The Cure for Tardiness
Student tardiness can drive a teacher up the wall, and you may wonder why. Let me explain.
Teen scholars are an exceptionally volatile bunch, and that makes sense when you think about it. In your teen years your body is changing on virtually a 24-7 basis. You are not the same person today you were yesterday. Your emotional growth is also raging, and mood swings are more the norm than the exception. Student activities can interact with classroom work and either enhance the learning environment or destroy it. For example, a winning football team can elevate the entire school, even for those who are not interested in sports. The last few days before a big dance will render most educational efforts null and void. A student may fall in love, or out of it, several times a year. His or her friends will have opinions on this. Issues in the home get in the way. Students are distracted by thousands of new concepts and possibilities flooding the brain on a second by second basis, whereas most adults have learned to filter out a lot of this stuff while they are at work.
If you walk into a meeting of other adults at work a minute or two late there is a pause, or not, and life continues. In a classroom, you disrupt the fragile attention spans of 30 others.
This is most obvious in junior high or middle school classrooms, but is also evident in classes of any age level up to the later college years.
I’ll use junior high for my examples, although middle school is currently in favor. To review, junior high is a phrase that usually refers to grades 7-9, while a middle school houses grades 6-8. There are sound educational philosophical reasons for either arrangement, but the real driving forces are the educational fad of the decade blended with population bumps that swell or diminish a particular student distribution.
Teaching junior high has some comparisons to stand-up comedy. In both, the first five minutes are crucial. You have to grab the attention of the audience, deal with any distractions, and herd the entire group in the direction you want to go. If it was easy, everyone could do it.
Toward the end of my career I was conducting experiments using a small stereo system. I could alter the mood of the entering students by the choice of music playing when they walked in. I was getting to the stage of selecting a song to fit the lesson plan for that class period when I chose to retire.
Additional factors in play were the direction for the class on the board when they walked in, plus something of interest that might be off-topic and/or weird, and greeting as many students as possible in a personal way, the latter often hampered by other issues.
When a student enters class a minute or two late, all of your efforts go out the window. Some are able to come in quietly and unobtrusively, but they are rare. Some are tardy because they need attention, and entering with a bang, so to speak, will get that attention. When we feel the need for attention, at some point negative attention is better than none at all.
In addition, the teacher needs to take and record roll, for both legal and safety reasons. This takes time, and the tardy student sucks more time away from your magic window of being able to get things going in a positive direction.
Some success was attained at Juanita High School for a few years in my sophomore classes. At that time the curriculum was directed by a theme, and the key word was “choice.” All stories and plays and novels contain characters that make choices, and those choices dictate what happens next. Shakespeare made a good living with this concept. To my mind, the “choice” concept (not mine) was brilliant. I had dozens of sophomores who, by the end of the year, were able to transfer the concept to their own lives and begin to take responsibility for their own choices, whether ill or good, and to understand just how deeply our own choices imbue all that we do. I could pick on a tardy student for an example, and run them through all of the choices made prior to the class that created the outcome. Of course, this program of study was so effective it was tossed out in favor of the next great idea in just a few years, my strident objections to the contrary.
I had created a cure for tardiness much earlier, discovered by accident. One year at Kamiakin Junior High, the counselors had a problem. Due to the dizzying number of factors they have to deal with in trying to put together a schedule, they ended up with far too many students who needed an English class 6th period. No matter how they sliced and diced the data, someone was going to have an enormous class.
In addition, 6th period (the last one) is the worst possible hour for an English class. The students, in most schools, have been under the “control” of an adult five times already. Some of those adults are brilliant and fascinating, and some are horrible. Keep in mind that the rankings may change for each adult each day depending on the student, due to the factors above. Students are mentally and emotionally tired, and here we go again with – English.
So I volunteered. I ended up with a 9th grade class of 37 meeting five days a week during sixth period. No matter how I arranged the desks, I could only fit in 32 chairs. This problem turned out to be the solution.
I did have some advantages. The counselors knew this was going to be a considerable challenge, so the 37 students were hand-picked. Almost all of them had taken my class in 8th grade, and all of them wanted to have me as a teacher again.
Today’s exercise in pounding on the obvious: this was not true of all students.
I always used seating charts, as it was the best way to reduce the time required for roll. In addition, I changed them on pretty much a weekly basis, moving people around either at random or to help solve one social problem or another. Faculty meetings are great for this, as you can make a new seating chart while retaining enough focus to be aware of anything you actually need to listen to.
The result of the lack of desks? Students quickly figured out that to be late was to lose your desk, and be relegated to a folding chair at the side of the room. The most aggressive were the “floaters” for a particular seating chart, who would make sure they were in class in time to grab any desk not occupied at the bell. Usually there would be at one or two students absent, which made things easier. Attendance became something of a game, and actually created competition and humor. In fact, partly because the students had been hand-picked, it became more of an “English club” than a standard class, and was my favorite period of the day that semester.
It just occurred to me the other day that here was an opportunity I failed to use to my advantage for the next dozen years or so. What if, each year, I had removed desks from my room until there were three to five fewer than the class count?
A noble experiment I wish I’d conducted.
PS: If this sounds in any way negative, let me add that I chose to teach junior high school out of college because I like junior high age kids. Still do. This may have been because I had a terrific, successful, and educational time when I was in junior high, or because I sensed my own immaturity. Turns out that in 1969, if you wanted to teach English to junior high students, were male, and wanted to coach, you could pretty much get a job anywhere in the United States. I only applied formally to one school district (imagine that today!) and turned down a job offer (after a 15 minute interview) as a high school English teacher and assistant hockey coach in Minnesota. English teachers who could play hockey were evidently extremely rare, and that was what the principal needed.
Imagine the repercussions of that choice had I gone the other way.
Copyright 2015 David Preston