The Unreliable Narrator

An expression that has been popping up in many of the blogs by new TFA corps members is “behavior narration.”  This is, evidently, the big new ‘thing’ that the new TFAers are leaning as a classroom management tool.

Back in 1991 when I was a CM, myself, the first edition of the book ‘Assertive Discipline’ was the guide that our classroom management training was based on.  Back then the big thing was writing students names on the board for the first consequence and putting a check by the name for the second consequence.  This technique was such a disaster, for a lot of reasons I won’t go into right now, but let’s just say that in later editions of ‘Assertive Discipline,’ Lee Canter denounced that technique that he once considered so vital.

So after a little research I found that Lee Canter is still out there and wrote the small guidebook for TFA in which this ‘behavior narration’ technique is suggested.  Here is an excerpt from that guidebook:

When you finish giving directions to the students, you immediately monitor the class looking for students who are complying, and then in a voice that is loud enough for all the class to hear, simply “narrate” or“describe” what you see them doing. With elementary level students you can single out students by name.

When I say GO, I want everyone to go directly back to their seats, take out their books and immediately get to work, and I want you to do this without talking. I’ll be looking for students who are following my directions.Ready, GO! Lisa is going directly back to her seat without talking.  Kyla has taken out her book and is already getting to work. Juan has gone back to his seat, taken out his book and is working without talking.” (Behavioral Narration)
Since middle-secondary level students often do not want to be singled out by their teachers for “being good,” with older students you would want to narrate “groups” of students who are following your directions.
When I say GO I want everyone to go directly back to their regular seats, take out their books and immediately get to work and I want you to do this without talking. Ready, GO!”  I see students walking back to their seats without talking.  Students at table three already have their books out.  Students at table five are working without talking.  (Behavioral Narration)
I found a video of a TFA corps member demonstrating this technique in a video here.  The class is very small and very well behaved and you have to skip to the last minute to see how she uses it to help the students organize the work they just completed.
Certainly every good teacher does point out, from time to time, that he or she likes the way this student or that is doing something.  The main problem is that it violates another rule of teaching which is to reserve your words for the essentials — if you blab too much, students will start tuning you out and all this narration is a form of blabbing.
I’ve never taught elementary school, and I can see how this technique, when used in moderation can be something that helps.  But from what I’m reading on people’s blogs, this is being hailed as the thing to do for all grade levels, including middle and high school.
Oh boy.
If you think back to the middle school and high school teachers that you had growing up, you surely never remember any of them using this technique.  Why?  Because it is useless for that age group.  This is one of those things that will work when the teacher already has control for other reasons and will not work for a teacher who has already lost control for other reasons.
I have written a book about classroom management and another one that has two chapters about it (and if you go through the early blog posts of mine, I do give some advice about it including some videos of workshops I’ve done on it) and I never mention this technique.  In all my years teaching I’ve never overused this method, though of course I compliment a group, a row, or a person from time to time, so I’m not saying to never do this, but just not to think of it as a real ‘technique’ that does very much.  Certainly it won’t ever ‘tame’ a class that has gotten out of control, any more than Lee Canter’s old ‘name on the board, check by the name’ method did.
In some of the blogs by new CMs, they have been singing the praises of ‘behavior narration,’ but they don’t give the full context of who they are teaching.  If you have a class of under ten students, then, yes, doing this is likely not to hurt.  But for a ‘real’ class, if you’re depending on this as something that is much more than ornamental, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble in the fall.
Classroom management is 40% attitude and 60% having a lesson that isn’t too confusing or boring.  Behavior charts with different ‘levels’ for each kid, lists of consequences on the wall, behavior narration, and other gimmicks accomplish little except to give the new corps member with abnormally tiny classes a false sense of confidence.
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22 Responses to The Unreliable Narrator

  1. jj cm says:

    I absolutely agree that behavioral management has much to do with being fair, being clear, and engaging students. Students can’t be engaged in a lesson that is at the wrong level, inadequately structured, or just not meaningful. Sometimes relationships and overall class culture can support an occasional lesson plan flop, but if we’re routinely missing our audience kids without extraordinary will to succeed will drop off into boredom, misbehavior, and despair. I realized far into my first year that success has to follow from success, and I needed to focus on straightforward, procedural tasks before upping the rigor and problem-solving focus, still with a lot of structure. In the short-term stepping back from a hard-lined focus on transformational teaching was the best long-run plan to gain the trust and buy-in of my students, who were sadly quite accustomed to failure and couldn’t initially accept the unfamiliar style of an outsider teacher. Teaching is first an effort in building trust and facilitating trust. Students will surely tire from, or begin to mock, incessant narration at the middle school level.

