Go into any school, walk down any hallway, and peer into the classrooms—you are sure to see at least a few of them: The Desk Warmers. Students curled up half awake or snoring on their desk doing nothing except warming desks.
Part of being a good teacher is developing your “teacher senses”. As a master teacher conducts a lesson, his or her teacher senses start to tingle as they scan the room for students who don’t understand or are tuning out and Bam! Pow! The master teacher jumps into action. Desk Warmers are a red alert need immediate attention from teachers. Exactly what needs to be done, however, is not immediately obvious. There are at least four different reasons why ordinary students turn into Desk Warmers.
1. Lack of Sleep: Yes, this obvious cause is why some students become Desk Warmer. Though, it too needs to be delved into. Why, exactly is the student so sleepy? Is there something going on at home that is keeping Johnny awake? Is the student spending too much time at night playing video games or texting? Or is the student overwhelmed with after school activities or work demands? Each one needs to be addressed differently.
2. Sickness: The rare instance that I let a Desk Warmer do their thing is if he or she is evidently sick and has no means to go home. Otherwise, off the nurse they go! A gentle, “I know you aren’t feeling good, but try your best to participate” usually works wonders for those who have minor ailments that do not need medical attention.
3. Boredom: There are two sub varieties of this category. One is boredom because the task is too easy and the other is boredom because of tedium or lack of activity. The latter is in epidemic proportions in secondary schools, but it is also the easiest to address and can even be prevented. By varying the activity every 15-20 minutes, teachers can ward off the Desk Warmers. Pausing in the middle of a lecture for students to turn and talk to a neighbor about a salient point, engaging in a class discussion, or building a model—anything that gets the students doing something to engage with the content is vital.
4. Withdrawal: This is by far the most complex and difficult to deal with and where even some of the most talented teachers give in. These students have turned into Desk Warmers because they have given up. These are usually found in upper middle school and high school, are struggling learners, and often behavior problems that teachers would rather just fall asleep instead of causing a disruption. If a student is resistant to the strategies above that address boredom, then that student has become withdrawn. Letting these Desk Warmers continue to warm their desk is the same as telling them that you have given up too and have lowered your expectations of them. Take the long view with these students—it took years of low test scores, disappointing grades, and lack of attention to get them to this point and it will take a long time to develop their confidence and academic skills. Don’t give up on them, they already gave up on themselves—they need you the most!
Desk Warmers are my biggest pet peeve as a teacher, I do not allow students to stay in my class just warming up their desks. As soon as I get that red alert, I take action. If multiple students start lowering in their seats with heavy eyelids I know that I need to change things up in the classroom and turn the activity into a group interaction or get them moving in some way. It is one student in particular, I need to talk to that student to see what is going on. It is important not to assume that the Desk Warmer is being defiant. I always ask the student if they are ok first in a sincere tone of voice. Often just having a person that is caring talk to them in enough. Having strong relationships with your students is important, but they do not develop overnight. If you ask a student “What is wrong?” they might not feel comfortable telling your, but the fact that you asked is helping to develop that relationship further. Don’t stop asking in the future just because they didn’t want to talk today---eventually they may feel comfortable enough and started to trust you enough to let you in.
So, the next time your teacher senses start tingling, before your jump into action (and possibly jump to conclusions) dig a little deeper so you can respond more effectively. That Desk Warmer in front of you might need your guidance to adjust their schedule to get more sleep, might need to go to the nurse, might need to get more involved, or might need to be more encouraged. In any case, the Desk Warmers need you.