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How I lost control of my class by asking the wrong question.

Date: October 29th, 2013
By: Polly Bath

I’d just finished taking attendance in my high school language arts class for pregnant teens with special needs.

Everyone was settled in their orange plastic seats, eyes front, and I was about to start our first activity when Tiffany walked in late with a pass.

I took it, silently, placed it on my desk, and continued my instruction to the class. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, Ramona was late. Unlike Tiffany the day before, she did not have a pass. Again, I was in the middle of instruction.

I acknowledged Ramona’s arrival, silently, by writing myself a quick line on a pad of blue sticky notes I always keep in my pocket, and she slipped quickly into her seat.

A few minutes later when the class was busy in small groups I spoke to Ramona.

Without engaging other students, or allowing them to engage me, I said, “Ramona, I noticed you were late today and missed some of the directions. Since this is your third time without a pass, I’m going to issue you a detention because that is our classroom policy. Please make sure you get all the directions from someone so you don’t miss the entire assignment. If you need extra help, we’ll talk about that after school when I see you.”

I said this in a calm voice.

I showed no aggravation.

Quite honestly, I didn’t feel any aggravation.

Why? Because I had not allowed Ramona’s lateness to distract me from my instruction.

Did I start out my teaching career this way—calm, in control, unruffled?

I did not.

I started out my teaching career feeling aggravated when a student was late. And I’d express my aggravation by asking a question.

“Why are you late?”

Logical, right? But wait a minute, what was I doing asking a question at all?

Wasn’t I taking my class’s hard-earned attention off of my own instruction?

Wasn’t I putting it smack on the one student who wasn’t in her seat ready to go? What was I doing? For some of my students a late-arriving classmate offered much more interest than my instruction, particularly if I staged a little showdown around the issue of their lateness. Most particularly if the student was one just waiting for center stage. Ever had one of those?

Like Bill, one of my students early in my career. He walked into my class, very late, on a sultry May afternoon, every student in the class struggling to attend on such a spring day.

“Bill, you’re late. Where have you been?”

“Out to lunch.”

Then, of course, Bill strutted to his seat, bowing to the enthusiastic applause of his buddies lined up in the seats along the back and blowing kisses to the giggling girls in front.

Who was in charge of my class now? We all knew it wasn’t me!

Or, here’s another treasured memory: upon asking another late student where he’d been, he said, I kid you not, “I’m a little backed up and took longer in the bathroom.”

Well, that was about as low as I was willing to let things go so I began to ask myself, did I really want to continue to explore, in front of a classroom, the universe of smarty-pants answers to everyday questions like:

“Don’t you know how to behave?”

“Do you talk like that at home?”

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

“Where’s your homework?”

“What would your Mother say if she heard you talking like that?”

Over time I began to realize that asking questions in behavior situations was a BIG MISTAKE.

So now I don’t.

And I don’t have to manage all the behavior problems my innocent questions once uncorked.

Take it from me, think twice before you ask questions and I think you’ll find some of those pesky everyday behavior problems will simply stop.

And if you want to share with me your favorite questions you wished you’d never asked, and the answers you wished you’d never heard, I’m compiling a list! You know where to find me: [email protected]


Polly Bath’s articles are about real people and real situations. Changes are made sufficient to protect everyone’s privacy. A veteran educator, she is a behavior consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker in the United States. Read more information on Polly Bath’s in-school workshops, consultations, summer institutes, and keynotes. And contact us to make arrangements for her to come to your school.