Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Power of Empty Threats (or lack thereof)

     Last year, during lunch, one of my friends was texting her dad. I don’t know the whole story - she said he was taking her somewhere and they had to work out the logistics of it, or something to that effect. But you’re not allowed to have your cell phone out during lunch.

    I don’t know why it mattered. She wasn’t being disruptive or anything, just sitting there quietly, not bothering a soul. But a teacher came by, noticed her phone-holding position, and asked, “Do you have your phone?”

    Of course, by the time she got the words out, the girl had slipped her cell phone subtly beneath the lunch table. She looked up, weighing her options, and then said, awkwardly, “No.”

    Well, what the heck else was she supposed to say?

    “I hope not,” replied the teacher, looking expectantly at her. It was clear she didn’t believe a word.

    “Um…I don’t.”

    “Good. I’m glad.” The teacher gave her a long look and moved on.

    When she had gone, the girl turned to me and muttered, “Yeah, people just randomly look down at their crotches and smile.”

    It was pretty obvious she was lying. I’m glad the teacher didn’t call her on it, of course, but it seemed pretty stupid on her part. Did she think she was giving the girl a warning, or guilting her, or what?

    Here’s a hint for any teachers who may think that works: It doesn’t. Students know when you know. And they don’t see your silence as a warning, they see it as a weakness. They won’t feel guilty for lying, they’ll scorn you. And it’s not because they’re heartless.

    Teachers make a big deal out of making the rules and insisting they have power. It’s like a silent challenge, and most students treat it as such. When it comes to actually enforcing the rules, though, teachers are a bit lacking. And students know this from experience. They will not hesitate to take advantage of it, just to prove they can.

    When a teacher says, “Stop talking over me, or I’ll give this whole class lunch detention,” they won’t. When a teacher says, “I guess you guys can’t handle being in groups,” students know, even before the teachers admit it to themselves, that they’ll be back in groups by the end of the week.

    My English teacher made this threat. She is the rare type who actually carries out most of her threats. She still makes us sit separately (though I’m betting at the start of next quarter, we’ll get a chance to “redeem ourselves”), and it’s been several weeks. It was kind of impressive.

    Then recently, while we were working on our persuasive essays, things fell to pieces.  All the students were sitting at their desks with their laptops. Someone unplugged the headphones from the laptop next to them while the owner was absent, and loud music played for a good five or ten seconds before the giggling student plugged them back in. The teacher snapped, “It’s not cute, and it’s not funny.” The whole class was still snorting with laughter. “If you guys would rather handwrite this essay tomorrow, that’s fine with me.” The laughter abruptly halted.

    Several students talked quietly amongst themselves. Others looked up photos on their computers instead of typing. (I may or may not have been pausing to type creative insults about a computer program that opened a window every ten seconds after my mouse stopped moving, but that’s beside the point.) But a not-entirely-focused class is to be expected when you teach middle school. About five minutes before the bell, she ordered brusquely, “Sign out and put your Chromebooks away. Sit at your desks until the bell. I shouldn’t be hearing your voices.” She paused a moment to let this sink in, then continued, “And tomorrow, we’ll be handwriting this whole essay.”

    Then, right before the bell rang, she informed us, “Tomorrow, you get one last chance to impress me with your Chromebooks.”

    And just like that, most of the lingering respect I felt for her vanished more quickly than joy in math class.

    The more empty threats a teacher makes, the less effective future threats will be. When you get an exceptionally rare teacher (that isn’t a sub) that actually carries out some of what he or she threatens, most likely they will be labeled a dictator. Striking a balance is possible, but difficult. And I’d say I admire teachers for achieving it, but…I’m not sure I’ve ever met a teacher who has.

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