Small Talk: “From little things, big things grow”

As a relief teacher, I am often seen wandering aimlessly around school playgrounds and ovals; playing games (football, hand-tennis, soccer), fostering good-natured AFL (Australian Rules Football) rivalries, and simply chatting with students.

Many teachers are surprised to find that I do this in my own time (i.e. not on duty), yet it has proved to be the single most positive strategy for reducing my classroom management challenges, and building respectful relationships with some extremely challenging students.

As Rod Plevin points out in Magic Classroom Management (2008, p. 43);

“We seldom just ‘chat’ to our worst students despite the fact that having a real, sometimes ‘pointless’ dialogue with another person is one of the very best ways of building relationship and trust.

Dialogue is a unique relationship-builder because it evolves over time into a “connection” – and when steps are made to form this connection, pupils relate to us much more positively.”

A few minutes is all it takes:

“Getting a pupil, particularly a difficult pupil, to spend a few minutes chatting when they’d rather be away with their mates is difficult, so you have to appeal to their interests. One way might be asking their advice on some new resources that you know they’d be interested in.

That might be all that’s needed to get a conversation going, and even if you only talk for a few minutes it’s something to build on. Each little interaction you have outside the classroom environment will do wonders for your relationship with that child.” (p. 44).

Working with “Roy” (Professional Internship, 2008)

As I discussed in my June 21 post, Transforming a Year 3 Class into a Learning Community, I sought to develop a strong rapport with all my students; taking an active interest in their lives and experiences, and really listening to their ideas, thoughts, and silences.

I made time to talk to my students at breaks (e.g. during the 10 minute eating time) and informally interacted with students, parents and carers before and after school. I paid special attention to my “challenging” students; observing their playground interactions with other students, and making an effort to discover (and exploit) their special interests and talents. These actions helped me understand and connect to “Roy”, my most challenging student, and supported the creation of a safe learning environment.

Through informal conversations, I discovered Roy’s (my most challenging student) passion for aeroplanes and the Fremantle Dockers (AFL team). I loaned him my military aircraft books and commiserated over our football defeat each Monday morning.

These actions helped to build our teacher-student relationship and had dramatic impacts on Roy’s classroom behaviour. He made an effort to moderate his behaviour, and he never “exploded” into his aggressive chair-throwing & escape act while I was teaching him. Working with him again last year, I believe I was one of very few, perhaps the only teacher “Roy” ever came to respect and trust.

My experiences bear out Rod Plevin’s comments on this topic:

”You see, when you really get to know a pupil you become aware of their triggers – the things that upset them and cause all sorts of problems in class. And when you’re dealing with damaged children who carry all kinds of emotional baggage and flare up for no apparent reason, this is valuable knowledge.

After all … stopping behaviour problems from occurring is much easier when you know in advance what causes them!”  (p. 44)

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