  2. Mr. K says:

    I can only speak from my own experience, of course. That being said, behavior narration works well for my classes of 25-30 students, and an almost gratuitous amount of narration was especially helpful for reining in my freshmen who had gotten out of control. It’s really pretty commonsense — done correctly, narration gives you the opportunity to repeat your directions in a more dynamic but nonjudgmental way (neither positive nor negative), and it lets you target specific areas of the classroom with students aren’t following directions by highlighting the students who are.

    However, I do agree with you that a majority of classroom management is simply creating lessons that are engaging and accessible. This is often overlooked at Institute, and I don’t understand why.

  3. E. Rat says:

    I think this technique of management is something a lot of teachers do instinctively. Because it’s distinctive, it’s easy enough to do consistently. Since it’s consistent, it can be effective enough – consistency matters.

    I do this sometimes when the original instructions I gave weren’t as clear as they needed to be but not so opaque that I need to give them again. It tends to be the first strategy my student teachers start using, and they use it a lot.

    So I suspect that this technique feels successful because CMs are using it more regularly than other strategies and because their directions are not as clear as they need to be. (One of the things elementary educators learn over the years is that you do really have to name every step sometimes, including putting the caps on the glue sticks, tucking in the chairs, etc.).

    I also think that inexperienced teachers are going to struggle to create engaging, accessible lessons. Many of them are going to be tied to whatever curricula they get until they have the experience to move away from it. This makes management strategies more important. I would also argue that some models of education (say, KIPP) place so much importance on behavior modification because their expectations for engaging lessons are low.

  4. E. Rat says:

    Also, that name and check strategy probably dates back to the early days of written language. My elementary teachers were using it in the 80s and it wasn’t new then. Nor was it any more effective back then.

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  6. Educator says:

    Behavior narration works like a charm for its intended purpose – to get students to do exactly what you want through a sort of interesting passive aggressive way (But I agree with Gary. If classroom management has already been a major issue, it’s not that helpful).

    Some will say this is great, you’re getting students to be like robots folding their hands, opening their books, reading, and doing exactly what you want them to do (behaviors that increase learning) …others will argue this is a bit controlling.

    I have used behavior narration with older students but they call me on it, and it’s pretty funny. Some will respond with “I like how Mr. Smith gives us little homework. I like how Ms. Jones gives all A’s” I usually respond with another random narration like “I like how students have given me gift cards in the past. I like how students have given their best effort.” It doesn’t sound as funny now that I write it but it is in an actual class.

    So I guess my point is behavior narration became a kind of comedic routine that has helped build relationships and a classroom culture.

  7. Ali says:

    I can tell you- this works in kindergarten as a tiny part of our class culture/management. however, it is best to bring the expected behaviors to the attention of those that need to adjust their behavior(for minor behaviors). I can not imagine using it much past first grade.

    In my brief TfA days, the middle school students mocked corps members and this practice.

  8. Zachary Taylor says:

    I teach middle school with classes between 30 and 40 students and behavior narration works very well. As you said, one of the requirements of making this work is to use it moderately (obviously you cannot use this for all 50 mins of class time) and I don’t think anyone (TFA or otherwise) recommends that you fill the bulk of class time with narration….or any manifestation of your voice. Additionally, the second significant factor in making this idea work is to do it in a way that is genuine for you. I’ve successfully used this with middle school and high school students because I used it in a way which was authentic to myself. I can certainly see how this process (or just about anything you do) may not work for an inexperienced teacher who gives off an air of uncertainty.

    Ultimately it all boils down to what fits your teaching style. Behavior narration works for teachers how teach in way and possess a personality that is conducive to it. I’ve also seen other teachers successfully use the name-check method…because it fit with their personality and teaching style. Many management systems cannot simply be labeled as “right” or “wrong,” or “best” or “worst.” It all depends on the teacher implementing them.

  9. Cosmic Tinkerer says:

    This strategy originates from Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Learning Theory. It can be very effective with young children in Preschool and Kindergarten.

    • Woefully Underpaid says:

      The problem is that TFA teaches this as the primary classroom management strategy for ALL grades. The Institute staff/CMAs/etc use the word “miracle” to describe it and insist that CMs use it. They tend to blame classroom behavior on failure to “narrate effectively.” When classrooms are going sideways, they just tell CMs to narrate more as if this will solve everything. It’s totally absurd.

      • former tfa says:

        I found that when anything went wrong- TfA was quick to say- well if you followed our protocol you wouldn’t be having this problem.

      • former tfa says:

        I should say SOME people in TfA, as there were some helpful people, but others who were definitely not.

