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!
All new teachers quickly learn there is not enough time to grade everything; however, even the most veteran teachers struggle to efficiently grade assignments and provide meaningful feedback. This problem leads to two different outcomes: 1) teachers minimize the role of grading in their classrooms 2) teachers sacrifice personal wellness to grade everything. In reality, teachers should straddle these two extremes, but how do teachers find that Goldilocks zone?
While there are strategies to more effectively grade, it is also helpful to think about why you are grading certain assignments and what feedback you want to give students. Your overall philosophy of grading, and the grading decisions made on different assignments should determine what strategies you use when, or if an assignment should be graded in its entirety. To help elaborate on what this looks like, I want to share my philosophy of grading and how that rationale informs my grading decisions on assignments.
I believe grading serves the purpose of informing students of their progress, what they can do to improve their work, and provides documentation to have discussions with students about their work and thinking.
For me, this means grading is not something that happens at the end of a week or the end of the unit, but continuously. Because of this, much of my assessment is informal and formative and happens in class to build towards larger assessments that I grade on my prep and at home. In other words, I use specific grading to improve student work, so that by the time I grade performance tasks or end of unit essays student work is improved and I can focus on the students’ ability to integrate different knowledge and skills.
Philosophy in Practice
If the knowledge is content based, I often find assessing group work throughout the class incredibly effective. By allowing students to work in groups, I foster a better classroom culture by cultivating student discussion. This constructivist design makes students synthesizers and creators of knowledge, while allowing me to be more precise in my feedback and interjections to address student struggles. The key with this kind of assessment is that I must know what I am looking for; otherwise, there is no assessment and no feedback can be given.
For instance, if we are studying cells in a Biology class, I want to hear students correctly use the disciplinary rhetoric regarding cell parts and processes. That becomes my checklist. Then, to check understanding at the individual level, I will have students answer a question explaining the cell parts and/or processes we are studying, or construct a concept map that illustrates students’ knowledge. Then, I focus on the correct use of those terms. Thus, the time I spend grading is reduced, but the quality of feedback is more precise and effective. (Another important note here, this philosophy of grading goes beyond a daily exit ticket. It is happening throughout the class and happens prior to the end of class, so there is enough time to review students’ work and provide feedback on their work before the end of class.)
The process slightly changes if my grading is for skills. It is easy for us to think of content in stark terms – students comprehend and can articulate the knowledge, or they cannot (albeit this is slightly oversimplified, though the premise holds true for grading). Skills, then, are more on a continuum. And, students often exist in different places on that continuum. Therefore, if I am working with students on a particular skill, I may be less inclined for group assessment. Instead, I may favor individual work, followed by peer review, and then individualized work again.
For example, if students are developing tools for using evidence to support an argument with the end goal of students creating an essay using fact-based evidence to support their claims, students and I must cultivate this skill over time. This means I need to think about specific things that I can grade and provide feedback on along the way prior to student’s completing the essay. To do this, I break my teaching and assessment into identifiable parts, which may look like the following: introducing evidence; explaining evidence; connecting evidence points in a paragraph; citing contradictory evidence; reconciling that evidence; drawing conclusions. Each assignment then on the way to the final essay should be graded on one or two of the following criteria with quick feedback.
I may then have students write one paragraph where they incorporate two pieces of evidence. As they are working, I look at their introduction of evidence and use, providing feedback. Then, I will take one or two student examples and explain the thinking behind what is strong and not so strong about student’s work. Then, as a class, we critique another example. After which students in pairs discuss each other’s responses and refine their answers. In effect, student work will have been graded three times before turning it in (improving the quality of work) with specific feedback. This does not mean students learn skills in one lesson. Often multiple attempts at particular skills and different examples of student work are needed to improve student learning and work.
Philosophy in Design
In short, my philosophy of grading promotes a feedback cycle for students and in class grading to be specific to lessen the length of time spent on grading while providing quicker feedback. For me, this philosophy provides a framework for constructing assessments:
Not mentioned to this point are larger assignments that force students to demonstrate their learning over a longer period of time. There is no doubt, as students complete unit projects or performance tasks, the grading burden increases, and, while some may argue that you should limit the grading of these major assignments, I believe it is important to grade those assignments in a longer extended way that builds on the previous knowledge established in the unit, so students get feedback on their ability to integrate those skills, not just their use in isolation. While it is time consuming, it makes sense to arrange your class so that grading does not consume hours on end every week, but every four to six weeks.
