Teaching Badly: Oppose, Redirect, Prevent

I have never taken an education class and, Deo volente, never will.  We can get into why another day.  For now, I thought I would jot down my basic theory on how to run a classroom.

When I consider the ways in which I handle behavior problems in class, I really see just three: I can confront and oppose misbehavior, I can redirect it, or I can prevent it from happening in the first place.

It’s worth noting that misbehavior doesn’t (just) mean throwing paper airplanes or talking out of turn.  It can be any behavior that destabilizes the class or diverts you from accomplishing the goals of the day.  Sometimes it manifests as wildness but it could be anything that’s stopping you or slowing you down.

Now, the three basic teacher responses to such behavior:

Oppose.  Now we’re talking!  Nuns with menacing rulers.  Teachers with lungs like great bellows.  Detentions–nay!–demerits.  Oh! how I wish I taught at a school where I could give demerits.

Meeting the problem head on and stopping it in its tracks is the brute force method.  It doesn’t have to be combative or pyrotechnic, it just has to be final.  Stop means stop.  Foot down, mouths closed, back to work.  You connect to their little lizard brains way back at the base of the skull and make them know at the basic level of consciousness that you are in charge.

While this is the simplest of the three, it takes the most energy.  If, God forbid, you have a day of days and have to employ Oppose over and over, it will feel like one of those sleep-deprivation training sessions that SEALs do.  There’s another drawback–too much of this hurts the teacher-student relationship that you need to cultivate in order to have a productive class.

No teacher–ok, almost no teacher–wants to gird up the loins and Oppose.  We dream of a world in which our teaching is so superb (and parents raise their children so well) that we never have to do this.  And indeed, more on that idea below.  But this is hopelessly naive and not respecting the students enough.  Kids have bad days.  Groups have bad days.  It’s your job to help them get back on track when that happens, and sometimes that means “muscle.”

Students have to know that you have this in you, even if you don’t use it often.  The better you get at teaching, the less you have to use Oppose.  But it’s always got to be in the toolbox.

Redirect. Redirecting behavior is the tai-chi approach to handling these problems.  Channeling students back into a productive track without Opposing feels better than just about anything else you can ever do as a teacher.

Redirecting behavior requires mental dexterity and is the most complicated of the three.  You have to think fast to get a kid or group to change course without putting your foot down and restarting the whole scene.

It’s a tight window of opportunity and doing this wrong can make you look silly to the kids.  Wait too long and you are the ineffectual hand-waver while the inmates run amok.  Move too soon (the first rule in a crisis situation!) and you have a host of issues: irritating the students with nagging, moving them off a productive track, stifling a good thing.  Redirect is not easy and requires a lot of intuition.

But when you are on, and redirecting works, and you ride the wave–it feels like a kind of omniscience and omnipotence.  Doing this part right is one of the teaching highs that you want to be careful not to get addicted to.

Prevent.  This is the classic, canned answer to the classroom management interview question, “How would you handle X Problem in the classroom?”  Preventing problems from arising in the first place is always best approach.  Plan the bugs out of the system.  Don’t allow dead or undirected time.  Engaged students don’t act up.  Good material plus pacing, pacing, pacing.

Preventing problems requires the most foresight, and foresight usually only comes from experience.  You learn over time what sets kids off, where your material is weak, what bad habits or flaws you have as a teacher, and the like.  A lot of teaching is learning not to step on that landmine a second time.  If you keep setting it off, you may be in the wrong profession.

Prevent as a method is obviously not a response to bad behavior, at least not temporally.  But it is the greatest of the three methods and without it…yikes.  The great advantage of Prevent is two-fold: it saves the teacher energy to invest in the real work of educating, and it gives the students a sense of security in the classroom.

Even the wildest group of middle-schoolers wants to be in a peaceful classroom.  The fact that they are the ones making it wild is irrelevant–they are children and don’t know what they are doing.  It is the teacher’s job to give them the peace they crave even as they simultaneously attempt to destroy it.  Kids are awesome.

Whole > Parts.  In order to teach well, you have to be able to do all three.  There will be days, unavoidably, where you have to be able to directly confront and oppose misbehavior with your willpower.  You’ll be having an off-day so your other techniques are failing, or the students are having an off-day.  It happens.

Perhaps even more importantly, the students have to know that you can do it.  The threat is (often) more powerful than its execution, as they say in chess.  Knowing that you can and will stop them helps the boys keep themselves in line.  Oppose becomes a form of Prevent.

You also need to be able to harness the energy of the boys.  A full-prevent defense can render a class  bloodless and uninteresting.  Obviously you can plan-prevent creatively, but if you are constantly following that script, you will become robotic and stilted.  That’s no good either.

So that seems to suggest the great importance of Redirect, since it is most closely associated with the vital aspect of teaching a class–riding the wave of their energy and getting them to take themselves on a ride.  But as a classroom management technique for handling behavior, Redirect is the most inherently risky.

For one thing is has the most risk of failure.  Even if you have the physical and mental energy for it, even if you are firing on all cylinders, you can easily make a bad judgment call and end up with a mess on your hands.  Perhaps more importantly, too much of it creates an uncertain and unpredictable environment.  Such is death for a classroom, no matter how creative and energetic you want it to be.

Students must always feel there is a destination.  Flights of fancy and diversion have their place, but if students think you are making things up as you go along there is mutiny on the near horizon.  Classes must be safe, intellectually as well as physically, in order that students be empowered to strive (and risk) for greatness.  And that brings us back around to Prevent again.

So the respective strengths of Oppose, Redirect, and Prevent supply what lacks in the others.  As you teach more, hopefully you get better at all three.  As you do, you find that you Prevent more and Oppose less, but also that it takes less planning and it takes less effort to oppose and it takes less push to redirect.  Frequency of problems shrinks, but so does the amplitude.

Universal.  Oppose-Redirect-Prevent applies just as well to teacher responses to student questions and the delivery of content.  Any parent will immediately recognize these three.  So will any administrator of any body politic.  I won’t turn this into a general theory of rhetoric or conflict resolution, but it’s there to be had.

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