That was the opener. A member of our faculty began an address to the freshman class with that line the other day. A few kids held out and s/he said it again.
“When I talk, you listen.”
I imagine a lot of folks — especially those who promote the equivalence of teacher and learner, who promote a perfectly democratic discourse — will chafe at the authoritarianism of it all. Others — Andrew Keen disciples mostly — won’t mind.
Personally, I was unoffended. I don’t have much interest in a classroom (or society) where every voice carries equal weight, where experience and education merit no preference. That goes double in a gymnasium full of freshmen.
But I become particular and somewhat critical in the moments immediately after you’ve exploited your authority. In the five seconds after you’ve caught the attention of every freshman at your school (like the Labrador finally catching the car) you either lose it or keep it.
You lose it by leading with filler, by continuing, “Your teachers have talked a few things over in our meetings, which we have every month, and we’ve decided that certain issues face our campus, some which are more pressing than others, etc., etc.”
And they’re gone. Just gone.
If you want to keep their attention, to earn it, you let that silence sit for what screenwriters call a “beat,” essentially the length of one thought, and then you say, “Look, we need you in class, on time. You may not like this but here’s how we’re going to fix the tardy situation around here.”
One is filler. The other is content.
One is signal. The other is noise.
One abuses the strange power dynamic between teachers and students. The other respects it.
- Cut the first chapter of your book.
- Lose the first paragraph of your essay.
- Don’t introduce yourself at your conference presentation.
- Open with a question or at least a big statement.
- Don’t follow a joke with leaden, nervous laughter.
In my classroom, if we’re in a work session and I need to talk to the class, to steer ’em somewhere new, I head to one corner of the whiteboard, my only serious place in the classroom, and say, “I need you back here in 5 … in 4 … in 3 …
“If you fell out of an airplane, how long would it take you to hit ground?”
“How fast does Archie, the world’s fastest snail, travel in miles per hour?”
You can throw your back out, as I did for two years