It is important for you to prove during those first few days that you can maintain order and run a businesslike class. But now you must selectively relax those rigid standards. While teaching in class, you must let your sense of humor show through from time to time. You’ll need to laugh together, to let them make fun of your big nose or funny clothes. You must recognize the students for the individuals they are. They need to have enough freedom to let their personalities show so you’ll have the opportunity to accept them for what they are. Some will want to make humorous comments during a class activity. While that would have been unacceptable during those first days, now you are sufficiently relaxed to enjoy the comic relief. Noisy chattering, unthinkable weeks ago, will break out during lulls in your lesson. Nevertheless, while such chattering might be okay while you are handing out papers or whatever, you should never begin to talk until they are absolutely silent. When you return to the front of the room, that is their cue for them to be quiet. Wait for silence before beginning. Otherwise, they will quickly come to believe it’s okay to talk while you are, never suspecting you think it rude.
One caveat is in order here. Many schools group students according to ability or previous performance. Students in lower groups tend to be easily frustrated and of lower self-esteem. They, more than others, see school as unpleasant and threatening, so any diversion is welcome. Therefore, in lower classes, you must be very careful about relaxing standards too quickly. Also, you must be very quick to deal with the slightest misbehavior immediately. As a general rule, you should not relax standards until there are no more challenges to your leadership. Once you have proven you are capable of maintaining order and attentiveness, it is time to ease off. In a class of capable, motivated students, that time may come within four or five days. At the opposite end of the behavioral spectrum, it might take two or three weeks. Even then, however, your standards will always need to be more rigidly maintained in your lower groups.
Underlying this new, easygoing atmosphere, the structure remains. The kids know when they can talk and joke and when they should work. If they overstep the bounds, a simple “shhh” or “excuse me” is all that it takes to get them back on track. They know you well enough so that when you are having a bad day, they will be subdued. When you are “up”, they will make your day all that much better.
To achieve this balance and level of understanding takes great finesse. You must relax the standard of conduct without diminishing the underlying structure or sense of mutual respect. Although surprising to non-teachers, those kids who are troublemakers for less capable teachers are the very ones who are your greatest asset. These are the extroverts, the ones who crave attention to get approval. They are the ones who will make the first tentative attempts to “break the ice.”
Perhaps a boy makes a humorous comment during class that elicits some giggling. While it may have interrupted your presentation, you must decide if it was intended as a disruption or a friendly gesture. If he is looking at you and smiling, it was probably the latter, and a humorous rejoinder from you is appropriate. Even if you’re not sure, it’s best to respond as if no harm were intended unless the interruption was obviously malicious. That way you won’t seem flustered. If he continues to excess, you can simply motion quietly for him to stop. Assuming his intention was benign, he has given you the opportunity to demonstrate your sense of humor and your ability to remain in control. On the other hand, even if he was trying to rattle you, your calm in handling him shows that you are willing to give kids the benefit of the doubt. Since you remained composed, he has lost the initiative.
Nearly always, though, the first “ice breaker” will come from a student who wants to establish a good rapport with you. Troublemakers generally need a power base, and if the class has been quiet and attentive so far, they don’t have it.
Go to “Handling the Extroverts“