How to Shut Down a Learner: Intention and Perception in Classroom Management

I had a pretty earth shattering learning experience today that I feel the need to reflect on it in the hope that this profoundly negative experience can have a positive outcome.

I was at a PD session today, and in the interest of respecting the privacy of the people involved, I won’t mention names or specific details. As the presenter opened the session and discussed “housekeeping” issues, she mentioned the process for supply coverage. Being a naturally disorganized person, I’ve learned that the best way to deal with new information is to act on it. So I pull out my iPhone and jot down a quick email to my secretary (because that makes her job easier and I respect her professionalism).

And then there’s silence. Crickets may have chirped. But I thought, nah… she’s not seriously doing the disapproving teacher silent treatment. Then it got awkward and I looked up and yep, that’s exactly what she was doing. And so, silly rational girl that I am, I quietly and politely explained what I was doing, to which she replied, “Your secretary can wait until tomorrow.”

So I stared for a moment, baffled and humiliated while all my peers watched and waited, and I said, “Okay…” and put my phone away mid-email.

So here’s what I learned:

I can not and should not assume that all PD facilitators are comfortable with the ways in which adult learners (and frankly… any learners) use technology. Some people still perceive technology use by participants as disrespect. They may be wrong, but I still need to remember that my colleagues in real life are not the same as my colleagues on Twitter.

But more importantly, I learned first hand how students feel when a teacher decides to “make an example” out of a student. You want a sure fire way to incite antagonism, conflict, anxiety, anger, and humiliation? Mission accomplished. Not only did I feel demeaned and misunderstood, I lost face in front of my peers. I could feel the gaze of 40+ pairs of eyes boring into the back of my head as they wondered, “Who is THAT loser?”

Did I ever tune out and shut down. She lost me for the rest of the day. I gained some useful information in the afternoon after I could vent to some friends, and I did have a fairly unproductive conversation with the presenter at break. She seemed to be under the impression that we were in cahoots and she thanked me for letting her make her point about cell phone use. I tried to politely but firmly explain how she made me feel and that in the future she might want to consider that adult learners (just like student learners) have different learning styles, and just as some people need to take a moment to jot down information in an agenda or on a sticky note, others might use technology. That didn’t seem to have much impact. She thanked me again and reiterated her respect for me, which left me angry and even more demeaned.

So, students, do I ever get how you feel when a teacher decides to make an example out of you and I SWEAR to never do it again. I’d like to think I don’t do this very often but once is too much.

This really isn’t about technology; it’s about how a teacher can effect the climate of a classroom and a students’ willingness to take risks and participate. If you want quiet, demure, compliant students (who are seething with rage and resentment) go ahead. Humiliate them. Make examples of them. Center them out. But I don’t think that’s what you want. It’s sure not what I want.

And once the awkwardness and humiliation has faded, DON’T bring it up again just before you depart for the day, thanking the clearly unwilling and humiliated learner for allowing you to make that point you felt you needed to make, and then wait for acknowledgment from the defeated and raging learner while the entire “class” fidgets awkwardly or gawks at the learner. That’s just cruel, and rubs salt in the wound.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

18 thoughts on “How to Shut Down a Learner: Intention and Perception in Classroom Management

  1. Danika, I’m really sorry that you had this experience today. I might have been slightly sympathetic to the presenter, except for several glaring points that definitely turn the tide in your favor (and not just because I follow you on Twitter).

    1) Once you had explained that what you were doing was directly related to what she was saying, she was extremely rude to say your secretary could wait. Who is she to make that kind of declaration? That reminds me of a speaker who, when someone in the audience said they had to leave early because of an appointment, made the “tiny violin” motion. Talk about disrespect!

    2) You rightly told her how she made you feel privately at break. She had no right to mention it publicly. She also showed that she didn’t listen to what you had to say. How could someone thank you for being a negative example? Social skills and social interaction are so important; you can’t learn if you feel threatened (flight or fight). You behaved much more professionally than I would have if I was in your circumstances.

    People do abuse their PDAs by ignoring the speaker and carrying on their own conversations during workshops. (A pet peeve of mine is the ringing cellphone during church, but a board workshop is not a sacred worship session.) That can be frustrating, but it is no excuse for how you were treated, especially since you explained what you were doing. I hope you lodge an official complaint against this person.

