Tough Class? Use the 1st Rule of Hypnotism

On my first day as a teacher in Minneapolis, I knew that any type of professional hesitation on my part could lead to classroom management disaster, particularly since three English teachers had already quit before I was hired late in September.

And despite my best effort, I was completely overrun. Here’s what the first few seconds sounded like this:

“Please take a seat. We need to get going. No, we’re not going to the gym. No. I’m sorry. Because it’s not gym time. I’m circus tall…I know. No, no shooting skills. Forward. It might not be fair, but that’s how it’s going to be. Could you–? Could we just get you boys in the back corner to sit? You three are doing a great job. Six foot three. Seattle. Twenty-three. Hey, please don’t use that kind of language. That word is pre-1500s Latin and English, not Ojibwe. No, they aren’t. No, they aren’t. No, I’m not Native American. Irish and Scottish, I think. C’mon, you three in the back. Let’s go! No, we’re not going to the gym.”

Meanwhile, my internal chatter sounded like this: Start the class! Start now! Breathe. Project confidence. Project authority. Breathe. Don’t let their questions steer you off task. Dear Lord!

That was my hardest year ever, though I eventually picked up effective classroom management dispositions through a) failure, b) reflection, and c) recovery. However, one strategy for getting a class on track served me the best:

Stay super-relaxed and super-focused.

Adopting this stance at the beginning of every class kept my body loose and confident while I concentrated on content and connecting with students. It required a lot of focus to stay relaxed and clear when most adults would panic, but the job requires that you match tough classes with equally tough mental discipline.

So how do you remain relaxed when your skyrocketing nerves and adrenaline keep you stuck in fight or flight mode?

Veteran comedian Louis C.K. once gave some needed advice to a fellow comic who was feeling unbearably anxious about the set he was about to perform on The Tonight Show. Trying to calm down right before the curtain opens is the wrong thing to do, explained the master comic. Instead, C.K. advised, focus on why the first story you’re going to tell is so important. By not tuning into your jacked up emotional state, your energy goes to executing communication responsibilities like a pro.

Some classes are so tough that staying loose and focused doesn’t help. If kids are rioting the first seconds of class, then the first rule of hypnotism is awfully helpful. Hypnotists always begin by asking their subjects to do something small, concrete, observable, and easy. In contrast, rookie teachers often start class by asking learners to do too many things at once: “Put your stuff away open your books turn to page seven take out a pencil or pen and take out a piece of scratch paper quietly and look up front.” What?!?

In tough situations, ask students to do something simple. When there is 100% compliance, ask for the next thing, and so on. And stay relaxed.


Check out my funny teaching memoir, Dinkytown Braves, free on Kindle Unlimited and $10.33 as a paperback.

Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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