Turning a negative conversation into a positive one.

So you’ve kept Joe, or Leah, or Sam back after a lesson where they pushed you to the point where you had to issue a detention. You didn’t engage in discussion about it in the lesson, but now is the time.

This is the point at which you have an opportunity a) to confirm that the student understands what they did wrong, and b) to ensure that they know what to do to avoid a repetition.

Every conversation, according to Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations, can lead you closer to a goal or take you further away from it, so it pays to enter into it mindfully. The first advantage you have now is that you have delayed the conversation about the student’s error or omission until now, when they do not have the fuel of an audience. The second is that the student is as keen as you are to keep this conversation brief.

Remember what you want from this conversation, and keep it strictly positive.

Ask the student to confirm that they understand the system.

“You do understand that you left me with no choice but to give you a detention, don’t you?”

Either they will say yes, or bluster, in which case you will recap the system.

“You were talking when I was explaining how to create the perfect tense. So you couldn’t learn from what I was saying and nor could Josh. I put your name on the board, and then you started again. I quietly directed your attention to the tick on the board but you carried on again later. So I had to put another tick on.”

If more bluster…

“I’ve explained the rules. You know I won’t say your name. It’s your responsibility to be aware of what’s going on.”

Once you get confirmation of understanding, you can move onto your second objective.

“Now, how are we going to stop this happening again?”

There follows a brief conversation (they are keen to get away), and you will probably have some agreement about how the next lesson will proceed. This may involve a prompt as they enter the room next time, or your tapping on the desk when their name is on the board, just to give them a bit of an extra reminder. It is something between you – a sign that you want to help.

Or how about: “Let’s make a deal.”

“Let’s make a deal – if you do well in the next lesson I’ll put 2 credits on the system…”

“Let’s make a deal – if you do well in the next lesson, I’ll email someone about how well you’ve done. Who would you like me to send it to?”

“Let’s make a deal. If you do well next lesson, I’ll put you in charge of the bell for a week.” (this is the bell I use to get silence when too many people are talking, but it could be any classroom privilege.)

If this is a repeat, or repeat-repeat occurrence, you might suggest some changes that you could make. These are changes which you, the teacher, wish to make, but it is important that the students sees that there is a reason for it – it is not a punishment:

“Would it help if we changed the seating plan? Is there anywhere you could sit which would help you work better? Who could you sit next to who would help you work?”


“How about if you brought your book to me at the end of every lesson to show me how you’ve done in the lesson? Would that help you focus on your work? I could just give a quick comment – would that be enough to get you to focus?”

When the student leaves your room they should be thinking not about the sanction which you have just applied, but the way in which you, their teacher, have put yourself out to help them succeed in your classroom. And given them choices.

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