  2. Wow! Danika, I’m so sorry that this happened to you and I feel like revenge is in order, but I know that just wouldn’t be right. LOL We could troll her but she’s probably not online –only kidding!!!

    But seriously….

    You’ve captured so well the anguish, embarrassment, and then anger that you felt during this day, and how, despite having an opportunity to talk it out with the person, they just weren’t willing to really ‘hear’ you.

    What a lost opportunity for this person! We all know you are one of THE BEST people to be exploring technology use with students/teachers in a thoughtful and reflective way. What she could have learned from you!!! I do believe that what you said will resonate later, as I’m sure that you articulated it well and left her with food for thought.

    What I notice already is that you’ve taken this very negative experience, given it careful thought, and created a story that can only improve your connections with your current and future students. It’s what you do, it’s how you learn, and it’s why you are a great teacher. :)

    I wonder if you’ll share this story with your students tomorrow? And is so…what will they say?

    Thanks for sharing,

  3. You were right she was wrong. Only the worst sort of leaders try to dominate through humiliation. It doesn’t work with adults and it doesn’t work with kids, for all the reasons you said.

    I must admit her thinly veiled attempt to “make amends” by thanking you (!?!) for the opportunity to humiliate you (I still can’t get over the chutzpah) must have been even more disingenuous f2f than it reads here.

    We know that the brain shuts down vis a vis learning when people are upset. Conversely we are able to learn better after a good laugh. Just imagine all the positive ways she could have turned the situation around by taking a different approach to what was clearly something that upset her. A shame really that she chose to deal with her upset by making you upset.

    From your description here it seems to me she was more concerned with how she felt rather than the needs of you as a learner. If you think about it, the whole thing was really about her feelings rather than anything you did, isn’t it? Most teachers are better than that, aren’t they?

    In the end I guess we learn from all our teachers; sometimes, like you did here, we learn what not to do. ;-)

  4. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, ladies. I really appreciate it. I admit I felt a bit guilty at first when I realized my iPhone use might have been regarded as rude which was why I wanted to ensure the presenter knew I wasn’t having a side bar conversation or disengaging–quite the opposite. I really was shocked though by the way in which this was handled.

  5. Thanks Darren. At least I learned something from today’s PD, although I suspect it was not the intended lesson. And Brenda, you better believe I’ll be sharing withmy students!

  6. Hey Danika,
    I read your post last night and I was stunned that you were treated this way. I was even somewhat more surprised that our colleagues wouldn’t have offered you support — you aren’t the only techie out there. Did she also stop the session to mortify and humiliate people using pen and paper?

    Even if you don’t lodge a complaint against the presenter, I would certainly share the experience with whoever was responsible for the session to ensure that this woman does not present to our colleagues again.

    On another note, perhaps a handwritten letter would have more of an impact for this woman since your face to face discussion went over her head.

    You share so much, you are an inspiration and you are an excellent role model — bravo for turning a crappy situation into a learning situation for all of us.

    Thanks for sharing Danika.

  7. The only way we can resolve this problem is for you and the lovely lady to enter the cage and settle it once and for all.

    Seriously though, I think your little experience has touched on a growing divide in our systems. I think there’s something of a quiet civil war occurring.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  8. I totally know what your talking about when you talk about shutting down a learner. i can remember many times from elementary school when this happened to me and even to some close friends that now matter what class was about i wouldn’t know, and yes sometimes it would effect all that days classes. i can recall lessons where i remember the teacher instead of the lesson and thats not a good thing.

  9. I have been in this same position as ms barker and i deal with it by thinking that that person is doing that because they feel that they have the power to do it so there do it because of that and to instill fear into the class so that this will not happen again. The few ways around this is to talk to her quietly or to talk to her after class unless she continued using her device and just couldn’t leave it alone

  10. When we shared a table at one of David Thornburg’s presentations at ECOO last fall, I remember both of us using iPads, and iPods to capture information, as well as a couple of side bar conversations that bore fruit (for me, at least) — my sense was that David was not merely tolerating it but encouraging it.

    I think your presenter showed a lack of respect,based on a lack of trust, stacked upon a lack of self-confidence.

