The Soft Touch

Several weeks ago, Greg Farr posted some anecdotes from his personal disciplinary files, situations where a sense of humor and a light slap on the wrist made for better discipline than a fit of apoplexy and a suspension would’ve. (Toldja I’d get to this, Greg.)

He concludes with the advice to kinda chill out, loosen up, enjoy the job, and watch as discipline becomes easier. In his own words:

I’m calling on all administrators to remind their teachers:


To which I reply, yeah, but for most new teachers, it’s easier to shoulder press a Buick.

Because Greg isn’t just talking about looseness. He’s talking about carefully-wound looseness, the kind that stays light and breezy without devolving into undersupervised chaos, the kind you’ll only find in a teacher who is totally, psychologically, and emotionally self-controlled.

Which, I’m submitting to you, is the most significant characteristic dividing Inexperienced Teachers and Experienced Teachers. Even after a teacher has class management theory dead to rights, cold on a slab, her successful practice rests on nothing less than totally stripping herself of ego and insecurity.

When a student sleeps in your class, rolls her eyes at something you say, calls you “ridiculous,” calls you a “dick,” wrecks some classroom equipment, says matter-of-factly “you’re not very masculine, are you?” (or all in the same class, as is the case of, uh, a friend of mine) what you do next has almost nothing to do with your class management training or the wisdom of your mentor teacher or how many years you’ve been in the game.

It has to do with the question, “Are you secure enough in Who You Are As A Person not to care?” Once you don’t care about You, all that’s left to care about under disciplinary code reds is your class and the students in it. Which is an awesome place to practice discipline.

It’s a place where you talk to disruptive students in calm, reasonable tones, explaining why “as a group, we can’t work with you talking over me and other students, and, hey, if you’re on board with that we’d love to have you in class but, if you can’t deal with that, we’ll have to keep you outside more often.”

When you’re at this place where individual students really, truly can’t affect your self-regard, you can flip a lame accusation like “you’re not very masculine, are you?” into a discussion of what it traditionally means to be masculine (blowing up volcano-style at any student questioning your masculinity, for example) and what it should mean (having the self-restraint to not).

It’s a place where, if you’ve got Greg Farr’s puckish sense of humor, students walk out of disciplinary encounters feeling more respected not less.

As great as that place is, I have no idea how to transport a new teacher there. (Comment bait!) Personally, I just had to have stuff thrown at my head for a coupla years until there wasn’t anything new for me to see, until my clothes, face, and build had been summarily poked, prodded, and assessed from every direction, until I’d heard every variation on every four-letter word, until I’d encountered every sexual innuendo they’ve got in that Student Almanac I know someone’s hiding from me somewhere.

Greg’s got a problem which is gonna be my problem in a few more years. He’s forgotten what it was like to play the authority figure to some kids who are only a few years younger than he is. And how transcendentally weird it is to call a co-worker over thirty years your senior by her first name while insisting that your students, some of whom were only in eighth grade when you were in high school (again, in my friend’s case) call you “Mister.” And how, if we had kind of a rough high school experience ourselves, authority is like a little anthrax in a small room. The power to enact discipline can create — on its own — the kind of ugly, overbearing discipline situations Greg discourages.It strikes me here that teaching is the rare job where there’s no material disadvantage to being overbearing. Other jobs, my freelancing for example, if I’m not actively pursuing positive relationships all the time, I lose business. Elsewhere you can be fired or shunned. With teaching your clients are stuck patronizing your business every day. The overbearing teacher keeps her job, but unlike other jobs where your customers leave you, with teaching, your customers eat you alive.

My only recommendation is to see yourself through your students’ most critical eyes — lanky, clumsy, fast-talking, disorganized, easily-irritated, style-less — and start appreciating that image or start changing it until you can. (Can’t seem to fix lanky, unfortunately.) I swear I’m not submitting this entry to the Carnival of Self-Esteem but you really do have to dig who You are before you can start playing off your image, picking the better disciplinary battles, and handling hard situations with a soft touch.

Unfortunately these skills are just as difficult for People as they are for Teachers, which places them waaay outside the purview of teacher ed schools. And this blog, for that matter.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. From the Old Man of the Sea…feeling ever older after reading your blog…

    Bait taken…hook not set yet…I’m running your line out while I go deep to think about this.

    But, I will respond. In the meantime:

    Why does your post just beg for me to say, “Snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper.”?? (Oh God, lemme guess, you’re too young even for this reference right?)

    As usual, Dan, you strike me as one of the most mature-for-your-age young teachers I’ve ever met. I just have one strong bit of advice for now: if you ever have a forced choice between wisdom and youthful indiscretion, don’t be afraid of the latter.

    (I don’ wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid!)

    If there’s any doubt, check out my current reading list on:

    I’m in the middle of the latest in a new series about Peter Pan.

    Seriously, from every indication, you are an amazing teacher…stay young.

    Watch for my “formal response” to your blog….I can already tell you the title:


    p.s. if you can count the correct number of oblique cultural reference points in this comment, you’re a genius.


  2. Dan,
    You are so right. It is ok to have fun in the classroom. However, you also hit on the next great point
    “He’s talking about carefully-wound looseness, the kind that stays light and breezy without devolving into undersupervised chaos, the kind you’ll only find in a teacher who is totally, psychologically, and emotionally self-controlled.”

    FInd me a teacher who can banter with kids, tell jokes, teach the standards and all the while the kids know who is in control without the teacher ever indicating who is in control and I will hire them, quickly. Either that or they have probally gone into administration :).

    That carefully wound looseness is so hard to reach and it takes practice and the ability to be able to control the moment.

    With all your great insights I still think you are going to make it to the dark side, either that or write a best selling teaching practice book and retire early to go on the lecture circuit.
    Greg, I am reading the new peter pan series as well. Just finished the first book, amazing stuff.

  3. Having started teaching high school when I was a very-young-looking 25, I remember not knowing how to establish my teaching identity. (Perhaps that’s why I have always preferred middle schoolers). But I think the key difference between the new teacher and one who has some experience and more success in classroom management is that with experience, you know what to expect, what kind of challenges kids make, what traffic jam problems your room can cause, how to give out supplies and get them back, why seating charts cut down on social agita, how having practical reasons for some of your rules makes them seem less arbitrary. As a new teacher, I didn’t know the rationale for everything I was doing, so when I was challenged, I didn’t really have an answer. And kids see that and exploit it.

    With some experience, you can establish your routines, procedures and policies to prevent some of those traffic jams, disorganized supplies, and misunderstandings so that it is clear you know what you are doing and that you have a plan. When students know that you know what you are doing, their challenges to authority definitely decrease and you can take them on more easily because you have a plan. Content knowledge is important, but so is the ability to think through the procedure and traffic flow of a lesson. And then it’s easier to take a soft touch.

  4. Greg, looking forward to your thoughts. Don’t dally as long as I did, ‘kay?

    Brian, whatever my temptation towards administration, your constant references to “the dark side” have kept my feet planted shoulder-width-apart in my classroom.

    Vicki, those paragraphs are just jampacked with good stuff. I’m an auto-didactic sort so it’s always been frustrating when I couldn’t just teach myself something. Teaching was so initially frustrating then because I just couldn’t study up on the best way and time to pass out materials, transition between activities, start class, appear confident to become confident, etc etc etc etc etc, just too much to learn academically, apart from experience. Yeah, real insightful stuff you’ve got there.

  5. Dan,
    I guess I shouldn’t refer to it as the dark side. I heard it once and it just kind of stuck. After the first year steep learning curve it is really quite rewarding. I guess if I keep referring to it as Darth Vader’s own training ground, no one will ever join up.