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Setting the Tone

Many times in my 10 years of teaching, I have had parents specifically request me as their child’s teacher. One such request came in my third year of teaching. The child was the son of one of my co-workers. She said, “I chose you because Patrick needs discipline, but he also needs compassion.” Patrick had a talent for trouble. Not bad trouble — just the garden variety nuisances that drive teachers right up the walls.

I’d met Patrick when he was a second grader. He used to come into my room and hang out with the critters. He had more questions then I had answers, but even at eight he wasn’t adverse to being pointed toward one resource or another and told to “look it up.” The school district slapped a label on him: Gifted & Talented. One of his gifts was a quick wit. One of his talents wasn’t thinking first before he used it.

I want my students quiet and focused before I ever allow them into my classroom every morning. This is especially critical on the first day of school. It sets the tone the remainder of the year.

Outside my door I tell my students I want, “Straight and quiet.” I remind them that the entire school is expected to follow that rule, including teachers. If they can’t talk, neither can I. Then I teach them my hand signals so we can communicate without words (stop, go, left, & right). Except, Patrick won’t be quiet.

“Patrick, I need you to listen.”

“Patrick, please be quiet.”

“Patrick! That’s enough.”

Nothing worked for more than 30 seconds. Finally, in exasperation, I demanded, “Patrick, what part of, please be quiet, do you not understand?” Not one other child in the entire school would have responded to my tone of voice with anything but silence.

Patrick answered with a grin, “Well, I’ve always had trouble with Q-u.”

The entire class sucked in their breaths. I nodded my head at Patrick, dropped my arm around his shoulders in a friendly fashion and said, “You know, I can help you with that. This coming Friday I’ll be giving you a vocabulary test on all the Q-U words in our classroom dictionary. How’s that?”

Patrick said, “No. Thank you. I’ll be quiet now.”

I shook my head. “Too little. Too late.”

Still, nothing kept Patrick down for long. As I was trying to introduce the class to their new textbooks, Patrick was playing his desk like a drum, using his brand new pencils as sticks. Again I asked him several times to stop — and he did — for 30 seconds at a time. Finally I asked, casually, “Patrick, are your pencils important to you?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Not particularly.”

“Good,” I said. Then I snatched them from his hands and tossed them in the garbage.

The entire class was silent — including Patrick. He stared at me in open-mouthed surprise. Finally he found his voice. “Those were my brand new pencils!”

I shrugged. “You said they weren’t important to you, and they were really bothering me, so I got rid of them.”

“But, –” he stopped.


“Well, they are important.”

“Fine,” I said. “You may retrieve them.”

Patrick fished his pencils out of the waste basket and sat back down at his desk. Thirty seconds later he was drumming again. I stopped writing on the board and turned to look at him. “Patrick,” I asked, “are your fingers important to you?”

Patrick dropped his pencils and sat on his hands.

Quiet reined.

Quilly is the pseudonym of Charlene L. Amsden, who lives on The Big Island in Hawaii. When she is not hanging out with Amoeba, she is likely teaching or sewing. Or she could be cooking, taking photographs, or even writing. But if she's not doing any of that, she's probably on Facebook or tinkering with her blog.


  1. OC — for some reason I have an extra measure of patience with most children. And it seems the worse they behave, the more patient I get. My answers to their nonsense are just there — more like a script I’m reading then anything I have to give actual thought. In other words — sometimes I surprise me just as much as I surprise them.

  2. “One of his gifts was a quick wit.”

    And one of yours is a quicker one.

    “for some reason I have an extra measure of patience with most children. And it seems the worse they behave, the more patient I get.”

    I will refrain from asking whether I can mail my daughter to you, and instead appoint you as honorary Aunt Quills. Feel free to speak with her anytime. Like tommorow… say, once every fifteen minutes or so?? 😉 (Can you tell it’s been a difficult evening?)

  3. I wonder if you could have helped poor Brookie when she was in grade school. They didn’t know what to do with her in the 2nd and 3rd grade. One teacher told me that most all children who can’t be quiet, will do it for a group effort – as in ‘if the entire line of children is quiet they can go first’. Not Brooke. Finally they gave her a desk in the corner and if she could be quiet for a certain length of time – she ‘bought’ time back with the other kids. By the 4th grade, her teacher figured out what to do with her. Brooke was bright, finished her work first, and then moved around and chattered. They stopped it by just giving her twice as much work as the other kids!

  4. Brig — it would be my honor to be her honoary Aunt — from far, far away. Do not mail her — unless of course you send her to my classroom, then collect her again at the end of the day. One of the reasons my patience goes far, is because I get to go home at night without them!

    Jackie — in my room kids like Brooke either receive extra work, a job to complete, or they are put to work tutoring the slower finishers. I train them in how to teach, rather then just give answers. That way their social needs are met, and they are still being productive, rather than disruptive.

  5. It’s a shame more time isn’t spent in teaching how to teach. Too much time is spent on subject matter.

    Your solutions to your students’ needs are very clever.

  6. Minka — I discipline my kids, which is a far cry from bing disciplined myself. ;D

    Kat — the right teacher makes all the difference — and I am not right for every kid.

    Melli — subs aren’t low-life! They should get hazard pay!

  7. Mumma — yes, and no — part of the story can be found here: Silent Sustained Reading. Patrick had a very full day that day. He actually made the QU comment in the hall outside the classroom, but I didn’t press the point about the vocabulary test until near mid-day when he still had not shut up.

  8. Silver — Patrick’s sister simply called him, Brat. He called her, She-Who-Thinks-She’s-All-That.

    Polona — that’s funny — my kids say I’m mean.

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