Five Pearls from Teaching Pros: Turning Resistance into Learning Opportunities


One of my favorite things to do is chat with other teachers or better yet, watch them teach. It is in these exchanges or observations that I am refreshed and amazed at the immense talent, creativity and cleverness of my colleagues in this profession. Since the most frequent topic of professional conversations is how to handle classroom resistance, I thought I would gather a handful of some of my favorite pearls from teaching pros – genius solutions I’ve either observed or heard from my colleagues for how to turn resistance into learning opportunities. Sit back, be amazed, borrow their brilliance, and adapt their genius to your teaching venue.

Pearl #1: Turn reluctant mandatory attendance into an opportunity to get needs met.

This first pearl is from a prison parenting teacher named Mary. I want to give credit where credit is due, but unfortunately I cannot recall Mary’s last name as I heard about this pearl from her over 10 years ago.

While Mary’s students weren’t court-ordered to attend, since it was prison, once they signed up for the class they were on the class Call Out.  To avoid being in an unauthorized area they needed to be where the Call Out said they were, whether they felt like it or not.

Understanding that there are always times when folks aren’t up for being in class, she decided to turn reluctant mandatory attendance into an opportunity for learners to get their needs met. Whenever she was greeted by resistance at the start of a session she would say: "Since you are required to be here today, you might as well get something out of your time here. Given that, what is one question you’d like to have answered about today’s topic by the time you leave?” Then she would write each question down on the white board and mark them off as they were answered through the session; checking in with the person who’d asked it, just to make sure. Mary always carved out time at the end of the session to answer any remaining questions that weren't addressed by the natural unfolding of the lesson. The time she saved at the end for those remaining items was commensurate with the length of the unchecked list.

This entire process could be used as a check for understanding. You could review the list at the end of class and ask students to tell you which questions had been answered and what those answers were. You could fill in any gaps your students miss.

Pearl #2: Let a vivid visual image do your heavy lifting for you.

This pearl is from Ashley Brown, another effective prison parenting teacher.

When Ashley was teaching Time Out, an evidence-based and non-violent parenting strategy, parents frequently reacted negatively because they felt it didn’t match some misbehaviors with the intensity of response they felt was called for, the way spanking might. As Ashley heard these objections she didn’t defend Time Out or lecture her students. Instead, she would go to her teaching closet and calmly extract two shoes – a baby shoe and a ginormous, specially made basketball shoe worn by her high-school-aged 6’4" son. She’d place the two shoes on a table where everyone could see them and then ask, “So tell me, until what age do you think spanking will work for you? And when they reach that age, what foundation will you have laid and what will you rely on then?” This always brought some thoughtful reflection and a marked reduction in resistance as moms gaped at the giant shoe on the table in front of them. After a lengthy pause she would begin her teaching of the Time Out strategy by saying, “I have a gift for your children. Do you want it?” Needless to say, they mostly nodded "yes".

Pearl #3: Hold a mirror up and wait for learners to tell you what they see.

This pearl is from Katie Atwood, yet another amazing prison parenting teacher.

When introducing a life skills session to a group of incarcerated moms who felt that the class topic of daily schedules and home organization was boring and a waste of time in a parenting class, Katie decided she'd roll with their resistance, teach something else and revisit the home organization and daily schedules topic on another day, when she had more time to reconsider her approach.

The next day the moms arrived as usual to her classroom but nothing was set up. She did not put the tables and chairs in their usual friendly small group clusters, did not write the agenda on the board, and did not set out the handouts and daily supplies. When the women arrived to class with the room not ready and a “distracted” teacher (put on for demonstration purposes only), they expressed surprise and asked what they were supposed to do. They complained that nothing was set up and they didn’t know what she expected of them. They said they felt anxious because they didn't know what they should do. Katie ignored them for several moments and then casually responded as they had at the previous class session, asking: “What's the big deal? Why do you need me to set up your environment? Can’t you just grab a chair and hunt around for supplies and figure out something to do?” Being bright and capable they got it, organized the room into the structure that usually greeted them, and asked Katie for the previous day's class on home organization and schedules. Katie shrugged OK, took out her handouts and lesson plan and nonchalantly did a do-over of the previous day's session.

I love this story and have thought that you could use this strategy preemptively. You could set up this scenario and use it as a gain attention activity and then debrief how folks felt and connect that to how kids or employees or (fill-in-the-blank) might feel with no structure, organization, or leadership as an attention gainer to teaching about these things.

Pearl #4: Craft complaints into learning goals.

This pearl is from Laura Olin, another gifted prison parenting instructor who was an expert at folding every crisis back into the curriculum and using the skills taught in the course to address emergent issues.

Each parenting class began with an attention gaining activity to pique interest in the day’s topic followed by the daily practice of having participants write a personal learning goal around how they’d like to use the topic’s intended outcome to change or create something in their personal lives. Laura helped learners craft learning goals that focused on what they wanted to learn to do differently, not what they wanted to get someone else to do differently.

This was a powerful self-advocacy skill, especially for incarcerated adults who didn’t have a lot of say over their daily lives. Unfortunately, the moms didn’t see the gift within this skill but instead saw goal setting as an academic skill or an assignment “just for this class” rather than as a self-advocacy tool for life. As they grew more comfortable and began coming to class with complaints about other people in their lives, Laura would often respond with, “That sounds like a learning opportunity related to (some skill or topic) from this class. Can I help you write that down as a learning goal?” They rarely refused her warm invitation with little more than a good-natured groan, and after a time began to respond to each other’s gripes with the same invitation, asking, “Can I help you write that down as a learning goal?”

Learning goals were hung on the classroom wall until the participants felt they'd been adequately addressed by the skills practice in class, at which time they took them down to journal about how they'd accomplished that goal. The completed journal pages were filed in their portfolios where they could review and enjoy the many successes they’d proactively created in their lives; all as a result of turning everyday complaints into goals to problem solve or master.

Pearl #5: USE curriculum content to resolve problems in class.

This pearl comes from a delightful group of dads I had in a parenting class in a medium security prison. Because we were together 3 times a week for 12 weeks and there were only 7 of them (plus me), they rapidly developed a high degree of trust as they responded to the structured sharing activities in the parenting curriculum. What began to happen with the increased trust and small class size was long storytelling. As a part of the natural group process they moved from forming to storming and became extremely irritated with each other and most especially, with each other’s long-winded stories.

In the second week of class we had learned a problem-solving model. One day in about the fourth week, at the height of their storming and frustration with each other one of them said, “Let’s run this through the problem-solving model. Can we do that Tracy?” I loved the self-direction and use of the skills to address a real-life issue so aborted the lesson for the day and acted as recorder as they put their problem of long-winded stories through the problem-solving process. The solution they arrived at was as follows. At the start of each 2.5-hour class they would each receive three tokens worth a 5-minute story each. To share in class, they had to turn in a token. The others would keep time when a story started. Once they shared three times, for no more than five minutes each time, their tokens (and story-telling opportunities) were gone for the remainder of the class session. We instituted the practice which worked well, even if it did make the more extroverted dads a little uncomfortable when their tokens were gone. A side benefit was that the process created space for the more reflective dads to have a chance to take the time they needed before volunteering to share, so we started hearing from dads we hadn’t previously heard much from.

This was their solution, arrived at by using a skill from the curriculum. Because it was their solution, as they moved from storming to norming they decided they no longer needed it. They took a quick vote, decided their solution had served its purpose and voted to let it go because they had settled into a more natural rhythm of working cooperatively together.

What pearls will you share for turning resistance into learning?

Please share your good ideas for dealing with classroom resistance in the comments section below.