Monday, May 19, 2014

Excuse You For What?

One day, many years ago, I was reading my students’ latest essays. At the time, I was in a room that was “split” – there was a folding wall between them. The wall was supposed to be sound-proof, but, it was more – how shall I describe it? – not sound proof. The class on the other side was pretty unruly.

At one point, the teacher called out: “Excuuuusse me…”

Noise continued.

“Excuuuuuuuuse me….”

Continued cacophony.

“ExcUUUUUse me!”

And, in the back of the room, a single student’s voice wafted through, a clarion voice below the general chaos. He was speaking to himself, really, but the science of acoustics is a fascinating thing. I may have been the only person to have heard his comment – his response to the teacher’s “ExcUUUUUUse me!”

He said, “Why? Did you fart?”

I laughed. I laughed hysterically. (I was alone – what was the harm?) But, after I recovered, I realized that the kid had a point.

What a horrible phrase to use in order to bring a class into focus: "Excuse me." That phrase (and let’s face it, your teachers used it, too, right?) is maybe an embodiment of all that is wrong in the modern idea of managing kids in groups – whether in the classroom or in the home.

I don’t subscribe to the hammer approach to being a parent or in teaching, but I also don’t think an adult should sound over apologetic or inordinately polite when correcting kids.

What’s to excuse? The class is out of order. They need to stop. Don’t be tentative. Don’t imply transgression on your part. Make them stop. No need to be polite…

…but no need to be mean or insulting, either.

“Excuse me” is light and meaningless; it sounds, after a while, like the teacher in the Peanuts animated cartoons: “Wah, wah…”

No, classroom or parental discipline are not served by acting like drill instructors, but neither are they rendered more effective by passive aggressiveness.

What do I do when my class is getting loud? Well, 99% of the time, stopping what I am saying and waiting (with anywhere from a slightly to a dramatically exasperated expression) does the trick. Why? Because they respect me. Why do they respect me? Because I treat them with respect. How’s that for a concept? 

If that doesn't work (though it almost always does) I tend to get results with a good, hearty, "Yo! Come ON!" (It also helps if I manage to stretch the word "on" into five or six syllables.) Polite? Of course not, though I do ask you to bear in mind I was born in, culture and all. But if "two wrongs don't make a right," at least an increase in volume by a guy who rarely increaseth his volume makes an impression. 

And learning ensues.

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