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Why Students Treat Teachers Like TV Sets (and How to Combat It)

Laura Preble

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Why Students Treat Teachers Like TV Sets (and How to Combat It)In the time when smart phones with a trillion apps are the norm, students have started treating teachers like TV sets on in the background of their otherwise engaged classroom lives.  

About ten years ago, I started to notice it: My high school students began to talk to each other while I was talking. Not just a quick, furtive whisper, or a surreptitious passing of notes; no, this was full on conversation taking place while I enlightened them with riveting commentary on The Great Gatsby or The Crucible.


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Then came the epidemic of throwing things out while I was talking. Kids would get up right in the middle of instructions, walk right in front of me, and throw out innocuous pieces of trash, pencil shavings, or gum (that they weren’t supposed to have anyway). They began to pull out their phones and text under their desks while I was reading to them. They even got out of their seats during class discussions to talk to friends. It started to make my blood pressure approach dangerous levels.


When I had finally had enough, I stopped class one day to confront the poor kid who happened to be the 100th person to interrupt me. “Why do you get up when I’m in the middle of talking?” I asked, sounding a lot like an old, grumpy English teacher.


The kid looked at me, puzzled. “I just had to throw something out,” he said reasonably before taking his seat.


And then it dawned on me: They didn’t see me as a person. They saw me as entertainment. I was just like a television.

It didn’t matter what I was saying—this was a generation of ultra-multi-taskers who did five things at once, none of them very well. But that was their world.


When my own son became a teenager, my suspicions were confirmed. He would sit in front of the television, ostensibly watching a program, but he was also Facebooking, texting, and listening to music at the same time. He didn’t really pay attention to any of the things he was doing, but he was sort of paying attention to all of them.


Now, human interaction is just one more task in the rotation of multi-tasks. And this is why students see nothing wrong in throwing things out, texting, talking, standing up, eating lunch, or playing video games while we are talking. To them, it is not disrespect; it is simply being efficient.


When I explained this to my classes, when I actually told them my theory, they were oddly silent. One girl raised her hand. “You know, you’re right. I didn’t even think about that.” From then on, all I had to say to my classes when they started to drift into autopilot mode was, “Hey, I’m not a TV set!” and they knew what I was talking about, and I commanded their complete attention. At least for a few minutes.


Tips to Avoid Being Treated Like a TV Set:


1) Make them aware of it. My students absolutely meant no disrespect; they didn’t know they were doing it. With training early in the year, they actually learn to catch other students treating me like a TV, which is much more effective than a peeved glare from me.


2) Move around. Attention spans are shorter than ever. When reading aloud or doing something that requires more than five seconds of attention, move around the room. Varying the pitch of your voice and changing proximity will jar them out of the TV mode since, at least for now, TVs don’t move around.


3) Do as much interactive activity as possible. Physical movement works best, and although that’s very tough when class sizes are huge (in my district, our ratio is 40 students to one teacher, and those high school kids are big), even having them move their desks into small groups and asking them to answer questions together will move them away from the passive “I’m just watching the screen” mode.


4) Start using Powerpoints and videos to augment any lectures. Putting weird animation and sounds or humorous examples in the Powerpoints focus their attention on the screen. I know, it feels a lot like you’re becoming a television program or a YouTube oddity, but it does work when you use it in conjunction with live discussion and questions, not instead of.


5) When things get really bad, I sing or do weird accents. I realize this is not for everybody, and that in some way I’m succumbing to the “edutainment” syndrome, but it works. I have a colleague who relies on magic tricks. Buzzers from games are also great, and I have Hulk Hands that I bring out whenever I really need to make a point.


I guess what I’m saying is this:


There’s a reason that real human interaction is more effective than online learning. Humans can do things that computers can’t do. We can react, interact, respond, and connect on an emotional level. Remind kids whenever possible that being human beats being plugged in.

What do you do when your students give you the TV treatment? Share in the comments section!