You’re gonna have to learn your cliches

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by bledsoe on December 18, 2010

There's this great scene in the 1988 movie Bull Durham where Kevin Costner, the older, more experienced baseball player, tells Tim Robbins, his inexperienced young protege, that it's time to work on his interviews; specifically, he tells him, "you're gonna have to learn your cliches."  Costner has been teaching Robbins some of the things he's learned about baseball in his many years in the game, and Costner has decided it's now time for Robbins to learn how to conduct himself during interviews with reporters.  Costner spends the next few minutes having Robbins repeat after him such lame stock phrases as "We gotta play it one day at a time," and "I'm just happy to be here, hope I can help the ball club."

I'm learning that as a teacher, you have to learn your cliches.  These are the phrases that you're going to have to repeat to students over and over again even though you've already said them a million times.  The reason you have to learn them is that they have to become second nature so that, when needed, they will come out of your mouth immediately, with no hesitation.

I began to understand the value of this when I observed Ms. V's class a few weeks ago.  Ms. V has been teaching for several years, and was in fact one of the Teacher of the Year finalists in our district last year.  The class I observed was a remediation-level English class for 9th and 10th grade kids who had extremely poor reading skills.  I was present a few minutes before class started so I got to see how she began the class, and as the kids were walking into the room Ms. V immediately began peppering instructions, corrections, and other directions at them, both to individual students and to the class as a whole.  "G, get a newspaper and sit down," "B, take your seat and get started on the assignment," "Everyone should get a newspaper from the bin and begin looking for a paragraph to summarize," "T, you don't need to talk with R while you get your paper," "D, please leave J alone and get your paper," "This is individual work, you do not need to talk with your classmates," and on and on.

Note that everything she said to the kids during those few minutes were things they already knew.  The assignment was already on the screen in front of the class, and it was clear that the kids had done this particular activity many times before.  Surely they didn't need her to tell them (multiple times) to do things they already knew how to do, right?  And yet, they did.

This went on for about 3 minutes before the bell rang, and continued until about 4 minutes after the bell rang.  She must have said variations on the same thing fifty times during the course of those first few minutes.  The phrase "herding cats" came to mind.  I was exhausted just watching her.  But after about 4 minutes into the class time the students were completely silent, and all of the kids had a newspaper and were sitting at their desks actively reading them, looking for a paragraph to summarize.  Some of them had already found one and were on to the next phase of the activity.  Even after the first few minutes of class, Ms. V continued to call out corrections or instructions to particular students ("J, you need to be working on your paragraph") though nothing quite like the initial frenzy.

I was immediately aware of two things: 1) Ms. V had a BUNCH of stock phrases, and 2) she could throw the appropriate one out immediately without ever breaking the rhythm of whatever else she was doing at the time.  I was also keenly aware that I had only a few stock phrases, I didn't use them nearly as often as Ms. V, and when I did it was almost always accompanied by an interruption, however small, to the flow of my lesson.

Ms. V told me that in many of her classes, even if she doesn't provide this kind of "cat-herding" instruction early in the class period, the students will eventually settle down and get to work.  It may take a little while, and in fact it may take longer than she wants to give them, but they'll eventually get to work.  In this particular class, however, she said she tried one time letting them just come in, with the day's assignment on the screen in front, to see if they would eventually get to work without her badgering them.  They never did.  Left to themselves, she said they would have happily frittered away the entire class period.

I find that I still have a tendency to reject the idea that this kind of classroom management is necessary.  I keep saying to myself, "These kids are teenagers, some of them are about to graduate and go to college, surely they don't need me to tell them that they need to sit down and take out their pencil and paper."  And of course some of them don't.  But many of them do, and if I don't provide this kind of repetitive, often tiresome, instruction, they will have trouble settling down and focusing on the work of the day.

Which is why I need to keep practicing my cliches.

Image by wikipedia.

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