Monday, April 9, 2007

Irksome Behaviors

I co-facilitated a training last week for staff in an afterschool program for middle school students. The stated topic of the training was about using classroom meetings to facilitate a more "democratic" classroom, the kind of space in which students have a voice and can exercise some control over their environment. Creating this kind of a classroom, of course, can lead to an increase in the potential for chaos. After all, choices and voices can make for a very clamorous classroom.

Our way of addressing this was first to highlight those things that students do that "irk" us the most - snapping gum, sucking their teeth, telling us how boooooooring we are - and then take a closer look at ways that we can address these behaviors effectively by sharing some best practices.

We explained the activity, put up a piece of posterboard, and handed out post-its to everyone and had them write one "irk" per post-it. For three minutes, the room was completely silent while everyone rushed to fill their post-its. There was no hesitating to think about it whatsoever, and when time was up the poster was filled with yellow post-its. And the range and specificity of things listed was remarkable:
  • clustering together when I ask them to stand in a circle
  • audible sighing
  • slumping down in their chairs
  • "...But I wasn't talking!"
  • accidentally on purpose bumping into each other
  • slam-dunking the door or ceiling beams
  • mysteriously not understanding what a circle is supposed to look like

And many, many, many more. I read them out loud and told people that if they heard one they forgot - or that really resonated with them - to feel free to go ahead and shout out an, "Amen!" Of which there were several, mixed in with a healthy dose of knowing laughter. The whole experience was so liberating.

To an outsider, it might have seemed like we were trash-talking our students, but it was actually more like a catharsis and renewal. Afterwards, one of the women in the training explained that it was the most enjoyable part of the afternoon, because it was a chance to give voice to the things that they all go through in a room full of people who understand each other and each other's jobs. And that even though they can list their students' most irritating behaviors without hesitation and with lots of gusto, that does not mean that they love those students any less.

The practical what-to-do-and-when section of the workshop turned out to be a good discussion, but it was most likely less important than the collective release and shared laughter that prompted it.

So, accepting that it does not make you any less of a teacher for saying so, what are those most "irksome" behaviors that get under your skin most? And how do you prepare yourself for or respond to them? What advice do you have for your peers?

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