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How to Deal with Student Backtalk

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Responding to Backtalk: When in Doubt, Do Nothing” by Fred Jones at Tools for Teaching, November 9, 2016,
In this Tools for Teaching article, classroom management guru Fred Jones addresses a perennial teacher dilemma: how to respond when students who are being held accountable talk back. Jones contends that it’s a cardinal error for teachers to try to push back on student backtalk, especially getting upset. That’s a major cause of teacher fight-flight stress. “It takes one fool to backtalk,” says Jones. “It takes two fools to make a conversation of it.”
The key is to remain calm and not react. “Fortunately for us,” says Jones, “backtalk is one of the least creative endeavors of the disruptive student. Mouthy students have been saying the same things since little Babylonian kids went to school.” Here are some ways students try to get off the hook when they’re goofing off and the teacher has told them to get back to work:
• Whiny backtalk – Self-justification used when students are trying to get the teacher off their back, for example:
- Denial (“I wasn’t doing anything.” “We weren’t talking.” “I’m not chewing gum.”)
- Blaming your neighbor (“She was talking, not me.” “They started it.” “He was just asking me a question.”)
- Blaming the teacher (“I had to ask him because you went over it so fast.” “I had to ask her because I can’t read your handwriting.” “I had to ask him because you didn’t make it clear.”)
- Suggesting that you take a hike (“All right, I’ll do it.” “All right, I’ll do it if you just leave me alone.” “All right, I’ll do it for you just to get you out of my face! I can’t work with you standing over me like that!”)
- Goodie-two-shoes compliment to divert the teacher’s attention and get some brownie points (“Oh, Mrs. Johnson, what a beautiful pin.”)
In all of these situations, Jones says it’s a fatal classroom management error to take the bait. For example, with the Blaming the Teacher gambit, if a teacher responds, “I went over this material step by step not ten minutes ago. It is written right up there on the board if you would care to read it. Now, I’m sick and tired…”, the hook is set and the student just has to reel in the increasingly irate teacher. Or with the compliment, if the teacher says, “Why thank you, dear. I got that for my birthday. Now, you get some work done” and wanders off, the student will almost certainly be goofing off a minute later.
So what’s the alternative? “Take two relaxing breaths,” Jones advises, “kill some time, and keep your mouth shut. This too shall pass.” Sometimes it’s helpful to see the humor in the situation. For example, with the Blaming Your Neighbor ploy, imagine a paraphrase of what the student is really saying: “Gee, teacher, we weren’t goofing off when we were talking. We were operating a peer tutoring program to further our education.”
• Nonverbal backtalk – These are tactics students use that function as backtalk without the risk of mouthing off:
- Crying – “If crying gets kids off the hook at home,” says Jones, “they may try it at school. Some parents start apologizing as soon as the tears flow.” The best strategy is to remain impassive and wait for the tears to stop, then say, “We can talk about your crying later. For right now, the least I will expect from you is that you get your work done.”
- Pushing you aside – The student pushes the teacher’s arm away as he or she leans on the desk. The teacher could make a big deal of it (assault!), but a better approach is to relax the arm that’s been pushed, remain calm, and hang in there without backing off. “The student, confronted by an immovable object, must now finally deal with your presence,” says Jones. “At this point, he or she usually realizes that getting back to work is the cheapest way out.”
- A kiss on the nose – Once a popular “Joe Cool” high-school student was having an extended conversation with his buddy and the female teacher leaned over and told him to get back to work. He looked up at the teacher, leaned forward, and gave her a kiss on the nose. She did nothing and continued to look at him. “All eyes were on him,” says Jones. “It came as a surprise when nothing happened. It became embarrassing when nothing at all happened. Some classmates giggled. Joe blushed. The teacher just looked at him and waited, but her lack of emotion came across as nonchalance, as though to say, ‘This happens to me all the time.’ Joe wilted. He looked for a place to hide but had to settle for getting back to work.”
The moral of all this? “When in doubt,” says Jones, “do nothing. This may not seem like much of a strategy, but, in the heat of the moment, it can be a life-saver. Would you rather respond impulsively or have some time to think?”

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11/27/2016 - Ms. Kimberly
What a great reminder of the power of silent, patient expectation.