students take responsibility for their own actions. They begin to realize that certain behaviors are not appropriate. If high expectations are clearly expressed and expected of the students, the magical thing is that they start to live up to them. Open communication is also key to having my students exhibit positive behaviors. I am not afraid to show how disappointed/upset I am that they were not acting appropriately or that they did not do well on a test.
We are all human, so at times we do have the urge to yell and scream, but if we remember that when we were students we did not like a teacher that yelled or screamed, that might help us all to find alternate ways to communicate. Teaching is a multilevel job. We have so many roles to play. If we try to find positive aspects in our students and their work, and also take the time to talk to them, we would all be better off and able to carry out our many roles more efficiently and effectively.