New Classroom Rule: Don’t Talk To Me

Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

If you have ever been in a typical band or orchestra room at the beginning or end of class, you know how utterly chaotic it can get. Kids throwing music into their folders, quickly rushing to take off reeds, shoving horns into cases, and running out the door to get to the next class. Then one inevitably comes running back in because he forgot to take off his neckstrap or loosen his bow or whatever.

Then the next class comes in. Excited to see each other, talking, rushing to take their instruments out, soak their reeds, prepare music, get set up, and the list goes on. Every day, someone feels it is necessary to tell me they forgot their instrument or that they need to go to the restroom, or that their mom called the guy and he’s going to bring “it” tomorrow. As if remember what in the world they are talking about when I am trying to shift gears from the last class.

Ask three before me
I established a policy during summer band that students should ask three other people a question before it comes to me. That didn’t last very long. Partly because I don’t stress it enough, but also because three other people probably don’t know if they can go to the restroom, or get a drink, or call their mom, or turn in their papers, or whatever.

I’m going to continue that, but I felt like I had to add something else.

The problem
I like kids. That’s why I teach. I am concerned about their lives and about how they impact what goes on in my classroom. When a student comes up to me and tells me something or asks me something before class begins, I simply don’t care. I am busy doing my job.I tend to give short, somewhat rude answers in these situations.

“Mister, I forgot my instrument.”
“Great! Be in your seat before the bell rings.”

“I really have to go to the restroom!”
“Wow, I can tell that. Why didn’t you go in your last class?”

Or I simply ignore them, which makes them ask again and again and again, until I turn to them and tell them I heard them the first time, and keep going on with whatever I’m doing.

This obviously isn’t good for student rapport-building.

Don’t ask me a question in the first five minutes of class
Seems simple enough.

“But class hasn’t started yet!”

Don’t ask me a question until class has been under way for five minutes
Clearer. But a bit verbose.

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“I need to go to the bathroom!”
“Don’t ask me…”
“That’s not a question!”

Don’t talk to me until class has started
Concise. Simple. Clear.

It’s not that I’m mean, it’s just that we have a lot of work to do in class today (just like every other day), and I don’t need their interruptions. Most questions will be answered throughout the class.

What about you?
What new rule/policy/or behavioral expectation have you set up in your class this year?

15 Comments on New Classroom Rule: Don’t Talk To Me

  1. School starts next week; I teach 4th grade. New rule will be, “If you MUST go to the bathroom, don’t interrupt me, get up, take a bathroom pass, and GO. Return immediately.” There are just two bathroom passes, one marked “boy”, the other “girl” so that there will only ever be two students out of the class at any given time.

    Of course, my admin. frowns on rules that begin with “Don’t” so I’ll find a way to reword. How is “Leave, pee, return quickly”?

  2. I’ve had to explain that if they are going to ask me a question, it has to be a QUESTION. “I don’t get it” is not a question, because I don’t get what you don’t get. If you ask me a question (How do we do X? Why does this verb look like that?) I can answer it.

    New classroom rule for me (I have high schoolers) is all backpacks and purses go at the front of the room. This way, cell phones, MP3 players, headphones, etc. are not with the kids at the desks, and I don’t have to deal with that headache.

  3. @Cassy – A more positive “feel-goody” way to put it would be Wait until class has started before talking to me. Somehow I don’t think many administrators would be too keen on that one either. Maybe just an unwritten rule or word it less specifically like the old standby Raise your hand and wait for permission to speak in class

    @Paul – I don’t use bell work in band rehearsal. I have the middle school second band. As kids get older, they have a better understanding of how to warm up on their own and I have no problem with the top band at the middle school level or the top band (or top two bands) at a high school warming up on their own. That could easily be considered “bell work” or “sponge activities” or whatever else.

    I also have students who take attendance, and they do that at the beginning of class, so it could count also. Of course, I or the other band director double check before marking anyone absent, but it saves a lot of time that way and gets the kids involved in the administration of the program.

    @Mrs. T – Great stuff! I have had kids put backpacks at one central location for the last five years now. It works!

  4. I laughed so hard when I read the title of your article. It is great. I am going to make a rule the says: Don’t show me your work unless you have a problem. They all come up to me and say, “Did I do this right? Is this OK?” How do I know if you did it right. We don’t grade until tomorrow. It is Okay if you did the assignment completely and correctly. What teacher in their right mind allows kids to come up and show them their work all the time.

