Teachable Moments

Knowing when to stop everything to capture a teachable moment is a hard call. Teachers don’t have to be in the fray very long before such a situation can arise. It can cause an atmosphere that can be threatening and very uncomfortable for everyone involved. Even the most well thought out plans don’t always work or fall in place as expected. The atmosphere of a class can change in a heartbeat.

Students are the most important factor in the product of a class and they can change like the weather. They can determine and control the atmosphere and cause a situation that can become very tense. When a disruption occurs and there is a tense stereotype situation that blatantly calls out for attention, grab it and let it run. There may not have been anything wrong with the plans or the students. The weather has changed and the atmosphere is no longer conducive to what was planned.

The goal of any classroom teacher is to create a comfortable, risk-free, safe learning environment for every student. With the prevalence of bullying and the current move to stop and correct it, and most of all, prevent it before it happens, ignoring a tense situation in the classroom is really not an option. Teachers create lesson plans that are dependant upon the responses of the students. The objective of any lesson is for all students to learn. Learning will not occur if the classroom atmosphere is threatening for any students. Bullying does not have to be physical. Verbal bullying can occur within the classroom very quickly and often go unnoticed by all but the recipient. For some students, responding in a classroom is overwhelming. It takes every bit of courage they can gather for them to risk answering questions in front of their peers. A snicker, a guffaw, an eye roll, or an inappropriate comment, can put a student down, never to try again. If the response is not the one the teacher was looking for, it is even more devastating.

Teachers would like to be prepared for any teachable moment that may arise. It is sort of like the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. With the goal of creating a comfortable learning environment, it is up to the teacher to maintain a risk-free atmosphere. A teacher can create a “No Hunting” zone. Under this, any answer is given credit or acknowledgement in a positive way. No one gets shot down for their response. Instead of the answer being wrong, it is not quite what the teacher was looking for and the need to look further opens the door for another teachable moment or motivation for another lesson.

The teacher holds the ruler. The class may have strayed from the objective, but the teacher can change that. A cutting remark may open the door for an on the spot lesson about bullying. The situation that has risen needs to be addressed instantly to be able to continue the lesson in an atmosphere where all students can learn. A comfortable environment needs to be reestablished and this is an open door to a teachable moment. No, it was not planned. Use what was said or how it was said to open the lesson. The students created it, so let them carry it with teacher guidance. The greatest teachable moment is when the teacher can become the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. Teachers are great models, so sit back and watch what the students have learned.

Creating a “No Hunting” (or “No Bullying”) zone provides a comfortable atmosphere for learning that needs to be modeled by the teacher. “No Hunting” means that no one will be shot down and all contributions to the discussion are acknowledged positively and addressed by the teacher and the students. Seeing the teacher responding positively encourages the students to buy into the concept. Answers may need justification and often the students will like, and learn from, a debate or discussion about them. A lot can be learned through the discussion of all possible answers.

Some of the alternatives to ‘wrong’ are:

… “that’s possible, can you explain how you thought of that?;

… no clue where that answer came from, but I like your thinking;

…that opens a whole new thought about that question;

…almost right*.

(* except in math because almost is only good in horse shoes and hand grenades = another teachable moment)