Nothing beats the sound of silence

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Noise is the enemy of effective teaching. Sue Cowley offers advice on how to keep things quiet.

You walk into the classroom and stand waiting for a few seconds, a single eyebrow raised. As if by magic, the children fall silent, ready to soak up your words of wisdom.

This is every teacher's dream of how the classroom should be. And dream is what it remains for many of us. One of my top behaviour management tips for all teachers - new and experienced - is to wait for silence before you talk, with every child looking at you and ready to listen. Establishing complete silence tells your students that you are in control of their behaviour and their learning.

Set up the clear expectation of silent attention from the start. My first discussion with a new class is always about my requirement for silence whenever I address them. I make it clear that I will achieve this, no matter what. I explain to them why silence is so important, for me and for them. We discuss the need to listen carefully in order to learn properly, and that their giving attention shows respect.

If you work with challenging children, or in a school where behaviour is a big issue, this is not easy. The temptation is to give up at the first hurdle, to talk over them in your desperation to get some work done. But consider the signals you are giving if you talk while they are not listening. The unspoken message is that you don't mind them not paying attention, that you don't expect to be listened to, and that it is okay for them to talk while you are talking. Not what you want them to believe at all.

So, how do you achieve that golden silence with difficult students? Non-verbal signals such as a stare, or standing with arms folded, can be enough. If you have the nerve, call your students' bluff by waiting for them to fall silent. If you are willing to hold out, eventually many classes will become quiet without any further input from you.

Alternatively, try the phrase, "Everyone looking at me and listening in silence, please". Repeat the line several times, pausing each time to gauge the effect. These phrases can be made more powerful with the use of a target, such as "I want silence in 3, 2, 1, now".

Teachers of "loud" subjects such as PE and drama often use a pre-agreed non-verbal command to gain their students' attention. For instance, an arm in the air to indicate that the class should stop working, stand still, be quiet, be ready to hear the next instruction. Primary teachers might use a simple signal such as clapping their hands or sitting in a "silent seat". Your children will obviously have to be trained to recognise these non-verbal commands, but once they understand the instruction clearly, your life will be much easier.

Using humour can be surprisingly effective, especially with disaffected students. I'm not easily embarrassed, and I'm not afraid to make a fool of myself, two factors that help when managing difficult behaviour. I have found myself literally on my knees in front of a particularly talkative child, wringing my hands and imploring, "Please, please be quiet", getting a laugh from the rest of the class, and gaining their attention.

The theatrical gesture is an extension of this tactic and requires you to show a touch of the drama queen or king. For instance, I might pretend to bang my head on my desk, moaning melodramatically, "They simply won't be quiet, oh I just can't stand it anymore" and pretending to sob. This completely throws the students and surprises them into silence.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always try the shock tactic, in which the teacher does something so unexpected and out of character that the children are stunned into silence. I once set up a video camera in the corner of my classroom and told the children that I was going to film their behaviour and show the video to the headteacher. Not sure whether I was joking, they couldn't take the risk that I might be telling the truth, so they took the safe option: silence.

When I talk to teachers about the need for silence in class, many tell me what a struggle it is to achieve, and that they fear they might never get any teaching done if they don't talk over the children. My answer is that silence is non-negotiable. Even when I've been working with the most difficult classes, I always demand it. It doesn't always come easy, but the children know from the look in my eyes, and my attitude, that I will not give up. Eventually, you too will succeed in getting the buggers to shut up.

Sue Cowley is an educational writer, trainer and consultant. She is the author of several teaching books, all published by Continuum, including Starting Teaching: How to Succeed and Survive, Getting the Buggers to Behave and the forthcoming Guerrilla Guide to Teaching. For more information:

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