I waste time in my classroom. At the beginning of each block I like to talk to my students. I don’t give them any directions; I don’t tell them anything important. We just talk.

The moment the starting bell rings, I’ll lean back on the table in the front of my room and lob questions. I ask about weekends, sports, family, current events, and anything else that might be of interest at the moment. The only topic that seems to be off limits is English. When a class is new, they don’t know how to respond to this. They shift in their seats and glance at their friends. Eventually a brazen student will throw an answer back and a chuckle will drip drip drip through the room before shutting to silence. I’ll press on, though. I ask about jobs, and interests. I ask about boyfriends and girlfriends. I ask about pets. Students love talking about pets.

I siege them with questions. I hurl shot after shot into the room and latch onto what they throw back. Early in the year I’m satisfied with a couple of timid answers. After a brief statement about a birthday party or a complaint about work, I downshift and the class lurches into English mode.

Eventually they talk back.

Talking Back

The conversation becomes organic. The getting-to-know-you time (this is what I call it in my head) becomes an expected part of the lesson. Students anticipate. They no longer wait for my questions, but instead go on the offensive. Sometimes I’m flattered (when students want to know how I met my smoking hot wife). Other times I’m agitated (when students resolutely defended the stance that advertising had no effect on their lives.) Mostly, though, I enjoy a casual camaraderie with my class as I share interesting things I either know about (like the inevitable house centipede), or things I’ve been thinking about (anything from the value of dogs to why female students have better handwriting than male). They piggyback off my stories and share experiences of their own; they piggyback off my ideas and share ideas of their own.

As the year goes on, I inevitably see students grin widely. They ask questions about things that they suspect I might want to speak at-length about. He’s doing it again, they think as they ask about my projects, my travel, my outfit. We waste so much time in this class.

And a waste of time is, in fact, what it looks like. On my bad days, I’m torn with guilt. What should have been five quick minutes turns into fifteen, and I find myself rushing through some part of the lesson to compensate. Word of my class spreads to other students, and--by proxy--to other teachers. I see knowing glances and I feel a pit in my stomach. Is this bad teaching? It feels like bad teaching.

If tasked to defend this getting-to-know-you time, say, in front of an administrator, I might speak at some length about the conversational skills it builds. Students speak about their interests, I could say. Or they are required to listen and respond thoughtfully to their peers. I could argue that I am modelling good conversation skills and hitting speaking and listening standards in the process.

All of these explanations, though, are bullshit. We talk to each other for only one reason: It makes the class a better place to be.

Wrestling a Pig, Tug-of-War, and Other Mixed Metaphors.

I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.
— George Bernard Shaw
Tug of War

I’ve had classes that don’t talk. They don’t talk to one another and they don’t talk to me--not about The Odyssey and not about their lives. I’ve wrestled with these classes, and I’ve only gotten dirty (Metaphor 1).

These classes are a tug-of-war (Metaphor 2). My class and I are pulling in opposite directions and I have to fight for every inch of progress against 28 inert teenagers. If I let up, we move backwards. Nothing gets done in these classes.

A culture of conversation bends this inertia. Instead of pulling against one another, students begin to shift to my side of the mud pit. If I get enough students--or just the right students with the right pull--the momentum can swing. In the well-run classes the good guys reach a critical mass and are able to pull laggards to our side. In the best classes, all the students are on the right side of the puddle and we collectively pull against the content.

Now, I don’t want to build a strawman. Classes can fall anywhere on the spectrum between the pullers and the inert. Having a class full of pullers (read: talkers) is a problem as well. Once empowered, pullers can drift and tug in a direction all their own. If enough of these pullers drift in the right direction, they can change the direction of the class.

But here’s the simple truth: As a teacher, I am the captain of the ship (Metaphor 3!). My students do the rowing. I can encourage, cajole, or threaten them to get them to pull their oars. I can use a carrot, or I can use a stick, but if they let their oars drag we are dead in the water. Getting students talking is getting students rowing. Some students drift and do not row to the rhythm. Others row half-heartedly. If I do my job well, though, we row to a steady beat. In the end, though, the only power I have is to point the ship in the right direction. Any momentum forward is momentum I can use. That momentum comes from the community we build as a class, and the best rowers are those students who have bought into the classroom community. This starts with talking.

Community Trumps Content

We take ownership in the communities we belong to. It’s why they are so special to us. We recognize them at once as something that are ‘ours’ and something that are larger than us. Our communities give us strength and help us grow. That’s the takeaway. This is the role of the best classrooms.

Humans are hardwired to share. We are programed to tell and listen to stories. If you don’t believe me, try an experiment: The next time you approach a group of friends milling away in conversation, tell them that you have a story to share and watch as their attention snaps to you. We’re addicted to them. Our entertainment is stories; our social life is stories. Stories build the identity of our communities and tell us important things about them. Adding our own stories shape some small corner of that community into something cozy where we can sit.

My job is to teach English to indifferent high school students. Good teachers can structure activities and muscle their classrooms into a shape that can deliver content. The best teachers, though, harness the power from their students. They simply point the ship in the right direction and let the students do the rowing.

The best classrooms are the best communities. The best communities empower their members to share, build, and make them their own. This is why we waste time in my classroom.

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

― Haim G. Ginott