Disruptions in a shared space

Noisy or not, distractions in a classroom can break the thought train of not just students, but teachers too

The speaker is deep into the talk. Many students are furiously scribbling notes; others are listening intently. A few are not paying attention, are restless and distracted. Some in this group are trying hard to get involved, but for whatever reason, the lecture fails to grab them. A few minutes in, the door creaks as someone opens it to go out — presumably, to get a drink of water or to take a bathroom break. Some moments later, the door creaks again to let the person back inside. This happens repeatedly through the hour, each time causing a bit of a rustle.

In many college classrooms, the rules are flexible enough to allow freedom of entry and exit. It is assumed that students will take care to not disturb the class as they exercise this freedom. But the truth is, every time the door creaks, or someone gets up, a small ripple of distraction runs through the room, affecting people in different ways. Some may be so involved in the discussion that their focus doesn’t shift. Others will look up and take note of the interruption but quickly go back to what they were doing. Yet others will get a bit flustered and take a moment to regain their rhythm. And a few will be unable to recover their concentration.

Etiquette matters

The classroom is a shared space, accommodating a variety of personalities, each with their own way of handling attention. In school, we give the teacher the authority to commandeer attention, and it is not unusual for her to loudly call out those who seem to be wavering. Often, children don’t have the luxury of going out during a class, without the permission of the teacher. They must wait for the break. In college classrooms, it is expected that students will have already learnt the etiquette of participation, and so, these rules often remain unsaid. It is assumed that individuals will behave in ways that are not disruptive, that they actively contribute to the shared attention of the classroom, and are respectful of both speakers and other listeners.

We often think of disruption as something noisy and visible, and that creaky door is not even close. But as a teacher, I find myself looking up each time someone walks in and out, and I find that several others are similarly distracted. Expressing respect for a classroom may be as simple as preparing oneself for the hour to come, by getting a bottle of water ready ahead of time, by taking that bathroom break before the class, by turning off the mobile phone and settling in quietly. Isn’t that what we do in a movie theatre before a film plays? Granted, a lecture may not be as riveting, but there may be others who want to pay attention.

The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. [email protected]

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