How I Get Them Back

Seriously I hope this unseasonably warm weather catches cancer of the elbow and dies. Not even my most interesting stuff can compete on these terms.

It would not disappoint me in the least if our seven-day forecast looked like this:

So, I’m elevating my second period to yellow alert. I realize there are only three or four student leaders taking the class towards this state of outright laziness and flagrant disrespect but the rest of the class is led along far too willingly.

So what do you do here? Maybe you keep ’em after the bell. Maybe you call home. Maybe you punish ’em with a quiz when they’re out of linePlease please please don’t do this..

Well here’s my playbook and not even a student peeking in will circumvent it, such is its power.

Step One

Dismantle the miscellaneous fun, piece by piece.

Step Two

Just wait.

What I’m Not Saying

I’m not saying that I’ll give them substandard material, that I’ll give my other classes the interesting cup-stacking activity and punish these kids with lousy learning.

What I’m saying is that, daily, throughout the year, I’ve put money into an insurance policy.

The policy has cost me:

  1. A greeting at the door for each student. 0 MinutesSince class time hasn’t yet commenced..
  2. A fun question on the opener. 2 Minutes. Today’s was, “What is the average toll to pass through the Panama Canal?” Something just a little interesting, slightly strange, and off-topic enough to matter.
  3. An interesting photoset from the “intertubesIntentional butchering of “internet” optional, but guaranteed mocking laughter..” 1 minute. Some kitty wigs just, uh, for one example.
  4. An interesting video from the internets. 3 minutes. Something provocative and fun. Like Amy Walker’s 21 Accents in 2.5 Minutes.

We’re talking 6 minutes per day, 15 minutes over a 300-minute week. Ain’t nothin’, especially balanced against a) the discussions we’ve had over some of this miscellany, b) how much better we relate to each other once they get that I’m not exclusively about the math, and c) most relevantly here, the insurance policy I have for classroom management emergencies.

So I’ll just yank ’em out one-by-oneUm, this policy assumes you have something positive in your class to yank out. Which you should..

They’ll ask why and – careful here – I won’t rub the reason in their faces. I won’t wag my finger, cluck my tongue, or pack ’em on a guilt trip.

I’ll claim with an earnest grimace that we just don’t have time for the fun anymore given how much time I spend pressing them into work which their peers from my other classes commit to willingly.

I mean, I’ll really sell my own regret. It’s legitimate. Sorry, guys. We just can’t do it.

This insurance policy lifts the burden of guilt off the student and puts it 100% on the behavior. Students hate the suggestion (however deserved) that they need to change themselves but they’ll willingly change their behavior to get what they want.

So gimme a weekPS. This lesson in classroom management brought to you by Skinner, who is Chris’ BFF..


Or six minutes.

Having stood outside every day the last seven months, rain, shine, or whatever, sayin’ hello, when I wasn’t out there yesterday, kids knew I was serious.

Not sayin’ it was all perfect after that. But all it’s gonna take is, like, two more days of this kind of sobriety. Then we have a good day and I’ll release a little bit of the good.

It’s predictable.

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. The unasked question: Will your students feel that being able to look at kitty wigs for a minute a day is worth their agreeing to give up being distracted by bright sunshine and the promise of spring in the air? In other words, are your students teenagers or research scientists?

    I’m a little worried that you might become this guy.

  2. Hello, Dan,

    Love the approach — I would always structure multiple approaches to the same learning goal, something that is perhaps easier in a lit/history class than in a math lesson, and also something I didn’t become really good at doing more or less as needed until after I had been teaching for 10 years.

    Basically, I’d have my preferred approach (ie, everybody’s focused and ready to roll) and then my fallbacks — as you lay out, the key when making a switch was to frame it as a time issue, not a discipline issue. There was never any question that learning would occur; the only variable at play was how they would learn. I always made sure to explicitly acknowledge the student’s role in the classroom dynamic, and my respect for their contributions to the classroom.

    @Jeff — the unstated context of this post (and really, most posts about classroom managament) is that your students need to trust you, and feel that you care about them, and have their best interests at heart. Once you have established that (and if you don’t do it within the first week of class, it’s damn hard to get there, ever) they will care, and they will notice, because you care.

    If you don’t establish that trust, you already are a version of that guy.

  3. I took two computer science classes in high school where the students wrote 60% of the test — each student wrote one question. The teacher had to set rules on how many silly answers could be included (1 out of 5) because everyone was trying to write questions like that Onion article there.

    There were still some students who seemed to be missing the point; I remember one question along the lines of “what’s the title of section 4.2 of the textbook?”

  4. Your approach is excellent and refreshing! I do not at all ‘read’ you as being a teacher who is too soft – but rather one who realizes what your responsibilities are in creating the right environment for learning. And the best part – how carefully you clarified what you were and were NOT saying!

