Over the years, I’ve worked with numerous teachers who have struggled with classroom management. Almost every single time, the teachers who have asked me to observe are amazing educators who truly love their students – they just hit speed bumps in class they can’t get past. These hiccups cause teachers endless anxiety and real problems for their classrooms, but the struggle these teachers face is a complex one: how can a teacher be an authority figure, but not authoritative?
Cultivating discipline and order to ensure student learning without denying students their individuality and space to be kids is the core problem confronting teachers. While almost all teachers would like a constructivist classroom, it is much more difficult to do in practice than in theory. That said, whenever I observe teachers worried about their classroom management, I am always struck by how effective they are. The problem is they focus on the negatives instead of the positives. This focus on negativity is almost always compounded when these same teachers are told to visit a “strong” teacher’s classroom, indicating the other teacher is not “strong.” While it is always a great practice to observe one’s peers and learn from them, it can marginalize other individuals strengths and lead adoption of a teacher persona that is authentic.
Before going into another teacher’s classroom, it is always best to re-conceptualize your own classroom. To think about how you view students and your relationships with them; what your strengths are and how you can leverage them; what systems and procedures you are already doing and what could be done differently; and then thinking about the culture of particular classrooms and groups within the classroom. By starting inwards, your classroom management will be more authentic and effective.
Who are your students?
The first thing I always asks teachers is to stop and reflect on how they view their students. When teachers view students as poorly behaved, it creates an unhealthy culture in the classroom. It assumes the worst in students and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When I taught in Detroit, students often developed antagonistic relationships with teachers because they believed the teachers saw them as troublemakers and rule breakers. After teachers reinforced these ideas, those students developed their school identities as troublemakers.
That said, I do not mean to excuse student misbehavior. It’s a real thing, but problems worsen when instances of student misbehavior become permanent conceptions of students. At the heart of education is the belief that our students are capable of growth, and we must apply that same thinking to behavior. Once teachers take this frame, new ways to envision classroom culture emerge. Instead of thinking about lecturing to maintain student compliance, teachers start to think how can I build students’ capacity to work independently? What scaffolds do I need? Or, for the student who is constantly off task, what is causing this behavior? How do I intervene? Deconstructing moments of misbehavior, instead of pathologizing students promotes a growth mindset and gives students greater room to grow.
While this first step can often be the hardest, it usually provides the greatest return and new pathways for addressing behavioral issues in your class.
Building on Strengths
The second thing I always ask teachers what in your classroom has gone well? What happened? How did it happen? Focusing on teacher’s strengths often falls by the wayside when a teacher struggles with classroom management. But, as I said before, teachers are usually better than they think! For instance, some teachers find that certain topics really engage their students, so classroom management becomes less behavioral, and more content focused. Other teachers excel using certain activities, so classroom management becomes more about planning for rigorous learning activities than managing in class behavior.
Especially as a new teacher, it is critical to give yourself credit where credit is due and build upon those successes. As the culture in your classroom improves through building on these strengths, you will have more classroom cachet to try new things and develop yourself as a teacher. The possibilities become endless!!
In that same vein, it is important to be yourself in classroom management. Students respond to authenticity. Too often, teachers constructs walls to divide students from teachers in fear that getting too close will undercut their authority. This is a valid concern the student-teacher “friend” dynamic is not a great classroom, but the student-teacher in a supporting, authentic, and respectful relationship is. So how do you cultivate that dynamic in your classroom? Remember, digressions are sometimes ok; let students know things about your life philosophy, your interests, and why you teach. This insight goes a long way. When introducing new topics, strategies, or classroom dynamics explain to students why you believe it, get their thoughts, and discuss. You are a smart and great person, let your students know!
Systems and Procedures
After tackling these more abstract questions, the next question I pose to teachers are what procedures do you have installed in class? Do they work? Why or why not? For most new teachers, this is an untapped world for improving classroom culture. Although procedures can seem didactic and dry, they are essential. I know when I was a new teacher, I despised procedures because I believed my students should structure the class, and, if I had procedures, the endless monotony of a dull routine would crush their souls and learning. It only took two weeks to realize I was wrong. So I had to start asking myself, what are things that we consistently do? What procedures can I install to make them more efficient, so we can focus on content? For me, this meant thinking about the following procedures (find more procedures here):
These are just a few strategies, but they provide a structure that allows students to focus on the content of study because students already know how to approach it. This can eliminate student misbehavior that results from students not knowing how to handle their coursework, and it can provide structure that reinforces your professionalism and preparedness as an educator.
Although not specified in the bullet points, another important structure to think about in your classroom is how you structure learning activities, graphic organizers, and thinking routines. Having set practices for learning allows students to feel comfortable and access new knowledge in familiar ways. Students are inundated with information from different contents everyday. The overwhelming influx of information can weigh on students and lead to students feeling overwhelmed. Establishing ways of thinking in your class can mitigate this effect and improve classroom culture.
The final consideration I often pose to teachers is to think about what behaviors are disruptive to the classroom and what is their source? Oftentimes, administrators and teachers view classroom management with a broad lens. But most of the time it makes more sense to focus on what behaviors need to be addressed. For instance, behavioral problems may exist with just three or four students, but they greatly affect the rest of the class. The needed intervention, then, is a conversation with the students to understand the root of behavior and create systems that support those students to remain on task. Whereas if the problem is an entire class not focusing on their work during group work, teacher movement during group work, the structure of group work, or the type of content assigned in group work may need to change. All teachers, new and experienced, have behavioral problems they have to address, but new teachers often believe and are told classroom management means revamping their entire culture instead of targeted interventions, but the latter is significantly more effective.
Let's talk about it!
Yet, maybe even more important than these tips is for all teachers to remember that issues with classroom management are universal. Sharing stories, techniques, and solutions with others in your school and NTN@TC can be generative, help you feel part of a community, and build your teacher toolkit. If you want more personalized help, please feel free to reach out to us at NTN@TC, and we’ll get back to you right away! We look forward to hearing from you!