The First Fortnight

w/r/t my assertion that many students want to know right away if you like them or hate them, that they want to know so fast they’re willing to provoke a response:

I got one the first day. A kid came in clowning hard, looking to assert real fast what he was about, looking to find out what I was about. He was obviously in the business of rattling teachers.

I’m not saying I know how this is going to end but I know how I wasn’t going to let it begin. Out of twenty-four students in class, his was the only name I knew. Yet when I was running down the roster taking attendance, I asked his name just like any other. I wasn’t going to give him any celebrity. I wasn’t going to let him know his circus-act even registered.

This trained obliviousness doubles as a legitimate instructional strategy. Running through some whiteboard exercises with my students, students tossed answers out impulsively – looking to keep the effort-gratification cycle spinning quickly. Their answers were often correct, but I felt them reading me, gauging my eyes and mouth for some indication they had scored.

If I hesitated even a moment, they’d reverse themselves or default to their next, on-deck guess. At that point I’d issue a look, one which I’ll issue maybe a hundred million billion times over the course of this school year. It reads like this:

At that point their second-guessing begins in earnest. Problems are re-worked and arguments erupt only to find when the dust settles and the rubble clears that their first answers were correct.

At the end of this first fortnight, I’m realizing how well this affectation works with students, how at the end of the school year they’ll take five or six more seconds on a problem – an eternity by the standards of a 14-yo – reworking even the easy ones, and then when I issue that look, they’ll tell me to cram it, insisting on their first answer because they earned it.

I’m also realizing with this new group of students exactly how tight last year’s class and I became, and something else which is nice to realize and never a guarantee: that the time we spent together wasn’t meaningless.

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. On a somewhat similar note, I really try to not let my response to a student’s answer/explanation be a “tell tale” for whether I liked it, thought it was out of left field, or whatever. That is, I really work hard to not have a “wow, that is exactly the answer that I was fishing for” response or a “what it the world makes you think that’s right?” response…. As you’ve noted, the students learn so quickly how to read the teacher but I can’t let them find some clue in my demeanor or questions that gives away my thoughts, at least at the start of our discussion. I’m not opposed to ultimately sharing my own point of view in an appropriate way (i.e., not foisting it upon them).

    And since I work with a slightly younger (middle school) clientele, there are occasional times when I have to help instill some confidence when a student is willing to boldly offer an opinion, but then my “explain what you mean” response causes fear and trembling and second-guessing.

  2. …but let me tack on that “second guessing” is NOT always a bad thing, as you noted. It’s great to cause them to really work to create a rationale that’s built on solid reasoning. In the context of my first response (above), I meant more that a new 6th grader is sometimes not quite ready to stand firm under cross examination.

  3. I’m working a lot with new teachers right now.

    The thought I keep coming back to is that the longer you can keep students off balance, the more you can get them to try to figure you out, means that you’re getting them to think. The more you shut off the easy ways out, the more they’ll end up finding the right thing to do.

    in an effort to start a theme, here’s my version of that face:

  4. Great teaching technique Dan (and others!). I’m still working on getting the freshmen to understand that my asking a question (“Why?” “How do you know?” “Can you prove it?”) does not mean that they are right or wrong.

    However, I’m still working on not giving the answer away. The stoic affect does not come naturally to me.

  5. I didn’t realize this was gonna turn into a thing, but these are all so funny, if you’re reading this, consider yerself memed.

  6. In the Swedish system it is normal that you can follow the same group of students as they progress thru high school (3 years). So compared to the US I guess that relationship building with student is more of a long race and less of a sprint. I do intentionally learn my students a few tells on when I am pleased with the answer and when I am not but later on I will start mixing the signals to get the same effect you are talking about (to get the student to argue their point in front of a disbelief from the teacher)

    This is my first year teaching in English (instead of my native Swedish) and I feel how much harder it is to get the interaction “just right” when you communication is a bit off. It is also emotionally draining with all new students, I missing having a group of seniors where I can go in to the class and feel at home, where the trust is built up and I know they will not misunderstand, where the rules of the game allready have been decided.


  7. My version for students was hmmmmm…… followed by a long pause. Very ambiguous and even the teachers I teach now can’t read it. It drives them as nuts as it did kids. It does make them think and try to prove they are correct.

  8. @Chris – Sadly I use that same “look” when I can no longer read the fine print anymore, and have to peer over my glasses to see what I’m reading!

