Pop Quiz Hot Shot: Split Second Teaching

“Mr. McCormick, I need to sharpen my pencil!”

Me: “Again? Seriously? You just sharpened it.”

“I know, but it broke.”

5 minutes later.

“Hey! He threw paper at me!”

“I didn’t throw it AT him! I threw it TO him!”

5 minutes later.

“Mr. McCormick! Why did the chicken cross the road!?”

Me: “Eli, Jayden, get back to work. I need you to focus today.”

It’s my student teaching year. I’m twenty-five years old and I’ve been at the school for maybe a week or two. Jayden and Eli are nice kids. They’re good friends and really excited to be in class together. They’re 11 years old and love to skate. I’m pretty sure we would have been friends in middle school. They’re also completely bonkers.

Class with Jayden and Eli is tough. They both continually distract themselves, each other, and their peers. They crack jokes constantly.  They intentionally break their pencils so they can go sharpen them. Thank God I teach 6th grade. I can’t imagine having them for a full day as elementary students.

While I liked both of them Jayden and Eli were a pain in my neck. I worked a lot with my cooperating 6th grade teacher to figure out how to plan around them. Split them up? They yell across the room to each other. Put them together and they’re constantly talking to each other. In the back of the room they’re always off topic. In the front of the room they want to have individual conversations with me while I’m in the middle of giving instructions.

Exhausting. Never mind the other twenty-eight students, and that was only second period.

One day was worse than normal.  Their energy was off the walls. Joke after joke after joke. Constant requests to go to the bathroom. They were so present in my brain that I have no memory of the lesson was but I remember the two of them clearly. At my wits end I was ready to kick them out of class, but didn’t want to kick them both out of class together and in frustration I said something to the effect of “I swear, you need to go run around the school and get some of this energy out.”

They whipped to attention. I had an opportunity to shut them down, or I could show them I cared.

Time Out:
Let’s pause for a second.

At this moment I could have sent them to the office. By the standards of the school I would have been well within my rights to do so and my principal would have had my back without a doubt. Jayden and Eli were far out of line and it would have solved the immediate problem. I also would have been in good company with my colleagues. Trouble is, they would just be in class tomorrow. And the next day. Despite their craziness these two students are my students and as a teacher it’s my responsibility to help them learn. They can’t learn if they’re not in class. They’re also not learning at this moment and they’re making hard for the rest of the class to function. Something had to be done.

So much of teaching occurs in these tiny moments. A kid does something crazy because they’re a kid. How do you react?

A student asks a complete non-sequitur. What’s your response?

A kid makes an unexpected connection. Do you engage it or shut it down?

Speed is pretty much a giant metaphor for teaching. (I’m not even really joking that much… Maybe first year teaching?)

A master teacher has to carefully balance how they respond to the unexpected in a fraction of a second, while everybody is watching, and with full knowledge that these little moments can have enormous impact on students. Teachers don’t get do-overs.

So I had 2 wild young boys in front of me. I could kick them out of class or come up with another option. I still don’t even know why I made this choice, but I chose another option.

Game On:
“Go run to the flag pole,” I said in exasperation.

“Huh?” they asked in unison.

“Look out the window. We can see the flag pole right? Go outside, run as fast as you can to the flagpole and come back in. You have 1 minute, go! I’m timing you.”

They bolted for the door, hit the flag pole and came back panting. I didn’t actually time them, but they were quick. They were also tired. And while I can’t remember if they focused on the lesson that day, they did calm down enough that I could actually run the class.

We did it again tomorrow. And the rest of the week. They started racing each other and the flag pole run became a routine with a bit of clarification.

  • No running until you’re out of the actual building.
  • I need to see you touch the flag pole.

And it worked pretty well. When they got extra wild they’d go run to the flag pole. Every once in a while another student would join them if they felt the need or desire. Under a minute and Jayden and Eli would be completely reasonable for the rest of the fifty minute period.

It’s Still Social Studies. Not Phys Ed:
As you might imagine, they would start looking for ways to run to the flag pole after a little while. An intentionally loud pencil break. An extra-obvious interruption. Particularly on a nice day (a prized luxury in the Northwest) they would look for excuses to go for the run.

We changed the rules.

They only got to run to the flag pole if they got to class early. If they were in class to check with me before the bell, they could race to the flag pole and I wouldn’t mark them late if they got back after the bell. This turned the behavior intervention into something of a privilege and I would routinely get small groups of five or six students running together. No one ever got hurt and it just became a feature of our class. They were never late again.

This didn’t solve everything for Jayden and Eli. They still cracked jokes and got distracted but it got them tired enough that I could get through class with a reasonable amount of redirection. I no longer had to use all my energy simply to keep them focused. I could actually teach.

I didn’t know the positive links between student exercise and cognitive function at the time. I also didn’t ask permission to let the kids run outside during Social Studies. I made a choice in the moment and it worked out pretty well. No one told me that running would work. When they got complacent we made adjustments.

I also allowed other students to opt in if they wanted to so it became part of the class community to run to the flag pole. I never did it with another class.

These momentary adaptive decisions are what make teaching work or not work for students. Every Social Studies class reads some non-fiction. Every Social Studies class works on expository writing. Only my second period 6th grade class during my student teaching year ran to the flag pole.

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