It started last year during a study period. The upcoming tests were serious business and my job was just to be a teacher in the room. Technically, it is the students’ time to use as they see fit. Disruptive behavior isn’t allowed, but if a student wants to quietly play a game on her phone instead of studying, it is discouraged but isn’t grounds for the usual punishments.

When I spot a student not studying or sleeping** I use subtle classroom management strategies #1 & #2: Proximity and the raised eyebrow. No punishment, only discouragement.

I saw him playing a game and walked over. He noticed me and put the game away with a quiet “sorry.” A couple minutes later I was circulating back around and I saw his phone game again. I gave him the eyebrow raise that said “Really? You’re going to keep playing that in front of me?” This time his “sorry” was more sheepish.

I turned back to monitor other students, but after taking a couple steps I paused and looked back. The game was out again. I offered my most incredulous look and he gave me his most sheepish “sorry.” Minutes later, it happened again.

His desk was near the back corner, standing behind him provided a great view of the rest of the class. I guessed that my proximity would keep him from his game. I would occasionally move around to check other parts of the room, but then go back to his corner for my good vantage point. After some minutes, I could see he was getting antsy. Eventually he couldn’t take it and said “Why? Why?”

Why was I standing over his shoulder and not someone else’s? I told him “Minecraft.” He thought that I was paying more attention to him than other students and I was, but he was also going to his game every single time my back was turned which seemed to warrant that extra attention.

After several more minutes I went back to my desk. Next time I looked in his direction I had a direct view of the screen he was “surreptitiously” holding under his desk. I cleared my throat and he looked up. “That’s why.” I reiterated.

Skip ahead to this week. The same student is involved in a messy situation and now he’s asking why (“Why? Why?” again) he is standing in my office when it was his friend who took the backpack and it wasn’t his phone that rang in class. He’s right about those things, but he’s still in some trouble.

Playing the situation back in my head, I realized something. I keep a close eye on him in class because he gets in trouble a lot. He gets in trouble a lot because I keep a close eye on him in class. Which came first? The causation seems to be circular: his behavior is causing me to watch him more, my watchful eye is noticing more of his misbehaviors. When I see him do something he shouldn’t I feel justified in monitoring him more closely than other students.

Conventional teacher wisdom tells me that when a student is a “troublemaker” that student is worth keeping an eye on a bit more than the others. But what would a skeptic say? Maybe my instinct on this is all wrong. Maybe he’s not the only one at fault here.

It’s a frequent topic among skeptics that people who are expecting to find something tend to find it. Whether it is looking for “artifacts” in NASA photos or trying to find EVP in an audio recording from a supposedly haunted house, people see things they want to see. While I do have concrete evidence on my side, that doesn’t mean I’m not also biased. As fair as I try to be with my students, I can’t deny that if I focus on a particular student I am bound to notice more misbehaviors regardless of whether or not that student is actually misbehaving more than others. I see what I’m looking for.

I’m reconsidering the situation with this student. Since last year, it’s been “I’m watching you, don’t try anything,” and I think he’s starting to feel discriminated against. I’m thinking he might be right.

He certainly wasn’t the only student who came to my office this week and he definitely did need to come talk to me after his actions in my class. Still, it’s not going to be a fair situation if I pay more attention to his behavior than other students’ in his class because it guarantees I’ll notice his misbehaviors more than those of his classmates.

My teacher’s brain tells me that a student who often disrupts class should stay on my radar, yet my skepticism tells me that I bias my data when I restrict my source. I don’t know what the best answer is, but I’m going to start aiming for the middle and seeing what happens. I’m not about to start ignoring him in class, but if I’m only focused on him I’m not noticing what the other 39 students are doing.


**Many of my students have school 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, and must come to school even when they’re very sick. If they want to sleep during my study time I’m going to allow it. (My normal classes do have a general “no sleeping” rule, this is an exception.)

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. March 31, 2015 at 9:15 pm —

    An argument could be made that increased future scrutiny is a part of the long-term consequences of (getting caught) misbehaving, but I think you’re right that this can lead to a kind of negative feedback loop. Once a student is branded a ‘troublemaker’–a reputation that is hard to shake after it’s been established–they are going to have very different and much more negative experiences in dealing with institutional authority than other students. It’s hard to imagine how those kinds of formative experiences wouldn’t have far-reaching consequences in life outside school as well.

    • April 2, 2015 at 1:42 am —

      I agree, we really can’t know the full extent of the effects we have on our students, especially into their futures. That is what inspired me in this case. I could be inadvertently exacerbating a real problem he already experiences, and I’ve been into skepticism long enough to do better than that. While he did trigger my watchful eye with his initial misbehaviours, my own selection bias distorted both of our views of the situation. And in the end, the only one in a position to really break this cycle is the teacher.

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