Assistant Principal for Faculty Formation Tom Beach observes classrooms as part of his job, witnessing the unique ways our teachers communicate with students year after year. Here, he shares one method that has proven to be a teaching success.
“Gentlemen, we are going to discuss the college application process. . .” she paused—suddenly making her body very still—for what must have been five seconds. The room quieted. She began again. I expected rancor. Instead she spoke, sotto voce, picking up right where she had left off. . . “and how the College Counseling department can help you.”
This happened early in my career at Saint Ignatius. The speaker was the Chair of our College Counseling department at the time, who had asked to address seniors in my morning Composition class. I had stood in the door watching my students ignore her. Embarrassed, I was readying a loud command—something like “Boys! Pay attention and be respectful!”—but her quiet magic trick proved more effective than any call-to-order technique I had ever attempted.
"...but her quiet magic trick proved more effective than any call-to-order technique I had ever attempted."
At our recent fall sports rally, I was reminded of this moment. English teacher and Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle '69, introducing our football team, held the microphone. As he gathered himself, turning from the west side of the gym to the east, he began: “Thank you.” Distressingly, the noise from the crowd increased.
“Ok, I’ll wait,” Kyle said and then dropped the microphone to his chest. The white noise of the crowd faded. He looked up, raised the microphone, and calmly began. Like our College Counselor in that long-ago classroom, he had gathered attention with silence.
To be fair, there are a variety of effective quieting techniques. Some are quite loud, some more familiar, “Gentlemen, let’s come back in 5-4-3-2-1.” And, it must be said, that what we do once we have gathered our students’ attention matters. Kyle often uses a disarmingly professorial posture—head slightly bowed, left hand moving from hip to forehead and back—though, once his audience relaxes, the left hand flashes and an index finger punctuates his sentences as he drives home his points. Our College Counselor chose never to break her spell, speaking softly, like a meditation in an ashram.
What is notable about this tactic is its tone: calm. While I am certainly counted among those who have shouted down classrooms to create space to be heard, I also know the resulting anger can taint what I hope to accomplish. Finding an attention-gathering technique that helps me to remain calm goes a long way to convince students I am also willing to listen.