    I have made that mistake myself in my early years of teaching, and still regret doing it.

    So glad that you wrote this post.

    Peter Sturgeon
    Technical Writer, former English teacher

  11. Thanks so much for the feedback! I particularly appreciate the comments from my students since this post really helped me think about you guys and what you need from me as a teacher.

    Lori: I know I wasn’t the only techie in the room, but I guess my point was that it wasn’t really even a technology issue. I’m willing to accept the fact that it may have been a mistake to pull out my phone to email my school secretary at that moment. I do tend to forget that not all teachers view this as acceptable behaviour–frustrating though that may be for people like me.

    While I may have been mildly irritated if I felt like I couldn’t use my iPhone for taking notes, or recording information such as dates, I wouldn’t have been angry or offended. It was the way in which the presenter chose to deal with the situation.

    I really appreciate how Scott and Quincy felt in the situations the mentioned and I think the strategies they described are really sensitive and thoughtful.

    Peter: I remember that session and how productive it was for all of us! I also recognize that not all presenters would be comfortable with that and while I gained a lot more from being able to interact in the way we did, I understand how daunting that might be for a presenter. I think the presenter would have to be very comfortable with not having to “control” all the aspects of the learning, and I know many teachers who are uncomfortable with this.

    Still, a little common courtesy would have been nice ;)

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  12. I also recall that there were other people in the room who thought we were misbehaving.

    You know what the “teacher look” looks like:) I am ashamed to admit I felt a bit of that during his initial address, when two guys at my table were having a hands-on intro to Twitter. After about five minutes of mild annoyance, it dawned on me that they were actively helping each other lear, enjoying the experience, and not really being that much of a distraction.

    So I just relaxed and listened to David.

  13. Danika,

    Thank you for sharing your reflection. I don’t believe you would be the only person shut down and tuned out. There may have been others who were just about to begin using technology to engage in the session as they thought and reflected critically.

    Seriously, the brain can assimilate only as long as the ass (double-entendre intended) can tolerate.

    The presenter created an unsafe learning environment. That may not matter to them since their goal may not have been to create a climate of learning but rather to merely communicate (dump) information. You likely would have benefited more from them if they did not present IRL but instead provided written information that you and your learning team and Twitterati could discuss.

    I’ll catch you L8R in the ~Twitter~ stream.

  14. Can I share how influential your story was?
    Today in my library a student was yelling, running, and the icing on the cake was when it looked like she mocked me when I asked her to stop. I asked to talk to her outside so we could discuss what was going on privately, but that wasn’t very productive. I was really annoyed. I saw the student after school working on a separate task with another teacher and asked if we could try to talk about it again with the other teacher there as a neutral observer, to make sure both of us were respectful to each other. So, we talked (again) but this time, it came out that the student felt embarrassed when I called her out in the hall to talk. I told her it was my attempt to not embarrass her. We kept thinking of ways I could let her know that her silliness had crossed the line in a way that wouldn’t make her feel humiliated and, thanks to the other teacher there, we came up with a secret signal between the two of us that no one except for us would realize that it was a “I’m warning you, you are pushing it” signal. We’ll see if it works. I was ready to throw in the towel and report her attitude to the office, but I thought of your story and how we really need to treat people the way we want to be treated. Pay it forward. Thanks Danika.

  15. Oh wow! Thank you so much! That actually made the yucky experience I had completely worthwhile.

  16. I kind of agree with Royan here – there does seem to be a divide about technology – I see it in my ABQ students – a divide that seems largely based on fear of technology perhaps (how can we censor, control access to webpages, no cell phone use etc., instead of looking for the ‘how might we use this technology for learning’). Perhaps it is related to control issues? – anyway, your post is great and I will be using it in my ABQ senior English class – ‘required’ reading so to speak.

  17. Thanks Wendy (and I realize just now I didn’t thank my pal Royan for his comments).

    I hate to think teachers are becoming polarized on this topic. We have so many other important things to worry about. I wonder how we fix this.

    Thanks Daniel for your thoughts too. I think a lot of my outrage came from the fact that my professionalism and dedication to learning was being questioned, when I’m a PD junkie. Bring on the learning, but don’t dictate to me the terms under which you will allow me to learn.