In 1974, the comedy duo Cheech and Chong's skit Sister Mary Elephant reached number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 - the only non-music spoken word recording to crack the top 40.
In it, Sister Mary Elephant (played by Cheech Marin) is a substitute teacher in a secondary school classroom who is having difficulty maintaining attention. Her technique for getting the class' attention is the object of the humor. Here's the first 20 seconds in case you haven't heard it.
The skit is funny, but as a teacher, listening to Sister Mary struggle to maintain order is vexing because it's something I admit to having experienced myself. Perhaps every teacher has.
The reasons for the students' lack of attention in Sister Mary's class is painfully obvious. I'd like to say that in those classes where it's happened to me I wasn't being quite so obnoxiously boring. But for whatever reason, there have definitely been lessons where maintaining the students' attention has been a real struggle.
I have found this problem to be particularly common in lessons with young learners, who are more easily distracted than the older students, or at least less able to pretend to be interested.
Now classroom management is a complex thing, and identifying the reasons for the students' lack of attention is sometimes hard to do while things are descending into chaos. The real issue is what to do about it when it happens.
As you may know, at Chichester College we have our own in-house specialist young-learners trainer who, conveniently, was able to share some insights on this. For those of you who know us, you'll have met Sunee and been blown away by her passion for working with the littler students.
Has Sunee ever had this problem? I asked her.
"When I first arrived in Thailand, I was teaching a grade 2 class at a Catholic all girls' school in a small town in the south. They were a swarming mass of girls who took no notice of me. Those first six months were probably the most taxing on my voice and my sanity in my 21 years of teaching. They just ignored me!"
Good, then. It happens to everyone, or at least everyone who is trying to make their lessons fun and engaging.
If it is a common problem, there must be an easy solution. And there is! We call them classroom triggers, but you'll find lots of references to them on the internet as ‘attention getters'. The principle is simple: you have a phrase or command that your class recognises as a signal to be quiet or to focus on the teacher. Screaming ‘SHUURRRUUUP' like Sister Mary Elephant might do it, but there are easier ways.
For a trigger to work, the students need to be taught to respond to it. So whatever your trigger is, it needs to be set up before you need it. Ideally, a trigger should demand a response from the students, and the response will serve to (re)focus students' attention on the teacher.
I have a sister who is a kindergarten teacher, and she says that when she needs to get the class' attention she makes an animal sound which the students find funny, so they laugh, their attention is redirected (onto her), and she can go on with the lesson.
So what kinds of things work as triggers? Screaming Shurrruuuup and making animal noises are two possibilities. Back to Sunee for some theoretical grounding.
Sunee's theory lesson
"Triggers need to be quick, easy and playful to maintain a positive atmosphere in class. They must also involve the students in some way get get the best results. There are potentially four kinds of triggers that work in young-learners' lessons:
a) Whisper (and have the students whisper back)
b) A funny, new sound (like a bell, an app sound or an animal sound)
Sometimes you can let the students choose a trigger word or sound before the start of the lesson once they know how triggers work, and if they enjoy using them.
2) A visual cue
a) A noise meter (like a speedometer on the board that shows noise levels)
b) A traffic light (green for talk, red for stop)
a) One example is ‘water and ice' (water = the learners flow, ice= everyone freezes - the kids love this)
b) Clap a rhythm (and the children copy it)
c) Breathing exercises
e) Songs with their actions (like the ‘This little finger' song)
Songs are longer than most triggers, but they work with classes that are really zoned out, and they also help to break the lesson up for young learners who suffer from seat-fatigue.
4) Call and respond
a) Call out a prompt and your learners answer with a choral response. For example:
Teacher: 1, 2, 3 eyes on me
Students: 1, 2 eyes on you
b) A countdown (with students calling the countdown with the teacher)
c) Everyone do as I do ( for example, "hands up" and everyone copies)
To get triggers going in the class, find points in the lesson that most need to have students' attention redirected, such as the commencement of feedback on a task, or instructions for a new activity. Start by using triggers at these points so the students see a reason for their use, then you can start using them more generally when you feel the class needs to be reined in."
Putting it into action
Thanks Sunee, you are a star. Back to me. It's important to remember that classes respond differently to triggers, so it's useful to have a variety and to rotate them as needed. Some classes respond really well to call-and-respond triggers, while others respond beautifully to a countdown. In one class I observed, the teacher used a jazz chant that the children liked, and all she needed to do was start the chant, and the children continued it from there - the stray attentions were then drawn into the chant as it gathered momentum. However, she told me that a parallel class she taught would not response to the chant at all.
If you want to see these kinds of triggers in action, have a quick look at this cool (though staged) presentation from Playworks.
Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.