Saturday, October 29, 2011

Affectionate Whining

I realized something very important about my students’ communication style, in April 2011 or so, about whining. Whining, the bane of my existence as a teacher.

I really hate it when they whine. It makes me feel I’ve let them down, that I have planned a crappy lesson, that they hate my class, that nothing I ever do is good enough, and that I’ve failed. Plus, it’s just annoying.

I have this kid Tanner. I’ve taught him for two years straight now, in Spanish 1 and 2, and now I have him in Spanish 3. I absolutely love this kid, and by now I know him well enough to know he loves me and my class too. In Spanish 2 last year, he whined almost every single day. He did it at the beginning of class, as soon as he walked in. “Mrs. Waltman, do we have to do anything today? Can we just have an easy day? I don’t want to do any work today.”

I would say, “Yes, we have to do some work today.”

He would set his stuff down, and then usually ask me if he could go to the bathroom or go get something to eat before the bell rang. Which struck me as kind of humorous, because the bell hadn’t rung, and he could obviously do whatever he wanted until it did. But he asked first, and he had a big smile on his face.

So it hit me along about April this past spring…Tanner was whining because he loved me and he knew I loved him. He actually wasn’t complaining; in fact, it was affectionate on his part. It was sort of a game we played, and he didn’t become combative when I said, “Yes, we have to work today.” He happily accepted whatever I gave him to do in class and he did his work.

Once I realized this, I realized most other students’ whining is exactly the same thing – affection. Suddenly I not only didn’t mind the whining as much, it became sort of amusing. Like I said, it’s a game we play.

Remember those old Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons (I think that’s who it was) where the coyotes would “clock in” at “work” in the morning, carrying their lunch pails, then chase the roadrunners who also had just clocked in? They’d chase and chase, and then at the end of the day, get back in line, clock out, and say things like, “Have a good evening, Jim” to each other as they left?

I see classroom interactions these days as very similar to that cartoon. Students clock in when they enter my classroom, and they perform their “job” which is to see if they can get away with something, show resistance to doing work, etc. They clock out as they leave, with a no-hard-feelings “Bye, Mrs. Waltman.”

It’s really nothing personal.

By the way, this year, Tanner isn’t whining anymore. He’s grown out of it I guess. But I’m thankful he had that constant routine going last year, because it taught me something, and now I can handle the three or four other kids who are still doing it.

I would say that if you are getting some whining, watch their faces. Are they truly upset and “oppressed,” or looking around at their friends and hiding a mischievous little smile? When you say Yes, they really do have to take the Midterm today (that was Thursday’s whine this past week,) do they settle down and get to work, or flat-out refuse to do what you ask?

I used to handle whining pretty effectively by simply ignoring it, but with today’s relationship-oriented, self-advocating kids, some of them won’t give up until they get a response out of you. So now I do respond to it more often than I ignore it, smiling and insisting gently but firmly that they do what I said. (“Yes, we have to take the Midterm today. Don’t stress out you guys; it isn’t that hard, you’re totally ready for it, and it will be fine.” No tension in the room; they settled down and got to work. And did great, I might add.)