A recent social media post about training students like you do a dog reminded me of when I took our first family pet to training. As the leaders impressed upon me, it’s actually not the dog you’re training but YOURSELF! And this is SO true in teaching. Here are actionable ideas and examples of effective teacher talk in the elementary classroom with direct, intentional, and engaging language.
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The Firmness Conundrum: Insights from a New Teacher’s Journey
New teachers often reach out for help because they try to be “firm” but nothing works.
Sometimes we need an out-of-body experience. We need to step out of the moment to think objectively, not react or overreact, and do something logical and thought out. This is hard for new teachers or when we are in new situations.
Here are a few ideas to train the teacher to be firm, backed with engaging and appropriate activities, learned the hard way by ME, and observed in other teachers in many schools over the years.
Crafting Effective Teacher Talk
The Power of Precise Communication
Effective teacher talk hinges on the power of precision. A common pitfall is the overuse of threats, which often lose their impact over time.
Don’t threaten over and over again.
They are just empty words. Actually, maybe don’t threaten, warn, or cajole at all. Instead, consider engaging activities that direct behavior.
Example: We can’t get rhythm sticks until everyone is sitting in their spot.
Replacement Action: Simply give out rhythm sticks, pick a leader, or choose who is “it” by choosing someone sitting in their spot or doing something else that you consider appropriate. Tell the students why that person was chosen. “Here you go, James. You get sticks because I can see you are sitting down and ready to go.”
The Payoff: The class lesson doesn’t bog down, you’ve made it known that sitting in your spot is a requirement for getting an instrument, and you’ve asserted yourself as the one in charge.
The Art of Mindful Communication
I spent a LOT of time thinking about logistics and language. How I wanted them to move around the room and how I’d phrase my directions.
LESS IS MORE! Avoid falling into the trap of excessive chatter. Overexplaining can cloud directives and overwhelm students.
Example: vocal exploration. If you start out saying, “Now we’re going to echo each other…” or “Now I’m going to sing then you be my echo…blah, blah, blah” you’ve said too much.
Replacement: “My turn (point to yourself), your turn.” (point to them) and then immediately bark like a little dog (high) three times. They WILL echo. Then you follow up with “Yoo (so) Hoo (mi)” then bark like a large dog (low), then an up/down swoop, etc. Or for older kids, just start singing that new song you want them to learn.
The Payoff: Better student focus and engagement.
Communicate Through Student Choice
Empowering students and student behavior through choice is a remarkable strategy. Games like “Charlie Over the Ocean” allow leaders to select participants based on desired attributes. This approach cultivates leadership qualities while promoting desired behaviors.
Example: When playing a group “it” game, student chooses whoever they want as the next leader.
Replacement: Let students choose who is following the parameters of the activity. Play games such as Charlie Over the Ocean that have a leader and tell the leader to choose someone who is (whatever you want here) in their assigned spot, sitting cross-legged, singing beautifully, etc.) to be the next leader.
Communicate With Actions
Don’t group negotiate. (similar to repeated threats)
Example: “When everyone is standing still in the circle we can play this game.”
A kindergarten class had a couple of students in a hold-hand circle who continued to yank on the arms of students next to them.
Replacement: I told those unsafe students to step back and sit down while the rest of us played the game. I also told them to watch how safe and kind everyone was to the person they held hands with. After a minute or two I asked the kids who were out if they had learned how to hold hands and they of course said yes and came back into the game.
Learn more about classroom management by checking out “Classroom Management Tips for a Successful Classroom.”
Adapting to Your Audience: Understanding Classroom Dynamics
You can’t discuss any part of classroom management without addressing quality and appropriate lesson planning. One size does not fit all when it comes to classroom dynamics. It’s not always just about effective teacher talk.
You can’t expect kids to be focused and engaged when you are not planning appropriate and quality learning experiences.
Example: Determine the optimal lifespan of activities for specific grade levels and classes. Flexibility is key – adapting your strategies ensures sustained engagement.
For instance, a 6-minute read-aloud may captivate one class, while a 3-minute version is better suited for another. I’ve taken a 6-minute read for a 3-minute class and paraphrased to turn those pages faster to keep their interest.
Pacing & Variety. In general, the younger grades need lots of different activities: sitting still (listening, singing), moderate (body percussion, instrument play, video play along), active movement (stepping, skipping, circle games, etc.)
Harmonizing with the Experts: Learning from Masters of the Craft
Throughout my career, and during transitions to different schools and challenges, I’ve actively sought out and observed exceptional educators who used effective teacher talk. These professionals possessed the knack for balancing authority and approachability. Incorporating their techniques was a deliberate process, as effective teacher talk wasn’t a skill that came naturally to me.
The True Test From the Students: She Doesn’t Play
Students often offer profound insights. When certain teachers were discussed, kids would remark, “She doesn’t play.” This resonated deeply and underscored the essence of effective teacher talk, the learning environment, and the teacher-student relationship – being genuine, caring, and staying true to one’s words.
“Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
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