Dear Barbara ...
I've created the Dear Barbara column as a way for subs to get answers to questions about any subbing topic or suggestions that may help you solve a specific problem in substitute teaching.

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How Can I Manage Breakout Talking During Group Work?

Dear Barbara:

I finally graduated with my coveted teaching degree in 2006 at the age of 53, and have been “subbing” for the last year and a half. I'm writing because I consistently seem to have a problem in the K-5 classrooms I teach in: what I refer to as “breakout talking.” I can have the students quietly working, and gradually the students begin to talk to one another at their tables, until the noise level rises to what I consider to be very unacceptable. (This happens while I am working on helping students who are having trouble, or trying to check student work, answer questions, etc.)

I then have to STOP the class, interrupting even those who ARE doing what they are supposed to be doing, to get order and quiet reestablished. This newly established order lasts anywhere from 3-10 minutes or so; then the whole cycle repeats itself - with me getting more and more frustrated.

I have tried having them sit quietly for 5 minutes or so with heads down on desks, to “practice quiet,” but enforcing that quiet, even for 5 minutes, is sometimes more exhausting than anything else. Invariably, someone will talk before the time is up; and we have to start all over again. In a way, this is the students controlling ME, because we are losing actual on-task working time, but I really don't know what else to do!

Sometimes I call the principal or other administrator to come in and settle the class down, if it is too bad; however, as soon as they leave, the same thing happens! I don't want to spend valuable class-time fighting this all day, but what do you do, when the whole class keeps getting out of control? Sometimes, nothing works! (One school I sub at is urban, lower-income, and I feel students are not really held accountable for their behavior. But this also happens at the suburban schools somewhat, too.) I want to control the classroom and be the very best teacher I can be! HELP, please!

Christine, Newport, KY.

Dear Christine,

Congratulations on your graduation and teaching degree. Subbing is a great way to get your foot in the door. The practical experience is invaluable.

I gather from your letter that students are quiet during teaching time. But when they begin independent or group work, “break out talking” begins. We all experience this problem. I have some suggestions for you:

o Remember, it's unrealistic to expect absolute quiet during independent work time. Students have been programmed to help one another, and quiet talking is usually acceptable. You won't be able to change the class culture.
o When you are about to begin independent work time, tell the class exactly what your expectations are. “I expect you to work independently for the next fifteen minutes. If you have a question, please raise your hand and I will help you. Please keep your voices down. If you must talk, keep your voice to a whisper.” Now demonstrate a whisper for them. They need to know what you will expect.
o Now start reinforcing good behaviors. Develop a reward system that works for you. You might use stickers, or table points for the primary grades. For third grade and above, tell them that when you see a group or an individual working quietly, they will receive a ticket. They may write their name on the ticket. At the end of the period (or day), collect the tickets. Choose 3 tickets and give prizes. A visit to the Dollar Store is a great source for your reward system.

Remember, rewards can be concrete, or verbal. Students love praise. “Thank you for working quietly, class. “ The rewards for you will be worth it!

Best regards,

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