    Believe it or not, this very day I had an 8th grade Algebra student who told me that I’m the hardest teacher to “read” — he said that he can usually figure out most of our other teachers by their response, but that I’m too tricky. He and his friends were quite amazed when I told them that I’d had a conversation about exactly that thing yesterday (and even more amazed that it was with a teacher from the other side of the country!).

  9. Per makes a point that is also relevant to the Australian situation. It is not that unusual in a secondary school to teach a number of students for up to four and perhaps six years. They know you and you know them. It works well.

    With me it is WYSIWYG. I am too old to get ‘burnt’ by a student these days and besides the students all know I can ever so subtly equalise the situation in a variety of different fashions. Admittedly we have great students at our school.

    Today I assisted a new teacher with a techie problem as they looked after a replacement lesson for an absent teacher. After I bid farewell to the teacher and the class and left the room I overheard the new teacher say to the class, “Year ten, it’s either my way or the highway. You choose.” I chuckled to myself as I walked away.

    Dan, the oblivious approach is wise. Do not allow the attention seeker the pleasure of an audience.

    Enjoyed this post, the comments and the photographs immensely.

  10. Over time I’ve learned to let go of the teacher’s look in order to embrace a decidedly more martial arts approach to managing student energy. It’s my simplistic effort to live up to Buckminster Fuller’s engineering “Do not fight force. Use force.” mantra.

    As a 1st, 2nd and 3rd year teacher, I occasionally carried a beat-up tennis ball in my right hand during class conversations early in the year as we were getting to know one another. You can picture it, I’m sure:

    New hair-cut that is quite wet-behind-the-ears, one of 3 ties on and bulky pseudo dress shoes, sleeves rolled up in that ‘working man’ teacher look, trying to act like a real teacher in terms of position in the room and clever retorts, occasionally going for the dancing monkey approach when all else failed instead.

    Just add a bouncing tennis ball in the dude’s hand, and you’ve got the picture.

    Admittedly, it was a silly distraction at first. Nothing more elegant than wanting something in my hand to futz around with as an early-year career trying to keep nerves/passion at bay, keeping an eye on the clock at the same time.

    Over time, however, it became something unexpectedly effective as I one day randomly tossed it to a few students I wanted to answer key discussion questions, especially the kids who were being too quiet (while not throwing it to the students who were talking too much). The point was not about my students catching it (although that helped keep things moving), but about they’re being prepared for the potential of my toss.

    Over time, students began leaning forward (literally and figuratively), not only to catch the ball…

    …but also to be always ready to ‘respond’ with something coherent and meaningful coming off their tongue/brain.

    They figured out pretty licketty-split that being ‘ready’ was key and anything that distracted them from showcasing that preparation would result in looking foolish (literally and figuratively) in front of everyone else.

    Funny what a tennis ball can do.

    Where the look once served a purpose in allowing me to presumably hold firm my teacher’s ground while reinforcing that I was fully in control, the ball (and dozens of decidedly non-physical martial arts-like trickery in the years since) allowed the kids to re-direct their own energy in ways that were far more useful over time.

    Years later, kids would ask if I still threw the ball around class. Years later, I didn’t need to. Something else even more subtle and less me-focused had replaced that side show trick as well.


    Oh, yeah. One more thing:

    If they didn’t lean forwards and contribute in meaningful ways during such conversations?

    Well, I’d simply resort to giving them the look and then tossing the tennis ball between the eyes. (smile)

    The Holy Teaching Trinity that never fails to work.

  11. @Christian, I realize that the idea of a teacher’s look sets your sage-on-the-stage siren a-blaring but I think you misunderstand. Though a teacher issues the look, the look is designed to disentangle student response from teacher approval. Issued well, it promotes autonomy not dependence.

  12. anonymousflower

    September 10, 2008 - 3:40 pm -

    I use this on my fourth graders too! While the math, science, etc. are much simpler concepts, it is still “new to them.” My phrase is, “Are you sure?” (with “sure” drawn out in a slightly southern drawl. It always gets them thinking and rethinking. And usually by the end of the year, they just say, “Yep.” But for a good part of the year, it works well for me (and them) (Side note, it WAS more difficult the one year I looped, but new topics helped keep it working). I find it builds not only confidence, but an easier path to discourse and discussion. People can side for or against the answer, but it is more related back to me than the original student. I have heard them use it on each other too (in science experiments :)) and in working math together. It makes it more of a “It’s okay to be a risk – taker environment” – because she will question my answer anyway!!!!