Thursday, April 23

The power of the shush

I'm being facetious. I've been sitting in an office area adjacent to a school library for most of the morning and, for most of the morning, I've heard people "ssshhh" others.

What's funny to me is that the ssshhh-ing is often louder than the murmuring of the students. It's not like the kids are taking a test, but they are supposed to be working on something. And, apparently, in absolute silence. High school students. Absolutely quiet. Okay, well, I'm all for wishful thinking and optimism.

I've been at other schools in which teachers have sought to master the power of "ssshhh," or the power of the shush. With little success. Mostly with no success, to be honest.

In one situation, I was able to witness the escalation of the "ssshhh." The teacher began with the short, quick exhaled "ssshhh." Fine. That worked with the group of elementary students for about, mmmm, 30 seconds.

Then the murmuring began again and the volume increased ever so slightly. The teacher exhaled a slightly longer and slightly louder "ssshhh" accompanied by the raised eyebrow. Near silence for several heartbeats.

The student noise moved quickly to chatter. The "ssshhh" came sooner and louder followed by the teacher getting up and walking purposefully around the room, stopping to whisper to select students, generally the provocateurs of the disruption.

The teacher returned to the table to work again with the small group of students and had barely begun when the chatter erupted and a bit louder. The teacher stood up and executed a "ssshhh" accompanied by spittle and a general classroom-scanning stinkeye. Most students quieted, a few giggled.

The room remained quiet for a few minutes except for the flipping of pages and scratch of pencils. Then a student asked another a question and it was like the top popped off shaken bottle of pop (or soda, if you prefer). Whoosh! Chatter, though, mostly about the work at hand. Even so, the teacher really, really, REALLY wanted quiet so the teacher stood up and practically screamed "You need to be quiet!!"

Stunned silence. The minute hand on the wall clock clicked. Students put their heads down to work and finished their work in relative silence but that's because they started passing notes. I did not giggle but I did struggle not to smile because, in my wanderings around the room, the kids were asking each other clarifying questions or to borrow something. In other words, they were mostly on task.

I still wonder if they would have stayed on task had the teacher allowed them to talk quietly or if the teacher knew even quiet talking would lead to the students going off task.

I've been in meetings and movie theaters when others have tried to shush offending talkers around them. I think the talkers do what they do for a couple of reasons. First, they believe that whatever they have to say is Vitally Important and Cannot Wait. Second, if what they have to say could wait, they don't realize how loudly they whisper or that speaking softly often is louder than they realize. Third, as they try to have their quiet conversations, regardless of the situation, they don't realize that they start to speak louder to talk over what's background noise to them.

Recently I was in a workshop and the people at the back table were talking about a point made by the presenter. The presenter was still presenting, of course, and she was speaking loudly so the back table started talking a little more loudly to hear themselves so the presenter started talking a bit more loudly, and so on. The back table was shushed by another table caught between the speaker and the back table. I've been in situations in which the loud talkers looked embarrassed or mortified and others in which the loud talkers looked annoyed they'd been shushed. This group seemed a bit embarrassed and got quiet so the speaker was able to modulate her own volume.

All in all, I know there is some power in the shush, even if fleeting, depending on the situation and those who are being reprimanded for being noisy--and their belief in their right to be noisy.

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