  10. teacher says:

    Having run teacher ed for hundreds of CMs I can say I have seen this. What kills me is that it’s behaviorism. And yet TFA acts like they invented it, without ever wanting CMs to understand the history and tradition, the critiques, the research, and so on. And I’m appalled when TFA, and now many charters, give teachers buzzers that go off every 10 minutes to remind them to do things. Again, behaviorism. Management is complex, and relationships, curriculum, and instruction work together to build a class that is a learning community (rather than, for example, a “managed” classroom).

  11. EMinNM says:

    Narration definitely works at an elementary level, both because kids want the recognition that they’re doing a good job and because it lets you repeat the parts of the directions that some kids are not doing appropriately. Friends of mine teaching at the high school level have said it backfires, though–“Why you gotta single me out like that?” was a common complaint.

    I think the reason TFA uses it is not because they think it’s the be-all and end-all of classroom management, but because it’s somewhere to start. Building a class culture is so important and takes effort and time (and by the way, in both my years of TFA we spent A LOT of time talking about this and writing a vision for our class culture, and checking in with that vision to see how the reality matches or not…nobody thought narrating was the end of management). But if you have nowhere to start and need a quick strategy to help yourself and kids get into a routine, narration is not bad.

  12. parus says:

    I found a mild form of narration to be extremely useful for the couple of years where I was in a specialist type position and was seeing about 12 different class groups in their homeroom teachers’ classrooms. There was just no way to set up comprehensive routines or build up the kind of highly collaborative classroom I prefer – my lessons had to be very wham-bam and I didn’t get to know many of the students well, so I had to go with quick fix classroom management.

    Now that I have a core group of students full-time, I barely use it at all, because it’s kinda gross. Well, on actual academic tasks, I’ll point out a kid who’s doing things properly and have them demo for the class (e.g. in a science lab) but that’s not really BEHAVIORAL narration. My only exception would be with the occasional kid who has particular emotional or behavioral issues where they need to be made cognizant of exactly what they’re doing, but that’s one-on-one, not in front of the whole class.

  13. Anthony says:

    Could not agree more, Gary. My school instituted a schoolwide discipline program my first year, Make Your Day (Google it…), and I put way too much faith in this stupid system. Well, as you can imagine, my first year was really, really hard…

  14. Mr. Morgan says:

    Yes, this was the big thing at my 2011 Institute. It works really well in my kindergarten classroom most of the time. I hear similar things from elementary teachers. My higher grade level colleagues, however, disdain the BMC training. For the most part, I think their schools have done more training for them.

  15. 2012er says:

    As is the case with any system of management or pedagogy, the goal is to provide a framework and then have teachers adapt it to their own classroom, comfort level and personality. Remembering back to Institute, having an entire corps of teachers learning behavior narration and then applying it felt just as robotic as the student behavior it cultivates. The main reason for this is that teachers hadn’t personalized it, or learned other techniques for behavior management.

    However, being in different rooms as the year went on, almost every teacher I have seen has personalized it and uses it on a much less frequent basis than they originally did. Personally, I hardly ever use it, especially since I deal with high schoolers. That being said, it is a great way to repeat my directions and highlight positives rather than negatives.

    There are certainly valid criticism to any form of behavior management from the school of behaviorism, but the first step to any student-driven, student-centered classroom is having a well-behaved classroom. For a lot of the classrooms TFAers walk into, they need to establish some sense of control–which is admittedly not the ideal classroom–before adjusting pedagogy to improve the culture and allow the students to make the classroom their own. I think it is important to remember that behavior narration, at least how it was provided to me, is intended as a starting point, not an end point.

  16. Maries says:

    This method was popular when I was an elementary school teacher about 10 years ago. It didn’t work then either. Total waste of time, like all the other behavior management ideas administrators pushed on us. Here’s another one that’s equally useless: saying “that’s not like you” when a child misbehaves. That’s supposed to make them suddenly remember they are actually a well-behaved child and immediately stop the behavior. Hah! Most common answer from the kid? You guessed it – “Yeah, it is.”

  17. Jack says:

    Katie Osgood was today’s guest on a HuffPost talk show criticizing TFA.

    Later on in the show, a blogger and TFA defender named Justin Tong then joined the show and challenged her while not addressing any of her actual criticisms.

    In response, Katie was having none of Justin’s calls for Katie and everyone to just “work together.”

    Great stuff… just wish that it was longer.

    Check it out:

    Here’s the written promo:

    Some public school teachers are speaking out against Teach For America, alleging that the organization’s training is insufficient and that it threatens existing jobs. In Chicago earlier this month, critics gathered at the Free Minds, Free People conference to discuss the organization’s role in the local school system.

    Katie Osgood, a special education teacher in Chicago, told HuffPost Live Monday that she feels Teach For America educators and leaders have done “extremely damaging reform” to the education system, placing inexperienced teachers with the neediest students and putting other teachers’ jobs at risk.

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