Cold Calling with Compassion

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If you’re like me, you remember how teachers would deliberately call on students not so much to elicit an answer but to catch a student not paying attention. I was pretty good at answering when I got called out, as after years and years of practicing, I could daydream while keeping one ear on the class.

What I couldn’t do was answer a question about assigned reading because I would very rarely have done it. Teachers would call on me fairly often with a content question I couldn’t answer. Over the years I got very good at owning my unpreparedness. “I didn’t do the reading,” I would answer firmly. Usually the teacher would make some kind of irritated sound or maybe even give a brief lecture to me and the class, and then move on to a student who could answer.

I don’t recall a teacher ever following up with me about my lack of answers, until college. 

What Compassionless Cold Calling Does to Students

When teachers cold call on students–that is, when they ask a question and just pick a student, seemingly at random, for an answer–they are usually trying to assert control and provide consequences for students who do not complete their homework assignments.

In the worst cases, teachers will seek out students who are not 100% engaged and will use a question to embarrass the student into acknowledging their lack of preparedness in hopes that the negative consequence of public embarrassment in front of the entire class would change their behavior. Or worse, it may be that the teacher simply enjoys wielding power and uses class time as a way to expose students for ridicule. Yes, those teachers are out there.

There is nothing more destructive for an adolescent than being embarrassed publicly. In Pink Floyd’s famous concept album, The Wall, which includes the rebellious student anthem “Another Brick in the Wall,” the protagonist is ultimately sentenced to the worst fate the judge can imagine: 

I sentence you to be exposed before your peers!

The enduring popularity of this album is, in part at least, fueled by the common trauma so many young people felt as students who were put under a microscope by teachers and forced to admit their failures in front of the very people whose opinions they cared most about.

Getting used to it and learning to be ok with simply, firmly, and confidently saying that I didn’t do the reading is the skill I developed as a result of compassionless cold calling. This is not good.

Many good teachers do not cold call at all, and many of them even find the practice completely wrong. I understand them, but I don’t agree with them.

How is Compassionate Cold Calling Different?

As a teacher now, I cold call ALL THE TIME. And I’ve increased it since I started teaching on Zoom in March 2020. But I try to do it in a way that is gentle, caring, and intended to 

  1. Understand what the students think about reading assignments and the class discussion.
  2. Encourage students to be engaged.
  3. Diagnose problems students are having.

My students know that I will cold call because I tell them, and I also tell them that if they want to “pass” as a response, they can if they have nothing to say at the time–for whatever reason and they need not explain. In fact, I don’t want to hear their reasons during class. It’s not relevant to the discussion, nor is spending time on a student’s explanation likely to result in actual student learning, which is the most important agenda of any class. 

Here’s what a typical cold call exchange with a student who isn’t prepared looks like in my class:

Me: Janice, What do you think of the decision the character makes about his friend?

Janice: I need to pass.

Me: OK, that’s fine Janice. Try to make a comment later in the conversation if you can. Mark, how about you?

Here’s another:

Me: Who can tell me something really interesting about the main character in the story? Jamal, how about you?

Jamal: I didn’t get to do the reading for today.

Me: OK, that’s understandable, and we all have off days But it can’t be a habit. Who can answer?

I almost always call on students who passed in the previous class, which they expect and are pretty much always ready for. And then I’ll do it again a week or so later.

When students pass more than once in recent memory, I send them an email after class, asking them if they are ok and if there’s anything I can do to help them get more engaged.

Once I determine that there is no big problem in the student’s life (such as family difficulties; issues related to poverty or financial pressure, food insecurity; wi fi issues; and more) that email usually starts a valuable discussion. I am not judgmental, but rather I ask them about their motivations for not doing the reading.

I hear about students’ work in other classes, or their work hours, or their genuine lack of interest in the class. With the student, I try to brainstorm solutions to the issues, and I thank the student for taking the time to meet with me. I then do something tangible in the class that makes them feel heard. I may assign something more likely to be of interest to that student, or I might design a class activity that lets that student take a leadership role in one class, to let their peers see them as smart and capable.

Often these situations work out really well. Sometimes the student doesn’t improve, but most of them try.

Toward A Comfortable Classroom

I think there are some teachers who think students should be a little nervous in class, that such anxiety is likely to “keep them on their toes” and encourage them to be prepared and to feel “held accountable.” I don’t think so.

My way of cold calling actually does hold students accountable, but it also helps students to feel welcomed and valued. I think they know that I like them. “This class isn’t as good as it could be because we’re not hearing your best thoughts,” I frequently hear myself saying to students, and I mean it.

I have found that this method does not result in more students NOT doing the reading, which is a worry I sometimes hear from preservice teachers. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Students seem more eager to be involved and are willing to take more risks in what they say because they know I am not interrogating them to see if they did their homework. The discussion, the learning is the purpose of our class, and my actions and attitudes reflect my investment in their learning–to the best of my ability. I am only human, too, as my students know all-too well. (They are very patient as I hunt for the right screen to share on Zoom, or I forget to unmute myself, or I admit that I had hoped to have all their papers graded by today’s class, but I wasn’t able to.)

I don’t get angry anymore if students aren’t prepared. And, for the most part, more of my students do come to class ready to engage and learn. A positive classroom atmosphere, where students who aren’t prepared will be contacted in an understanding manner outside the view of their peers, is a more pleasant experience for all of us. 

And couldn’t we all use more pleasant experiences these days?

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