Monday, September 24, 2007

Classroom discipline, or "The biggest dog in the room"

[Originated in a comment over on Terminal Degree]

Youngsters (especially freshmen and sophomores) respond best to those disciplinary methods that are familiar. It's as true of the music kids as of the sports teams: my cattle-call classes got *much* more manageable when I realized I should conduct presentation and discipline using the style of their most familiar authority figures (and parents don't count, in this case): for the music kids, that would be their high-school band, chorus, or orchestra directors.

That means, for the violinists, that you act like a hyper-professional with insanely high standards and a short temper (picture Stokowski impatiently tapping the baton on the conductor's stand, and you'll have the affect); for the singers, you provide histrionic fits of praise or blame, depending on student conduct (think Christopher Guest in "Guffman"), and for the low brass and percussion you yell at them like a football coach ("Get in your seats; NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!").

When you use this method appropriately, you can literally *see* them calm down when the disciplinary or presentational methods are ones they recognize: they're like puppies who finally understand that you want them to pee ON the newspaper. And if you ever have a concern about being seen as not-nice versus nice by students (during student evaluations, for example), just wait a little bit longer before landing on a miscreant with hobnailed boots. By waiting until the other kids in the class are fed up with the bad behavior, you've generated for yourself a massive cheering section who are on your side, and the biggest "rebel" or "discipline problem" in the world will fold like a wet rag when he (usually it's "he") realizes that every other kid in the room thinks he's a jackass.

Also, college coaching staffs are intimately aware that their teams can present discipline problems in classrooms and are usually incredibly responsive to teacher concerns about discipline or ethics. Dharmonia has had entire football or baseball teams in her cattle-call rock history class, and in the worst-case scenarios (say, massive cheating) has needed only one phone-call to have an assistant coach in her office tearing strips off a long line of hangdog culprits. Though it may not feel like it, in a Southern university the coaching staff are typically completely on your side and will back you up.

That said, I think there's a lot of merit to figuring out the body language, affect, and tone of voice that says to a roomful of late adolescents, "I'm the biggest dog in this room and you DON'T want to butt heads with me." Peer pressure will often take care of the rest.

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