How to prevent incidents from happening instead of trying to stop them when they happen
One of the things that changed as I grew in this job is how much I criticise myself for everything that goes wrong in the classroom. Don't get me wrong, I consider reflection and feedback a necessary part of teaching. It's just that, knowing thyself is a virtue, but beating thyself up with a stick every time the lesson is less than perfect is probably a little counter-productive!
In my experience, there are some easy steps to take when preparing to give your class a collaborative task which might help you set it up in a way that will save you hours of beating yourself up with "you should've known"!
Still, for many years one of my favourite self-flaggelation phrases was "I should've seen that coming". This included all the cases in which a task failed miserably because of a blow-up that could have been avoided, because time was wasted misunderstanding directions or because my material, which had worked wonderfully in one class, managed to bore another to death, inevitably causing commotion. And in all these cases, "I should've seen that coming".
The truth is you almost always know. Sometimes you miss it until it's too late or choose to ignore it because the opposite is just too much work! But if you think about it, you know what is going to happen beforehand. So, in my experience, there are some easy steps to take when preparing to give your class a collaborative task which might help you set it up in a way that will save you hours of beating yourself up with "you should've known"!
1) Seating Arrangement
Not all levels or all tasks need the same amount of collaboration, but when it is required, it is worth taking a few minutes to review your seating arrangement. Try to predict and avoid explosive combinations. Good mates in the playground or friends from home doesn't necessarily mean they will work well together. Less confident students will be more productive and less disruptive if they have help. Try to evenly distribute your more competitive students (or just for fun, put them all together in one group - they will usually fail to collaborate effectively and this might teach them a lesson!).
A student of mine, Sophia, was best friends with Mina since pre-school. However, whenever they worked together Sophia turned bossy and judgemental. Soon, Mina started reacting by refusing to complete the task. I found a stupid reason to rearrange the whole class and made sure they were in different groups - saved me a ton of time next time I gave a task and didn't have to manage a conflict!
2) Instructions and goal
It is not easy to admit, but several times the failure of a task is contingent on the task itself. If the goal is not clear and attainable or if the instructions are not straightforward, students ask too many questions and soon everyone gets frustrated. Trust me, this is my weakest point! It took a lot of trial and error to accept what can and what cannot be done in 45 minutes.
I explained in this post how I always try to make my lesson useful. It
is equally important that what you ask them to do is actually doable in the time you have and the way there is clearly laid out. How? Obviously having tried it with another class is the best way. But if this is the first time, check your instructions with a colleague or two. Do the task once on your own and time yourself. See which parts seem to take a bit more, try to anticipate where students might encounter difficulty. And always ask yourself: will they know when they have completed it? And are the steps clear?
3) An Extra Round
I cannot begin to tell you how many times this has saved my day! First, you should have some extra materials, such as sheets of paper or cardboard, some extra printouts, an extra template. I lay these out on my desk at an obvious spot. Then, it would greatly help if you have some extra pencils, rubbers and colours. There are always two small pencil holders on my desk, one has colourful markers, one has colourful pencils. There is also a basket with pencils and rubbers that have been left in my classroom by forgetful students. That way, when someone is missing something they know where to find a replacement without disturbing the class.
Finally, never forget the early finishers. They will come up to you glowing with pride with their finished work a full quarter of an hour before everyone else. They will initially go back to their desks and bask in your praise a little. And then, the fun part starts. They drop their pencil loudly and pick it up even more loudly. They try to peak at what others are writing causing them to protest loudly. They stretch and yawn and ask to go to the toilet LOUDLY. Your precious quiet is gone. Unless you are prepared! Have an extra little task for them. Convince them it's a prize and keep them busy. It's always worked for me!
All of these tricks will take a bit of extra time before your lesson, but they can make a great difference during. Most of all, they will save you the frustration of having a task you so lovingly chose and prepared implode in your hands!