Now comes the hard part. No matter how emphatic you were or how convincing you think you sounded, nothing matters until you show a willingness to enforce your rules. You must sit at your desk and watch every movement of every student. The first time a student looks up from her work, she will be looking at you. Motion quietly for her to look back at the work on her desk. As soon as two students’ eyes meet and exchange glances (indicating that some sort of understanding has passed between them), you pounce.
Teacher: “Kayla and Jim. Go to the back, get a dictionary and begin copying the words beginning with “B”. Today I’ll give you a break. You don’t have to copy the definitions, only the words.”
Kayla or Jim: “What did I do?”
Teacher: “I told you to behave as though you were in the room alone. I told you not even to exchange glances.”
Kayla or Jim: “How far do we have to copy?”
Teacher: “Until I tell you to stop.”
Reasoning: As slight as this infraction was, since you said it wasn’t allowed, you must carry out your promised consequence. YOU MUST! The students will be aghast, despite the earlier warning. Your purpose here is simply to show the class that you are entirely willing to impose the consequence without hesitation. Your voice should not convey any feeling of disappointment or anger. Their behavior has resulted in the inevitable outcome. So long as they copy throughout the period, do not send it home to be completed. It isn’t really a punishment, and no suffering is necessary. Rather, it is an opportunity for you to show the class that you are serious. To make it a homework assignment as well would be to go beyond the bounds of what is reasonable. The central point is to keep them from distracting others. They can’t while they are copying. Having them copy at home doesn’t serve that purpose.
During the next two or three days, you’ll be tested a few times. One boy will come with no homework, paper or pencil. A couple of girls will giggle. You’ll find someone drawing pictures rather than doing school work. All the time you are watching. Each time you’ll have them copy.
Now comes the real test. You will leave the room. You are about to engage in what psychologists call intermittent, negative reinforcement. If you left the room for a predictable 5 minutes each time, your teenage students would soon learn to talk for four minutes. So you vary the times. The first time you leave, you come rushing back in 20 seconds, ostensibly because you forgot your paper or whatever. When you return, don’t jump into the door as if to say, “I got ya.” Pay no attention to them but go right to your desk to get whatever you forgot. The point is, you don’t want to give the impression that you left the room to bait and trap them. Anyway, if you were only gone 20 seconds, nobody will have gotten up the courage to do anything yet.
Grab your paper and disappear out the door again, this time for perhaps a minute. No more. Now when you return, you will likely see someone talking. Make them copy. Do the same the next day. Make it for two minutes. Then go out a second time but return in 30 seconds. If all is well, wait 20 minutes or so and leave for three minutes.
On the third day you can continue the same routine. You can be absent for longer intervals, but you should also be gone for rather short periods, too. You must be unpredictable.
At the end of two weeks of this sort of conditioning, you’ll be able to leave the class for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. They will be quite happy working on their own. Now you can tell them that if they have books to read for English or some other class, they may read them without taking notes. However, all reading must still be school-related. You may also call kids up to your desk to help them with their work. No longer will the others take that distraction as an opportunity to break the rules or even their concentration. You now trust them, and they’ll know it. Trust is the best relationship between teacher and student, and you’ve achieved it.
Remember, as “mean” as all this sounds to some, you are doing it for them. They will test you. They have every right to. This time you’ll pass the test for them. They will appreciate it.
SUMMARY OF IMPORTANT POINTS
1. Assign seats. Boy, girl, boy, girl preferred.
2. Require absolute silence and distraction-free behavior.
3. At least in the beginning, students should do written school work.
4. Begin enforcing the rules immediately.
5. Don’t hesitate to impose consequences for infractions.
6. Leave the room for brief but unpredictable intervals.