Pulling a Class Out of a Slump

Oct 23, 2023

By Rob Chilton

It’s late October or maybe mid-November. Perhaps it’s the third week of April.

All of the sudden, your classes start to feel as if they’re slowing down.  You think to yourself, "what is going on?”

A week goes by. Then, two weeks pass and the course hasn't self-corrected. Every day is a painful slog through the same thing you did the day before. Frustrated, you wonder why everything feels so difficult now when you were making so much progress before.

Then, it hits you.

You’re in a slump.

Like a swinging pendulum, this recurrent pattern of down and up, coming and going, or decline and regrowth can also be found in the classroom. Slumps specific to teaching often occur in one or more of the following areas:

  • Teaching
  • Learning
  • Procedural
  • Behavioral

Today, we’re going to focus on the learning and behavioral slumps.

The Learning Slump
The learning slump is characterized by an extended period of time when students aren’t learning effectively. Perhaps you’ve spent a week on the same line and made little progress. Maybe you’ve explained the same thing a hundred different ways and still come up short. Feelings of extended frustration and thoughts such as “they’re just not getting it” or “they aren't practicing” are warning signs that you’re already waist deep in a slump.

Gaps in learning occur when information critical to the conceptual scaffolding isn’t sufficiently learned making the acquisition of new information or demonstration of new skill difficult or impossible.  In music, learning gaps most commonly occur within rhythmic concepts.

Fill the Learning Gap
Let’s say your class is working on the dotted quarter note.  An example of a learning gap would be if they missed or didn’t properly understand the concept of eighth notes.  This would cause them to struggle with understanding eighth note subdivision as it relates to the dotted quarter note thus complicating their ability to accurately perform the dotted quarter note.

Choosing to forge ahead without filling a gap will inevitably lead to the formation of bad habits and deeper frustration.  Like detectives, we must carefully investigate the case at large to find and fill the gaps.

Whenever I find my students deep in a learning slump, I do the following:

1) Think

  • What specific concept or skill are my students struggling to understand or demonstrate?
  • Where might there exist gaps in their learning stifling understanding or demonstration?
  • What information must they wholly comprehend in order to be successful?

 2) Plan

  • Based on the answers above, I plan a series of lessons to reteach and fill gaps.
  • I find a spot in my curriculum where I can go back and retrace my steps.
  • I plan strategies or tools for assessment that will inform me when adequate learning has occured.

 3) Act

  • Teach the series of prepared lessons.
  • Allow enough time for comprehension.
  • Be conscious of when to keep pushing and when to say, “that’s enough for today.”

Three Guiding Principles
It’s never fun to slow down and retrace our steps, but failure to do so can put all at risk of falling deeper into the slump until escape is nearly impossible.  Consider the following three principles which have provided me guidance over the years.

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The Behavioral Slump
The behavioral slump is identified by a decline in student behavior that continues beyond the norm of a rainy day, full moon, or unexpected assembly schedule. Joking aside, we often fail to recognize behavioral slumps until it’s too late. Behavioral slumps start out as gentle nuisances and can quickly turn into rebellion if not addressed. They commonly form during periods of reduced redirection or loose enforcement of consequences for undesirable actions.

We all start the year with clear rules and expectations. Not knowing who or what we will encounter, we keep our expectations firm. As time passes, we get more comfortable, as do our students. Rapport develops and slowly we let our guards down. This is when the testing begins.

Children are hard-wired to test boundaries. It’s how they learn about the world around them. It’s how they determine what is right and wrong, safe versus unsafe, and acceptable or unacceptable. They’re expert observers of the world around them. They notice what we say just as much as what we don’t say.

The Banks of Positive and Negative Behavior
Imagine you have two banks at the front of your classroom.

Every time you address an undesirable behavior, you make a deposit into the bank of positive behavior. Every time you don’t, you deposit an equal or possibly greater amount into the bank of negative behavior. The proportion of value in the positive bank versus the negative bank will determine how your classes behave.

Restoring Order
To restore order to your classroom, increase deposits into the bank of positive behavior. Expect change to take time. It’s natural for kids to resist when you begin to tighten their boundaries. Like a dog on a fully-extended retractable leash for which you’re now trying to shorten, they’ve grown accustomed to the length they’ve been given. Remind them that your rules exist not for punitive reasons, but for constructive reasons. When we follow the rules, more learning and play can occur and at a higher level. Therefore, future success is a direct result of upholding expectations today.

The Forced Reset
Sometimes, particular groups get out of control. Like forcing a reset by holding the power button on your smartphone or computer, sometimes you need a reset in your classroom to reestablish equilibrium.

Here are some steps to guide you through a forced reset:

  1. Dedicate 15-20 minutes, preferably at the beginning of a class, to discuss the forced reset.
  2. Increase proximity between you and your students by asking them to come up to the front of the room.  Consider having them sit on the floor.  Then, you sit on the floor with them so you’re all on eye-level.
  3. Wait until the room is quiet and still.  Then, begin to speak.  Lower your voice, slow down your speech, and calmly describe the undesirable behaviors you're observing.  Let them know you’re human and how it makes you feel when they exhibit undesirable behaviors.  Discuss how it impacts learning and hinders success.  If you think they’re mature enough, ask them what they would do if they were the teacher.
  4. Reestablish your expectations, rules, and procedures by listing them out.  Let them know that together we are engaging in a forced reset and that you may seem more strict to them at first.
  5. Establish yourself as the “commander” versus the “demander.”  Let them know that you’re forcing a reset because you care.  They are valued and if you didn’t care, you wouldn’t try to redirect them.

In conclusion, don’t be too hard on yourself when you discover your class is in a slump. It often happens so gradually that we don’t recognize it happening until we’re already in the deep end! Even the most experienced teachers fall into slumps. What’s most important is recognizing “where we are” and “where we want to be” and taking steps to move forward. Remember, success is not a straight line. Plan the work and work the plan.

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About the author:

Rob Chilton is the creator and owner of Readymade Music, LLC and its content. Previously, Chilton was a middle school band director from 2007-2021. His most recent teaching position was the Head Band Director at Killian Middle School in Lewisville, Texas from 2014-2021.

Under his direction, the Killian Honors Band was named the 2018 Texas Music Educators Association CC Honor Band and performed at the annual 2018 TMEA Clinic/Convention. In 2019, the Killian Honors Band was invited to and performed at The Midwest Clinic in Chicago. Additionally, the Killian Honors Band was named a National Winner in the Mark of Excellence National Wind Band Honors Project in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Chilton is a graduate of Southern Methodist University where he had the opportunity to study music education under the tutelage of Lynne Jackson and Brian Merrill. During his years as a middle school band director, Chilton continued his professional growth under the guidance of his primary clinicians, John Benzer and Brian Merrill.

Chilton’s mission for Readymade Music is to promote the overall well-being of music education and support school music teachers by providing solutions to help make teaching music more efficient and inspirational while increasing engagement for 21st century learners.

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