Sunday, March 30, 2014

Best Teaching Tool Ever? The Pause.

One of the most undervalued teaching strategies of all time?


The pause.

I was reminded of this tool the other day when my student (let's call him Sam, even though it's not even close to his real name) launched into reasons that he couldn't possibly do any homework for the next week.  Sam has the challenging mix of some anxiety, a need to process verbally, and a tendency to speak in extremes.  So, too often I find myself in a verbal tangle with him.
 He gets me (nearly) every time.

To avoid the tangle with Sam, it's as simple as remembering to pause.  If I don't get pulled into his faulty line of logic and anxiety-ridden thoughts, I can diffuse his anxiety (and mine). The pause not only gives me a chance to remind myself to not get snared by his story, but it also allows me to listen fully.  In turn, my full attention helps him calm down.

Other places for the pause in the classroom:

1. Post-Question Pause: Obviously, pause after you ask a question.  That's teacher training 101.  But wait longer than you think you need to, and see what happens.  I think we are often so in a hurry to get to the (our) point in the discussion, or we're uncomfortable with silence, that we rush the post-question pause.  Just wait, glance at your shoes--like you could wait all day if you needed to.  Sometimes students just need a little processing time. Or, they think you'll just answer the question without them.

Also, by pausing, you're reminding them that it's not all about your thoughts.  Invite their thoughts--by not giving them yours so frequently.  If you really want deeper thinking, and not just obligatory answers, try responding with: "I hadn't thought of that.  What do others think?"  Or, "I'm intrigued, tell me more about that."

See this blog for a helpful discussion of the importance of higher order questioning, including a question bank

2. Pause of Patience: when you want your students to really hear you, pause.  Perhaps for dramatic effect, or if you're in the middle of a sentence, and you realize that some students have drifted off, or heaven forbid, turned to talk to someone more interesting than you, just pause.  Not in an evil-eye, shaming way, but just a little moment of breath, as if to say, come back.  I'm waiting patiently.

3. Pause before a decision. Teachers make hundreds of decisions a day.  At times, I'm sure I make them without thinking.  A student may ask me for an alternative assignment, an extension, or to leave the room, for instance.  A pause gives me the chance to collect my thoughts, ask myself what my goal is with the assignment, and stay firm--or be flexible.

4. Pause before pouncing: after a student says something offensive to your sensibilities, take a breath. That could be a difficult one.  A racist or sexist remark, usually said in ignorant innocence, can derail a class. In the past, I think I jumped too quickly--not down their throats, but perhaps close.  Now I take a breath, and think about how to respond.  Then I'm ready to grab onto a possible teaching moment.

5, Finally, pause to praise: those moments of genuine specific praise (I like how you've been listening to each other or "thank you for focusing for these last few minutes") can go a long way.

So, I invite you to try out the pause more often in your classroom--and in your life, for that matter.