  5. I actually like yours, Joel–the only thing I add is “…during transitional periods.” That way, kids going out leave and the others come in and get to work. As a HS English teacher it’s always hilarious when there is an essay or major project due. I tell them the day before, “Do not give me ANY excuses, if it’s not here tomorrow then by the end of the school day, then it’s late.” Of course I have to repeat it that day by reminding them not to tell me anything, just go to their seats. Glad to know that I’m not the only one who doesn’t like huddles around her desk, (or her person for that matter) before the bell rings.

  6. I am a first year teacher and I have a self-contained room for kids with emotional disbilities. One of my new rules is that they can NOT ask me about the schedule. I taught them to tell time, and the daily schedule is on the board. They can’t ask me how long till the next subject, or remind me what comes next. We can all read the board. Drives me crazy!

  7. I had the same frustration my first year of teaching. (Mind you, I am a reformed introvert, so too many people for too long makes me kooky.) My wife gave me some good insight on this issue: Sometimes kids just want to have face time with you. At one point I started noticing how often any given student might go through an entire rehearsal without getting any personal contact with me. Some kids never came up to me and asked to go to the bathroom or anything, and I sometimes would go several days without saying a word directly to them. So I tried to start going out of my way to talk with those students so that I knew they actually did exist. And when talkative students would approach me before or after rehearsal, I would try to allow them a moment of small talk. I’ve found that with students like that, looking at them in the eye, smiling, nodding, and saying something silly like “Lisa, you crack me up” goes a long way.

  8. This is a fun conversation. As someone getting re-used to middle school band, I have been shoved into the 10,000 questions in the first 30 seconds idea once again. I too have the short um…thought provoking responses to questions, but that just seems to make kids ask more questions about not understanding what I mean or said. I’m finding the in your seat to be able to ask questions work pretty well for me.

  9. Two more thoughts:

    – A year or two I stumbled on the phrase, “I’m not taking questions right now.” As those words came out of my mouth, it was like a revelation. That phrase has been a huge time saver. No, it doesn’t solve every situation, but it sure helps.

    – In one of our before-the-school-year-starts staff development meetings, we had a discussion question about this kind of thing. One solution proposed by a small team of teachers regarding the constant questioning was the “nonsense answer.” The student asks, “Is this right?” (or whatever question they know they’re not supposed to ask), and the teacher replies, “Extension cord” or some other off-the-wall nonsense phrase. It’s a non-threatening, hopefully lighthearted way of signaling to the student that what they’re doing is inappropriate and they need to stop, and they aren’t going to get the better of the situation by wearing the teacher down with pestering questions.

  10. Great question! I teach in an elementary general music room as well as a high school choir room, and it is the same issue! At the high school, I am still trying to figure out how to make it work. We have classroom officers that answer many questions, but I realize that there are just students who like to ask questions for the sake of asking questions! I also use the “3 before me” mantra in the elementary. Also works well (when they remember!) I find that I am spending much of the time reminding them to use 3 people before me! I like Stengel99’s comments at the bottom – I think I’ll have to try that!!!

  11. Does anyone else’s school have a 30 minute leeway for entering and for eating breakfast in class? Eat. Clean up Read is like a broken record. Maybe centers would help them hurry it up!

  12. One way to streamline questions is to have hand signals for different purposes. If students raise three fingers (sign language for the letter “W”) they need to go to the back of the room to get a drink of water. If they raise their first two fingers crossed (sign language for the letter “R”) they need a pass to use the restroom. If they hold up a piece of paper, they need permission to throw it away, or if they hold up a pencil they need permission to sharpen it. If they raise their hand without any other indicators, they have a question and need me to come to their desk to help them out.
    For every hand signal, I make eye contact and nod my head for “yes” or shake it for “no”.
    It saves a lot of time and frustration and sometimes saves a child the embarassment of saying they need to use the restroom in front of the whole class.
    I’ve used this method for two years of fourth grade and two years of 6th and love it. I teach the procedure at the beginning of the year and have them posted on a bulletin board as well.

  13. In Swedish high school (where I teach) rules are frown upon unless you negotiate them with your students. Sounds great, never works. Eventually its up to your personal threshold how much you take. Is it OK if they lie in sofas with their feet up when you pass by rushing in between your lessons? I tell my students not to but wouldnt dare to tell off any students I dont teach myself. What is a rule if there is no consequence ( In Sweden they did away with the concept of punishment years ago) in case you break it?
    One small thing I introduced this term is that I ask latecomers to come in as if they were invisible. I explain to them how awful disrupting it is when someone barges in. Im also very fussy about making sure they shut the door every time they either leave or come in. The classroom is like a balloon, you leave the door even slightly ajar and the whole energy just pops off. I probably lie to them when I put it down to Feng Shui but nobody questioned it yet.

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