The Dance: why arguing with students is futile

Sunday, February 1st, 2015


It is inevitable that all teachers, from the experienced to fresh faced graduate, will be drawn into what my mentor ominously refers to as The Dance. In other words, you will end up arguing with students.

This might be in frustration (from one or usually both of you), in jest or in an attempt to break through the icy wall of IamateenagersoIthinkeverythingislame attitude that Year 8 and Year 9 classes build around them. This is okay – not great, just okay. It is important to recognise though that

a) it does happen and

b) when it happens, you need to be prepared.

Below are a series of short, real-life examples that I experienced and am now sharing in the hope that you do not fall for the same traps I did.

Situation 1:

First day of term one, first day of teaching ever – Year 9 Humanities class…

Student: (loud and obnoxious) Where are you from?
Teacher: (thinking I am all over this thanks to Bill Rodgers) What’s your name?
Student: Rainbow. You can’t even tell if that’s true!
Teacher: Let me just find my role…
Student: Does it have ham and cheese on it?!
Whole class: Ooooooooooooooohhh.

Lesson: Do not set yourself up for puns. Students will badly zing you.
Outcome: Exercise in humility. You are not so scary as you thought, run with the joke. It is safer.

Situation 2:

Halfway through term one, scraping the barrel for lessons – Year 9 Humanities class…

Student: (extreme whining) This is boring…
Teacher: Have you had a go at it yet?
Student: No.
Teacher: Why don’t you have a crack at it and then see how we go.
Student: But it’s boring.
Teacher: How do you know that when you haven’t had a go?
Student: Because it looks boring!
Teacher: It’s paper. What do you mean it looks boring? Can you tell whether something will be boring just by looking?
Student: Yes, obviously.
Teacher: What else looks boring?
Student: Your face.

Lesson: Do not give students the opportunity to tell you that your face is boring. You cannot win this argument. It is notoriously referred to as the “infinite loop of boring”. Do not bother.
Outcome: Exercise in futility. You will never win this argument because students have the unfair advantage of being able to choose to ignore facts and use nonsense. Annoying but very effective.

Situation 3:

Start of term three, production practice – all year levels…

Student: (reading lines) …time to clean the oven Hamsel.
Teacher: (interrupting) So the joke here is that the Witch is going to cook Hansel, so she says Hamsel. Like food.
Student: It’s Hansel.
Teacher: I know, but for this joke to work we say Hamsel because you are playing on the words.
Student: I know, but I was reading my next line where I say “It’s Hansel”.

Lesson: Accept that sometimes (and probably more often than with which you are comfortable) your students are very very clever. When they outsmart you, bow your head and say, “Yep. Well done. You have bested me.”
Outcome: Mistaking futility and realising humility. Do not interrupt students and pay close attention so that when they beat you at your game, you are there ready to cheer them on, not to argue back. After all, we should want our students to surpass us – that’s when we know we have done our best.

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