3.3 The thirty-second system for managing tardies and misdirected attention
Originally posted January 22, 2006
I thought my tardy policy would create order. It was clear, and I would be consistent about enforcing it. If you weren’t in your seat when the bell finished ringing, you were tardy. First tardy of the quarter meant a warning. Second tardy — a fifteen minute detention. Third tardy — a phone call home. And on the fourth tardy of the quarter, school rules dictated that the administration would become involved. Surely, I thought, the policy would encourage students to begin class on time and in a calm fashion.
It turned out I was completely wrong.
Instead of signaling quiet, the bell was a trigger for chaos. Some students would hear it and dive toward a desk, pushing aside smaller classmates. Amid the confusion, I would hear loud exclamations, “*@#%! I thought I had time to sharpen my pencil before the bell rang!” Also, once a student realized that the ringing had stopped, there was no more incentive to take a seat with any degree of efficiency. “Mrs. Smith is already marking me tardy,” a student would think. “I might as well finish my conversation with Amanda before settling in for the day.”
Something had to change. We had to begin class promptly, but this wasn’t working. The chaos stirred up in our first five seconds set a horrible tone for the rest of the day. What could I do to get us off on the right foot as we began our class experience? I wanted the bell to signify the beginning of order. How could I use it to inspire both punctuality and civil behavior? My current policy had turned it into a starting gun, signaling an out-of-control, two-second race.
Time to settle in
A good solution would require my students to maintain their “I must get there” mentality while introducing the idea that “I can behave civilly and still get there on time.” Perhaps the best way to achieve both goals was to alter the bell’s meaning for my students. Maybe the bell could serve as a thirty-second warning. When my students heard it, they would also hear me begin a countdown.
There’s the bell. In thirty seconds, I expect you to be seated. Once seated, you should read and follow the instructions that are written on the board. We’re at twenty seconds now…now down to ten…in five seconds everyone should be reading the instructions…two…one…and now, if you are not seated and focused, your tardy will be marked down.
When introducing the idea to my students, I told them the extra thirty seconds of “settling-in” time was part of an exchange I was offering. They could have that extra time to get to their seats and get started. In return, I expected them to be completely focused when that thirty-second count wound down.
The difference in my room was remarkable. Instead of catching students off guard and inspiring mass panic, the bell became a force that moved students into their desks. My willingness to invest thirty seconds in the new approach actually saved us time on a daily basis. Under the previous system, it had taken us several minutes to recover from the chaos created by the bell.
Countdowns for classroom management
The countdown method was so effective that I began using it to manage other moments in my classroom. Whenever I needed students’ attention, I would give them a set time to conclude their current activities.
I realize that you are all working on your essays, but in thirty seconds I’m going to need your attention. Finish up the sentence you’re writing and then please focus on me.
In thirty seconds, I’m going to give your group its next set of instructions. Finish what you’re saying now or make a note of what you need to continue discussing. You can return to that topic once we’ve gone over a few points as a class.
All of a sudden, instead of writing and whispering while I was giving essential instructions, my students had time to quickly finish a thought or activity then turn their attention to me. At its most fundamental level, it was a response to respect. I was giving them a few seconds to bring an idea or statement to conclusion. Most would do so, then focus on me.
Of course, no system is perfect. I still have students who receive tardies on a regular basis, and I still have a few who want to continue talking to group members when I need them to listen to me. However, there is a critical mass of students who will follow instructions when they feel respected and when those instructions are reasonable, and that critical mass can have a powerful impact on the rest of the group.
So consider providing your students with a little time to transition into quiet attention. You may find that those few seconds are easily recovered through improved productivity, and that even a small investment of time can lead to a new atmosphere of calm and respect. In my room, the countdown approach has made for smoother starts and much more effective transitions. This has enhanced both our classroom environment and my students’ performance. It has also made classroom management more manageable for me.