How Engaging Student Resistance Works Better Than Punishment

Student_ResistanceFor many new teachers, success or failure in those crucial first few years often hinges on their classroom management strategies. Those strategies, however, tend to consist of little more than “tired tricks of carrot and sticks,” according to Eric Toshalis, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland and author of the new book, Make Me!: Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School.

Toshalis believes passionately that public schools need to remodel how educators respond to student oppositional behavior  – to view it more as an opportunity, not something to punish. 

Toshalis spent two decades in public education, serving as a middle and high school teacher, coach, mentor, community activist and local union president. He recently spoke with NEA Today about the need to discard short-sighted approaches to classroom management and provide educators with the necessary resources, time and support to engage students more constructively. 

Your use of the term “resistance” in the title and throughout the book is very deliberate obviously. What is it about that word that you find to be more helpful?

Eric Toshalis: What I’m trying to signal is that we need to reframe how we understand student “misbehaviors” in the classroom. We need to move away from words like “defiant,” “insubordinate,” or “has a bad attitude” because they all cast the student as the problem. Those terms participate in a cascade of blame that starts at the societal level and flows all the way down through to culture and through institutions until it ends up being reproduced in the teacher-student relationship.

Focusing on student resistance doesn’t cast teachers as the problem. What it does is recast the way we are thinking about the teacher-student relationship as the problem, instead of the kid. Student misbehavior has an antecedent, something that is occurring in the learning environment or in students’ lives that compels them to choose resistance as a strategy to get their needs met. The reframing of misbehavior as resistance allows different approaches and questions to be considered, ones that are more inquiring than punishing, more engaging than exclusionary.

Educators may understand they’re not being cast with the blame for shortsighted discipline policies, but shouldn’t they be wary of the system shouldering them with the burden of correcting them?

make_me!_coverI do think a good teacher has to approach adolescent student misbehavior with curiosity, inquiry, and with an open ear and consistent commitment to meet the needs of the struggling student. But I wouldn’t say teachers need to be retrained—they need more resources. I want my book to be a resource for teachers who are looking for ways not just to control student behavior, but to understand it.

A crucial resource teachers already have is their students’ resistance. It’s a form of engagement, an indicator of what’s up, a symptom of a problem more than the problem itself. That means student resistance is typically not something to punish. Students may be tapping their pencil, or they may be talking with their peers when they should be writing, or they may get in your face when they’re angry. But they’re resisting in a way that should suggest to us, “Hmm, maybe something needs to change here for me to better reach and teach these kids.”

And we can support teachers to make these shifts by protecting time for them to read theory and research, collaborate with others, and incorporate new learning into the classroom. To support teachers, schools need more counselors, professional learning communities, lesson study groups, grand rounds, critical friends groups, release time, and smaller class sizes. This isn’t news to anyone working in schools today. The trick is convincing legislators and leaders to prioritize it.

What’s the link between the more punitive education policies of the past decade and student resistance in the classroom? 

Research demonstrates over and over that whenever we highlight ability differences in learning environments we virtually guarantee that resistance is going to happen. But then look at the massive testing, ranking, and sorting apparatus we have established in our schools since the advent of No Child Left Behind. And then look at the toxic tracking regimes that we’ve instituted, ostensibly to remediate struggling learners (but in fact are just ruts of low expectations that squander opportunities and limit options). Students feel labeled in this environment and are therefore resisting. They will act up because they feel they’re being put down—by the system.

But teachers are one of the only authentic voices with the experience and expertise to describe this phenomena, and they are using that voice to rise up against this system on behalf of their kids. The question is whether the moneyed interests and the policymakers who are making the decisions have the capacity to do what’s right, and I question whether that is the case. Truly, our students’ pushback may be the thing that drives us all forward. Resistance is a good thing!

In the book, you criticize the notion of classroom management as merely a quest for “a few moments of obedience silence.” Do you find that new teachers are still entering the classroom with such a narrow perspective?

There are lots of teacher education programs that do not have a classroom management course, which is unbelievable to me. And there are all kinds of alternative certification programs that have never offered one and aren’t considering offering one. They just hope novice educators will figure it out on their own. The thing is, many don’t.


