“You talkin’ to me?” Applying lessons from Taxi Driver to classroom management.

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No, I’m not talking to you, but I am using phraseology to imply that my broadcast statement is directed personally at you. Uff… stop hitting me!

I was seated against the wall on the perimeter of the hall, casting a beady eye across my tutor group. As far as they are concerned, I am making sure that they are being attentive during assembly, but behind my beady eyes I’m planning my Friday night (“Which DVD should I watch? Should I get some beer on the way home? Have I got time to squeeze in a quick jog before dinner?”).

My head teacher is closing one speech and is about to shift topic. It’s Friday afternoon, fairly warm, and the kids are a bit restless. There’s a light chatter rising across the hall. I’d say that about a third of the kids are stirring and whispering. The head says nonchalantly, “I can hear someone talking.”

And everyone stops talking.

This scenario is pretty familiar to most teachers. I’d heard such statements as a student and later as a teacher, without giving them a second thought. But today, even in the haze of my planning of the weekend, it struck me why these types of utterance are so effective in managing the behaviour of groups.

So often, when one observes teachers who struggle with classroom management, what you see are teachers addressing whole groups as a mass. When you say “quiet, please” you are effectively speaking to the whole class. In fact, you are speaking to a host of individuals, who do not see themselves as a mass. So, for example, when you follow up your “quiet, please” with a “well done for listening, Paul”, that’s why the kids around Paul start to listen. You’re beginning to address individuals, who know they are not anonymous within a mass.

I’m certainly not suggesting that this sentence is a magic spell, and can think of many contexts where one could happily and endlessly say “I can hear someone talking” on the periphery of a bubbling class, to no effect. But, moving beyond tips and particular phrases, the general principle that underlies the success of this type of statement is that it creates the illusion of one-to-one communication in a broadcast. The students in the audience ALL think that the head teacher is talking about them. In this sense, such a statement plays on our egocentricity. The fact is that lots of children are talking, but that is not what registers with the individual student in the moment that they hear the teacher.

Teachers pick up phrases along the way, in observations, assemblies, etc. We can, mistakenly, acquire these as soundbites, thinking that simply repeating “I can hear someone talking” will work for us when we try it next week. I would argue that we should understand the psychological gamesmanship that underlies this type of statement, enabling us to generate a wider range of phraseology that will help us in a greater variety of situations.

So let me try to summarise this “psychological gamesmanship”. How could I package this principle to pass onto an NQT or a struggling colleague? In getting the attention of a large group, you want each child to think they are the focus of your statement. You don’t want them to think you are talking to the whole class as a group. So, when you see a large group of students doing something that you don’t want them doing (for example, they are still writing when you’ve asked them to stop, or they are looking at their computer screens when you have asked them to face you), you address this with a statement directed at an unnamed student, implying that it is one student. Like so…

“Someone is not looking at me.”

“I can see you have not put your pencil down.”

The result is that you see students looking your way, or perhaps around at their peers, checking to see to who you are talking to. Very much a non-verbal response along the lines of “are you talking to me?”

In a nutshell, you are trying to create a kind of non-confrontational and much more conformist version of the “you talking to me” scene in Taxi Driver. Except of course, the desired outcome is compliance rather than physical violence.*

*Just to be clear, you are not Robert de Niro in this exchange. You are the character imagined by de Niro in his exchange with his reflection. Picture yourself teaching a host of paranoid Travis Bickers (if that helps).**

**Hmm… I think the technical term for this type of writing is a “forced conceit“. I’m quickly abandoning the idea of a guide to classroom management based on the films of Martin Scorcese. Kubrick, though… (Grange “Hamburger” Hill?). Good grief, it’s time to put on that DVD and crack open a beer.***

***What are you looking at?

PS: for a good read that gets beneath the hood of classroom management and illustrates the principles that underly good classroom communication, check out “Classroom Behaviour” by Bill Rogers. It gives you the spirit AND the letter of behaviour management.

PPS: I don’t get any fees from links. Currently I’m linking out to Amazon because it’s my first port of call (I have a Kindle).

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