Grading is essential to classroom success, but grading effectively is incredibly difficult. To do so, you must define your philosophy of grading and work within that system to provide meaningful feedback to students. I have given you my philosophy and have tried to provide insight into how that philosophy manifests itself in the classroom as a starting point to contextualize your own. If you have more questions though, please feel free to comment or reach out to us to discuss in greater length finding a system for you!
Just do it.
You know you should. Restore. Recharge. Find your happy place.
But why is self-care so hard to do? When I started teaching I was adrenaline-charged and felt like I couldn’t stop. I dreaded falling behind, not being prepared, and I worried about not providing quality education. More than anything, I wanted to be a good teacher and make a difference. I loved my students and class time was the best part of teaching. But it was hard to draw boundaries at work—mostly because I always took it home with me. More and more, I stopped doing stuff that I knew was good for me, like long walks, getting enough sleep, eating healthy meals and connecting with supportive relationships.
Expectations of teachers are high. We feel it from all sides—teachers, parents and the standards we have to meet. Building self-care into your life to recharge may sound totally impractical, but if you pour your life into your job like I did, that story only ends one way: burnout. Before you realize it, you can find yourself questioning whether you’re in the right job or why you wanted to teach in the first place.
Burnout is a thing and so is teacher attrition. Nine and a half percent of teachers will leave their job before the end of the first year, and 40-50 percent are out of the profession within the first five years. There are other reasons, but life balance, and mental and emotional fatigue are leading factors in teachers leaving the profession.
You can Google self-care and teachers to find tips to best fit your vibe, but we’ve put together some ideas for taking better care of yourself:
1. First things first. How am I doing? For people in helping professions like teaching, awareness into your own personal well-being is critical. Ask yourself:
If not, choose one habit and tackle it—there’s only so much caffeine a person can drink! Try setting your phone for a regular bedtime reminder and morning wake-up. Decide to carry protein-based snacks (peanuts, almonds, etc.) with you when energy lags during the day, instead of relying on caffeine or sugar. Get in the habit of some kind of exercise to clear your head on a regular basis (long walks, running, rowing, yoga, etc.). As a teacher, you are often eligible for discounted gym and wellness memberships. Addressing just one of these parts of your life can really restore your sense of self, and make you feel more in control of things.
2. Reach out and build a network of support early on. Going at it alone makes you feel isolated and as if you just have to sink or swim. One reason teachers stick around in the profession is because they feel connected. Here’s a few ideas that make can prolong your teaching career:
Don’t wait for your principal or mentor teacher to make the first move! Take initiative to connect early on, so that there’s rapport between you and your school’s community before concerns arise. Talk with other teachers in your department and find out how they plan and effectively collaborate. Serve on a committee you care about. Need some extra hands in the classroom? Seek out a teacher’s aide, or involve parents/volunteers in the classroom. Make sure you take advantage of teacher training at school. Better yet, let NTN support you through classroom visits and new teacher workshops.
And don’t forget about outside of school. Are you in touch with family or friends who believe in you and support you? Make sure to get intentional about meeting up regularly with people who energize you and make you feel positive about you being you.
3. Recreation -- Play is completely underrated! Do you doodle? Have a dog to play with or just like skimming funny memes? A good belly-laugh releases a lot of tension and gets those feel-good endorphins going.
What really makes you feel rested? Is it time on your own, a great view, or do you really just need a 20-minute nap? Don’t let the weight of unfinished work prevent you from taking care of yourself--you’ll be more productive when you re-engage with work if you do it!
4.Reflect — Reflection takes a step back in order to take a step forward. Pausing to think about what’s working well in class and what needs adjusting is a great way to get perspective.
Try “Hots and “Nots.” Before you head home from school, sit down and write what was hot and what was not. What was your part in making the “hots” happen? Keep an encouragement log in a notebook. When you need it, remind yourself of the good stuff that goes on in class, no matter what is getting you down. Why did the “nots” happen? Is there any change you need to make for next time?
Are things really difficult? Finding it hard to get excited about your work, feeling super-negative or just exhausted? Take this short quiz to see if you’re showing signs of burnout. If you are, tell someone! Not just anyone, someone who can help, like a trusted friend, your teacher-mentor or a CPET coach!
When life’s demands are intense, we forget to care for ourselves and get the support we need. This blog is like the reminder on an airplane before you take; in the event of an emergency, secure your own oxygen mask before helping others; otherwise you won’t be able to. And, this analogy couldn’t be more apt for teachers! Through CPET, Teachers College champions early career teachers through the FREE New Teacher Network (NTN@TC) to connect you with the resources you need! Contact us to chat with a coach, attend a workshop, or to link up other new teachers online. We are here for you!