Monday, March 5, 2012

The A List: Classroom Survival Strategies

It has been said that it is important to view subjects in their natural habitat.  All the Wild Kingdom I watched as a kid said that, anyway.  I have sat in a lot of classrooms over the past twenty years as a result.  I'm not there to judge anyone, or grade anyone.   I am just an observer in this concrete jungle, and I certainly don't have any agenda.  I'm the Jane Goodall of the classroom habitat, you could say.  Except I have no intention of ever naming anyone Frodo.  The second I walk into the room, however, every single head turns toward me and every single head has the same thought: "She's here for me."

So I sit in the back and I observe.  I have to write stuff down, lest I forget something noteworthy, but mostly I just look around.  It really is fascinating.  The very first lesson kids learn in school is how to respond when the teacher calls on them for an answer.  Most kids will not have the answer, either because they didn't do the assignment or they momentarily forgot in the face of overwhelming fear that a teacher might call on them.  Over the years I've realized that there are certain strategies that kids have learned to compensate for this brief amnesia.  Here are a few that I've recently observed.

1. Play Possum.  Sit extremely still, very quiet, respiration minimal.  Maybe the teacher won't notice.  Most of the time they don't, because they are dealing with the loud kids, the chatty kids, etc.  If a teacher wants quiet, and you're being quiet, she is going to pass you by to get to the loud kids.  This is usually a very successful strategy, if not overused. 

2. Nod & Smile.  Teachers love it when their students are enthusiastic about what they are learning.  They love to look out at the crowd to a sea of smiling, nodding faces.  Kids know this.  The "Nod & Smile" strategy involves distracting the teacher with blatant adoration.  It's ingenious.  The teacher doesn't want to ruin the magic by asking a question that might be answered incorrectly, so they stop asking questions at all. If all goes well, nobody will be called on in class that day.

3. Look Around.  There are usually 400,000 things to look at in a classroom.  Posters, art displays, books, lessons, etc.  Planted on walls, hanging from the ceilings, taped across desks, are a number of answers to many questions that a teacher might ask.  No harm in checking them out. Some of those posters may jar a memory or be the exact answer you're looking for.

4. Blank stare.  Nature abhors a vacuum.  If a teacher sees a child with a completely blank stare, she will be concerned that this child is not "getting it".  Her concern will drive her to action.  The action will be to give the child the answer so that the flow of instruction is not impeded.  Kids know that all they have to do is sit and wait, using a blank stare, and someone will tell them what they need to know.

5.  Follow the nonverbals.  Teachers are generally lousy poker players with all their tells.  They tend to be very expressive and demonstrative  and emphatic.  All a kid has to do is learn to recognize the tells a particular teacher exhibits, and then capitalize on them. Watch faces when they ask the question.   Sometimes there will be a eye flick toward the vicinity of the answer, if it is on the wall. 

I've lately realized that all of these strategies could come in handy in other areas, such as staff meetings.  So what strategies do you use?


  1. It seems that the overly exuberant kiddo not just raising a hand, but waving it frantically doesn't get called that one worth the risk?

  2. I always employed the 'volunteer for the first question you can answer and hope you get skipped for any following question you might not know' strategy. Pre-emptive strike kind of thing.

  3. I had long hair when I was younger. I used to put all around my desk and hide. And hope nobody would notice. Think that would work in a board meeting? Na, probably not.


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