Eric Toshalis

This is probably controversial, but I believe that teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge—an obviously crucial part of a teacher’s skillset—doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if, at the end of the day, that teacher is not able to relate to students, structure routines, develop class norms, monitor behaviors, intervene when things don’t go as planned, then work with students to keep them engaged and safe when things get a little chaotic.

Classroom management takes a ton of fuel, and teachers often burn out because they can’t keep their fires lit. We don’t help them when we reduce classroom management to behaviorist techniques of manipulation and coercion—what I call the “tired tricks of carrot and sticks.” The reward and punishment regimes we construct in schools are profoundly cynical about what’s possible in individuals and communities, and the only reason we think they’re effective is because we only examine their effects in the short term. The longer view is that such regimes are typically counter-productive in promoting positive behaviors.

You work with a lot of teachers on classroom management. Is guiding them to change their approach difficult if they think their techniques are working? 

Last night I was with a group of intern teachers. One said that her method of getting student’s attention was silently glaring at her students and waiting for them to be quiet. She said that method worked, but I was suspicious. Many teachers think their methods “work” because, busy as they are, they’re only considering one data point at one moment in time. I responded that I doubted her method was working because my definition of “working” was different from hers. She wanted immediate compliance and she wanted to use her authority as a discipliner and as a shamer to stand over them with an accusatory stink-eye and threaten them with potential reprimands. Sure, it achieved it’s objective, but at what cost?

As an alternative, I suggested that she think about how those kids might be resisting at that moment. What do they want? Likely, they wanted to finish their thought in their conversations or maybe socialize a bit. So I suggested establishing a signaling routine to give them time to transition. This could be a whistle, a flicking of the lights, a clap signal, whatever—something that retains the energy in the room and gently and enthusiastically reminds students that it’s time to transition by giving them a small amount of time—maybe 5,6,10,12 seconds—to make that transition responsibly. That method keeps the flow going and allows the teacher to thank students for their attention and energy rather than shame them for being “defiant” or “bad kids.”

Power plays and punishments can be a real buzzkill in the classroom. Students tune that stuff out and it turns them off—to us, and to learning.

So how did this teacher react?

Well, initially, when I told her I thought she was succumbing to confirmation bias, she was, like, “Ummm … what?” But then I modeled the alternative for her and the others in the class. I asked them, “How would you like it if I just glared at you while you finish your sentence with your friends? Would you want to raise your hand and contribute something to the class later? Would you want to do your best on an assignment? Or would you want to take your phone out and text nasty things about me underneath your desk, or look for other ways to get back at me?” So she thought about it and said “Yeah, I see now. I get it.”

  • Diane Fawcett

    Very Interesting Article! It matches my Teaching Philosophy! Also, goes along with PBIS

  • If only we could move beyond the discipline and punish mode that has ruled Western education for 2500 years. Alas! one teacher cannot revolutionize a school; schools need to adopt a culture shift toward community learning and pragmatic experimentation, in my view.

  • Alicia Woody

    I’ll have to read that book. I thought about his transition and can’t think of how it would work in my classroom. I can’t help thinking that giving them time to finish their sentence won’t be good enough for my students and they will want to finish their conversation…

  • Ashlee Vitz

    Behavior Management was an optional course in my program. I only took it because I know I would learn at lot from that particular professor. It ended up being HANDS DOWN my most useful class! I use it every single day.

  • bemert

    When behaviorists put rats into a crowded cage, even with enough food and all needs met, the rats become aggressive and even violent. When a classroom is bursting at the seams, with not even room between desks to get to the drinking fountain, the students become aggressive and defiant. And I use that word purposely. Classrooms with close to forty teens/preteens crammed into them are breeding grounds for trouble. And what many of us are expected to do is teach widely different students with no room for differentiation. Children are fed up with a system that disrespects their needs, and they kick back with the only weapon they have: refusal to cooperate. What works with twenty-five students in a classroom does NOT work with thirty-five or sometimes forty-five students. You cannot fix everything with a signal for a transition.

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