Why err on the side of a noisy classroom


I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about my classroom management style. I know if many of my colleagues walked in during class — especially at the beginning — they would be appalled. It doesn’t look like I’m running a tight ship.

They would probably wonder: Why aren’t those kids in their seats when the bell rings? Why doesn’t she crack down on side conversations? Doesn’t that constant chatter bother her?

Here’s the secret: It does bother me, just not as much as it bothers other teachers.

And silence bothers me more.

Of course I want my students to listen and be respectful and make the most of our class time, but I think the costs of cracking down on normal social behavior are just too high, so I don’t do it. Instead, I tolerate some talking because I think in the end, most students learn more and enjoy learning more in this relaxed environment. I know I do.

In a perfect classroom, students would voluntarily be seated and prepared when class starts. They would be thinking about yesterday’s lesson, eagerly awaiting today’s lesson, and ready to ask relevant questions about their (completed) homework.

They would feel connected, safe and valued, and they would be ready to engage.

That’s a lot to ask for — especially from a room of 35 9th graders — and it almost never happens. Instead, we often settle for “seated and quiet”  because it seems like the next best option.

Unfortunately, the strategies we use to get kids “seated and quiet” have serious drawbacks; they literally squelch kids’ personalities. If we prize “quiet” over everything else, students learn that their voices are not valued. They become passive recipients of knowledge, rather than active learners. They feel uncomfortable, and they curb their enthusiasm for learning.

Who wants to engage after being told (in so many words) to sit down and shut up?

Instead of crushing their energy with strict rules, I try to harness it. It takes a long time to develop a workable routine, and some days I regret it — like on Monday, when I wasn’t feeling well and the students in my second hour just wouldn’t settle down — but other days it is beautiful.

On Tuesday, I was explaining the types of unemployment to the same class of 9th graders, and rather than passively recording the definitions and tuning out, they started firing away questions about structural unemployment.

Shouldn’t we worry about jobs that are lost to creative destruction?

What kinds of jobs will be left if we automate everything?

Does it help our economy if we use robots but have more unemployment?

What will happen to our economy if wealth is concentrated in the hands of business owners?

What can I study in college to make sure I can’t be replaced?

Every response sparked more follow-up questions (and yes, side conversations), and they literally got fired up about the issue of displaced workers and the future of our economy. They were having fun, and they were totally engaged.

An hour later, my third hour class sat quietly taking notes, not asking questions and merely wanting me to tell them the same information, and I was really disappointed. To an outside observer, that might have looked like the “better” class, but not to me.

I don’t want to teach a class full of passive, quiet, empty vessels. I want to foster a love of learning in high-energy adolescents, who bring their own ideas and questions to the table.

Maybe it can be done in a quiet, disciplined setting, but if so, I haven’t figured out how. So I’ll keep putting up with the chatter — and try to get my other class to talk a little more.

If I can’t have the perfect world, I’ll always err on the side of a noisy classroom.