Is Anybody Out There? Getting and Holding Students’ Attention by Larry Coty, USATestprep

Please enjoy this guest post by USATestprep, a sponsor for our SC Midlands Summit.

One day I came to school sick.

I wasn’t too sick -- I just had a cold -- but I was sneezing occasionally and sounded stuffed-up.

“Come on, Mr. Coty! Why did you come to school today? Do you want to make us all sick?”

My reply to the students was this:

“Don’t worry. Between you and me there is a powerful, though invisible, barrier; and this barrier allows absolutely nothing to pass through: bacteria, viruses, mathematical knowledge -- anything that could be harmful or even fatal is permanently barred from ever infecting you.”

Of course I wasn’t being completely serious. I had pretty good evidence that some mathematical knowledge had, in fact, been “spreading” through the class during the preceding weeks and months.

But there are times, aren’t there, when every teacher wonders: Is anybody out there? Is anyone paying attention?

Getting and holding students’ attention is a constant struggle for teachers, not only because it can be so tricky to do, but also because it is the very first thing you must do if you are to be able to get anything else done with them.

Here are a few tips for making sure that your students are at least somewhat aware of your presence:

  1. Stop trying to get their attention. Sounds odd, but the best thing you can do is to design class-starting routines to ensure that students are already focused on class business before you even address them directly. Whether you use a bell-ringer, a journal entry, a set of warm-up problems, or something else doesn’t matter. What matters is that the students are expected to begin this activity without you. This kind of routine allows you to take care of other pre-class matters, such as attendance, without then having to face a crowd of distracted students. Getting this routine working can take a firm hand, especially at the beginning of a year or semester. For the first few weeks you have to watch students very closely, rewarding those who do what they are supposed to do and (dare I say?) punishing those who do not. In my high school math classes, by the third week of school a student who hadn’t started the bell-ringer on a sheet of paper after 2-3 minutes was “rewarded” with detention. There can be no compromise on this, or it won’t work.

  2. Stop yelling. It can take some practice, but it is important that you break the habit of raising your voice to get their attention. If a student is talking while you are talking, there is a problem -- and if you are loud you only make it easier for them to “fly under the radar” and to talk/whisper while you are trying to tell them something. You may want to use positive reinforcement, such as rewarding students who are listening well. Sometimes a little negative reinforcement can be effective, too -- especially if it is delivered to a talkative student in a low, calm voice, right after he or she has just emitted some unasked-for verbal gem.

  3. Make sure that all speakers are respected. Enforce the same rules of decorum regardless of who has the floor in class. Even if a student is asking a meandering question which may well, ultimately, turn out to be meaningless, you must listen as though hanging on every word -- and require that entire class does likewise. This helps to create a culture of “one at a time,” which will help keep the students from trying to talk over you, too.

  4. Don’t talk too much. Talk is cheap, they say -- and it definitely gets cheaper, the more of it there is. The tendency to try to explain everything in full detail is something that new teachers soon outgrow, but you must always guard against its reappearance. Tell students what they need to know to get started, then stop. If students begin to think of your voice as analogous to the buzzing from the fluorescent lights, you have a problem. Your voice may not crack into their ears like the thunderbolts of Zeus, but it should at least be something they haven’t gotten so used to hearing that they can ignore it without any effort.
Larry Coty is a math and ELA academic manager with USATestprep, responsible for the rigorous alignment of our state-specific, performance-based curriculum. In his former life, he taught mathematics for 31 years at the middle school, high school, and college levels. 

Since 1998, USATestprep has provided resources for teachers to help prepare their students for high-stakes testing with content that is specifically aligned to each state’s learning standards. The company’s solutions are delivered via an online platform enabling teachers to access up-to-date content across all core subject areas, to customize the learning pathway for each student, and to provide insights through benchmarking to administrators. USATestprep was developed for teachers, by teachers, and is currently used by nearly 2 million students across more than 3,500 schools nationwide. For more information, visit


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