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The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Reducing Distractions from Students

By Dave Stuart Jr.

To produce the clarity of thought necessary for deep and impactful teaching, the teacher has to do something that her environment constantly resists: she must avail herself of distraction-free blocks of time each day in which to do her most important work.

I'll use my setting as an example of what I mean by an environment that lends itself toward constant distraction. My classroom is at the end of a hallway in our small town high school. When I'm not teaching, there are 120 kids on my total roster (this year), and approximately 360 additional kids in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grade whom I've taught previously. That's 480 kids every day in the building who know where my room is, know me, and might decide that it's worth stopping by to say hi or ask a question or tell me a Star Wars joke or any number of other nice but distracting things.

“But Dave, you heartless sod!” you might be thinking right now. “That's what it's all about, man! C'mon! It's relaaaationships, bro! Seriously! Have a soul!”

Well, no. Schools don't exist primarily so that young people can develop relationships with adults who have chosen to spend their lives perpetually in school. We cultivate relationships with students so that we might optimally promote their long-term good — as that, and not relationships, is actually what school is “all about.” 

It's the long-term flourishing of kids — not relationships with the kids. Relationships serve that ultimate end.

(I've written on this before. See “‘A Perverse Sort of Compassion' and the Point of Strong Student-Teacher Relationships.”)

So, I've found that I can actually cultivate adequate and even impactful relationships with students through brief, focused moments of genuine connection before, during, or after class. Additionally, I can work to love my students and affirm them, as my grandfather used to do for us grandkids. I can get their names right quickly and remember their birthdays using simple techniques. There are plenty of tools for building strong relationships with students within narrow time constraints.

But it's a critical mistake — one that I made for years — to leave my door open at all times — before school, during prep, after school — like some kind of magnet for the 480 kids in our high school who, at any given time, might want to come and say hi. The numbers there work out to me being interrupted constantly, every single day, during times at which I'd be doing greater service to the school and its kids by focusing on the six things that matter most, or planning the next unit, or giving fast feedback on student work.

So instead of the open door all the time, mine is a closed door mostly, and when it's closed I'm hiding in a back corner of my classroom with the work at hand.

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