    I am tempted to share this with the teachers at my school, though we are back into the “the admin just does not punish these kids enough” and the school of thought that getting in the kids faces and letting them have it is the only appropriate response to kids who are ‘out of line.’ This advice might just push them over the edge – because it is not about them – it is about the non-compliant 11 – 14 year olds . . . we have work to do in this area!!

  5. Jeff saw that article and was like, “I’ve gotta wedge that into a critique of that chummy populist, dy/dan.” Mighta waited for a more suitable moment, though.

    Having stood outside every day the last seven months, rain, shine, or whatever, sayin’ hello, when I wasn’t out there yesterday, kids knew I was serious.

    Not sayin’ it was all perfect after that. But all it’s gonna take is, like, two more days of this kind of sobriety. Then we have a good day and I’ll release a little bit of the good.

    It’s predictable.

  6. I’m curious: if you didn’t have curricular and time constraints, no schedule to meet, do you think you’d respond the same way? This setup requires kids to be required to be in your class in the first place, which I totally understand. I know that this is an unfair question in a lot of ways (it requires imagining a completely different setup), but I guess I’m just curious about what you’d do if kids weren’t compelled to attend?

  7. It works.

    I teach elementary, fifth grade. Every day I lead them down the hall to the lunch room. Other grade levels are in session as we walk by, and my students need to respect that and stay quiet when walking past doors.

    So every day this year, as they walk by me into the lunch room, I give them a high five or some silly version of a high five. It’s become our little “thing” as a class. No other class does it. In fact, other students see us do and ask my kids, “What’s that?”

    On a day when we should have had a snow day, they were all out of sorts. They were a mess walking down the hall. I stopped them, reminded them that they were not the only ones in our school and continued to the lunch room.

    Once there, I did not put my hand up for the traditional high five. There was visible squirming and eye-dropping as they realized that their behavior had been “uncool” with me.

    Every day since, they’ve been quiet and we’re back to the high fives.

  8. Let us know how it goes. Your approach is as sound as any I’ve come across this time of the year. In fact, I’m working with a couple of teachers on similar issues. I’ll be anxious to hear more about this.

  9. Alec, if kids weren’t compelled to attend school – that is, if the kids who were uninterested in school, the ones who felt education was irrelevant to their lives, the same ones, basically, who’d eat Cheetohs everyday if you let them, if they didn’t come to school – these strategies would be unnecessary, over the top.

    Life ain’t so, and I’m glad it isn’t, which makes these sorta gettin’-along strategies essential.

    Unrelatedly, if I weren’t constrained by curriculum maps and pacing guides, I’m almost certain I’d teach exactly the same way. The question isn’t really theoretical either. There was a month-long stretch this school year which convinced me, for reasons which don’t matter anymore, it would be my last.

    I taught that month like it was my last, obliging myself to nobody and nothing. And the result was more or less the same. I brought in the same outside inspirations for learning & projects. I covered the same standards because, with few exceptions, I think they’re dead on.

    Mindy, that’s great. I’m not sure how much my discipline oughtta coincide with yours. Feeling weird now, having treated my high schoolers like fifth graders. Hm.

    Rick, I have an update a few comments above yours.

  10. Dan,

    I haven’t taught high school, but have taught 6th grade and 8th grade in a middle school setting.

    Even with those levels, I found the same as with my fifth graders.

    I think it’s true of all people. When you respect someone and enjoy being around him/her, you sincerely feel bad when you’ve done something to upset that person.

    So when you’ve created that respect (teacher to student and vice versa) and you’ve made learning interesting, and even fun at times, you’ve built that relationship and the kids don’t really want to disappoint you, just as we, in “real life” don’t want to disappoint others that we respect.

    So perhaps it’s not a high school vs. elementary school discipline plan. Maybe it’s just a fact of human nature that we can all use to help us.

  11. Any tips for a digital illegal alien for finding good stuff on the internet to use in a math class?

  12. Hi Erin, I think you e-mailed awhile back. The Internet is full of ready-made handouts to print and give your kids. It isn’t full of the stuff that makes you personally pumped about math – that angular building outside your school, the patterns in the floor tile in your house.

    You’ve gotta get in constant touch with the part of you that loves math and then exploit it, let it inform your teaching. Take photos of that building, bring in tile samples from the floor & carpet shop. Those are my favorite lessons, the ones that’ll make you believe you can’t do another job as long as you live.

    I’ve posted many of mine on this blog. I can’t guarantee they’ll resonate with you as they did with me, but perhaps they’re worth a look.

  13. In that short comment I feel like you’ve hit on one of the biggest factors in identifying a good teacher. “You’ve gotta get in constant touch with the part of you that loves math and then exploit it, let it inform your teaching. ” Substitute whatever subject(s) you want in there for math and you’ve identified a critical component of a good teacher.

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