I remember when I was teaching a grade 10 class. When they were coming in for their lesson I had this learner who was giving me attitude when I told her to keep quit as the lesson began. Eye rolls, deep sighs, melodramatic body language and so on.
These are responses to a teacher’s requests or reminders (i.e. “Please put your backpack away.”) that aren’t quite disrespectful. But they are very close.
Sometimes they’re accompanied by a sarcastic “Sorry!” or “Oh my gosh!” They’re delivered indirectly and out of frustration and are usually not malicious. They do, however, have a way of getting under the teacher’s skin.
So much so that here at EDUPSTAIRS we’ve heard from dozens of teachers wondering how best to handle it.
There is something about learner “attitude” that drives teachers up the wall. At the very least it can put you in a bad mood, especially because you’re just trying to be helpful.
You’re just trying to save the learner from trouble or help them avoid a mistake. (“And the thanks you get is an eye roll?”)
It’s hard to bite your tongue. It’s hard not to be pulled into an argument or respond with a screaming lecture.
So what’s the solution?
Well, this may surprise you, but following your classroom management plan isn’t the best response to a single act of learner attitude.
For one, I don’t believe it rises to the level of disrespect. Although it often feels like it, it isn’t directed at you.
Rather, it’s an act of personal frustration.
Enforcing a consequence, then, often makes things worse, deepening the learner’s frustration and restlessness. There is also a far better way of eliminating it from your classroom.
Before we get there, however, it helps to remember that all of us have experienced similar frustrations, which is my second point.
Whether trying to renew your driver’s license at the Traffic Department or waiting for food at a restaurant, we all know how easy it is to roll your eyes at the clerk or waitor or let out a long sigh—despite knowing deep down that they’re just trying to help.
Yes, “attitude” comes far too easy with some of our learners, no doubt about it.
But understanding that they’re having a bad moment is the first step to turning their attitude around and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.
It’s a very simple strategy, but extremely effective. The way it works is when a learner rolls their eyes or gives attitude about something you’ve said, you’re going to smile at them.
Not a mocking smile, by any measure, but a light-hearted gesture of understanding. An accompanying chuckle may also fit the moment. It should only last a second or two, and then you’ll move on without a word.
It’s such a small thing, but it has an amazing way of breaking tension, diffusing escalating emotions, and allowing the learner to recognize their overreaction.
It communicates that you don’t give directions because you like bossing people around—which, based on their experience in the past, is how many learners view teachers.
You do it because it’s helpful. You do it because it’s right. You do it because it’s best for them and for maintaining a learning environment where they and their classmates can thrive.
The very first time you try it some learners will smile right back at you or even laugh at themselves. But the real power of the strategy is when you make it your default response to all acts of attitude and personal frustration.
You’ll begin noticing a greater acceptance of your requests, reminders, and commands and an eagerness to follow them without complaint. There will be less tension in your classroom and more joyfulness.
The only danger is to be sure you’re clear on the difference between a learner having a bad moment and obvious disrespect, which must always be followed by a consequence.
Student attitude (as opposed to disrespect) is a display of frustration that has nothing to do with you.
The most effective response is one that shows that you’ve been there, you get it, and it’s okay to laugh at yourself and the minor annoyances that follow us every day of our lives.
In time, you’ll eliminate virtually all “attitude” from your classroom and replace it with acceptance, eagerness, and smiles.