Some of you may have noticed that I am sharing part of a quote attributed to Socrates from 400 BC. I have seen it used as a starting point for many a classroom management seminar, with the speaker aiming to show that teachers have been dealing with naughty students for millennia. However, the contents of training workshops on classroom management can of course vary wildly: it’s such a broad area. In many ways ‘How to be a good classroom manager’ is the same as ‘How to be a good teacher.’ With this in mind, I’ll be splitting this post into a series of three blog posts, each looking at a different ingredient in the recipe for good classroom management.
Before beginning, let’s try to define our terms. The point of these posts is to provide practical advice on how to approach classroom management and by that I mean that students are engaged in their lessons and not exhibiting off-task or disruptive behaviour. The latter follows on from the former, of course. The posts are written with teens in mind: readers of this blog may include teachers from state and private schools as well as from private language academies, teachers who learned about classroom management as part of the syllabus on a teaching qualification, or teachers who gained a qualification in TEFL in an adult context and before they knew it had a classroom of unruly teenagers thrust in front of them. I believe the points dealt with here will be relevant to teachers in all of these contexts.
I will also point out that I have seen lots of excellent classroom managers with very different styles and to a certain degree it’s about finding what works for you. Nevertheless, this cannot descend into an exercise in fence-sitting and although these posts won’t constitute a definitive guide, I will be sticking my neck out on what I think works (feel free to disagree!), based on what I remember as a pupil (all teachers would do well to think back to this), what I learned as a teacher (in state, state-assisted and private secondary schools), what I’ve experienced as a teacher trainer and what I have read. Let’s get started on part 1!
Classroom management part 1: be the boss!
I entered into a lengthy discussion with a colleague over the use of the word ‘boss’ because of the unsavoury authoritarian connotations it might evoke, but I am going to persist with its use. By ‘boss’ I do not mean a confrontational dictator who inspires fear in their students, but rather a clear, assertive teacher who exudes a calm air of authority. This need not be at odds with some of the changes that education has seen, such as a move towards student-centred classrooms and co-operative learning and we’ll be considering these aspects in the second and third posts. The fact remains that the teacher is in charge. We can and should be friendly, but we are not the students’ friend as such. Let’s look at some practical guidelines.
Start as you mean to go on
The school year. Set out your expectations (which should be very high) at the start of the year and be consistent. It’s a simple and oft-repeated piece of advice but one that can get forgotten as things get busy. But if students really do get the impression that you say what you mean and you mean what you say, they will respect you. Students like consistent teachers because they provide security and they know where they stand. Conversely, students will immediately latch on to teachers who don’t stick to their guns and once you get this reputation, it’s hard to recover. Of course, this pointer is parenting advice as much as it’s teaching advice. I recall when I was in the park once and one of my son’s friends, Jaime, threw some sand. “Jaime, if you throw sand again, we’re going home,” warned his mum. Jaime throws sand again. “Jaime, I’m warning you, we’re going home.” Jaime throws sand again. “Jaime, next time we really are going home.” Repeat ad infinitum. Doh! Never make an empty threat.
The lesson. This isn’t mentioned as much as the above, but it’s key. When does the lesson start? When the teacher does the register or outlines the lesson objectives? It starts before students come in to the classroom. How do they come in? Like a proverbial herd of elephants? Do they continue in ‘herd-mode’ until the teacher calls for order? The tone for the lesson has already been set. We need to provide clear guidelines on how we want our students to enter the classroom and what they need to do once they are in there: we need a routine. Of course (and this is a general point) we would praise the students who are following our guidelines, before pulling up those who are not, but more on praise in the next installment. If the students have to be in the classroom before the teacher arrives, we need acknowledgement once we are at the door and not after: we don’t want to be dodging paper airplanes on our way to the front of the class. It has to do with how students think they can behave in our presence and that doesn’t only include when we’re ‘teaching’. If a teacher walks down a corridor, comes across two pupils fighting and steps around the fray (I’ve seen it happen), just think about what kind of signal we’re sending out!
A note on expectations and procedures (AKA ‘rules’)
We need to be clear and direct here and state in concrete terms. A rule like ‘Respect the teacher’ or ‘Respect your classmates’ isn’t much good without explanation as it could mean just about anything and is open to interpretation. Let’s start with a general concept and move to a specific expectation. The teacher can suggest ‘respecting your classmates’ to students and elicit concrete examples from them on what would or would not constitute following the rules (such as interrupting your classmate when they’re speaking – indeed, effective turn-taking is a key skill in the English class). This way we’re giving the students ownership of the rules, even if we’ve basically elicited what we wanted to hear and they’ve practiced their English while helping to come up with them.
In one of the schools I worked in, I was the tutor for a class of twenty-five 16 year-old boys. According to school policy I was responsible for their discipline and problems were to be reported to me. This of course removed authority from their other teachers and mine was reinforced. Obviously there are times when it is necessary to ask for support from your head-of-year / pastoral manager and a good behaviour management policy will include some kind of ladder approach (whereby sanctions get increasingly serious) which is transparent (so students, teachers and parents know exactly where they stand). However, it is still best for the classroom teacher to sort out problems on their own wherever possible. This will mean investing time, particularly at the start of the year, but boy, it is worth it in the long run. The majority of disruption in class is ‘low-level’ (such as students interrupting the teacher) and may exist for the simple reason that it can be fun for students to misbehave (think back to your time as a pupil). If we’re prepared to ‘invest’ our break times at the start of the year to deal with the students who won’t play ball, our teaching lives will be easier in the long run.
Set a good pace
Our classroom isn’t the army, but neither are gentle, meandering lessons going to do us any favours. Timing activities (dynamite in the classroom, anyone?) helps to keep students focused on the task in hand. Managing the pace of a lesson takes a bit of practice (we’ll need to attend to the needs of the students who find the material more difficult, but mixed-ability classes and differentiation is a topic for another day), but I’ve seen that brisk and purposeful lessons are the most effective when it comes to keeping students on task. Of course, if you’re preparing English language exams a sense of timing is vital for students: this could be getting a feel for what it’s like to compare pictures for a minute, or dividing up activities in a reading exam so students don’t dedicate half their time to reading one of half a dozen texts.
Shouting and sending students out
Both of these are overused. If we find ourselves shouting on a regular basis we should stop because it isn’t having an effect. I once knew a teacher who, when she wanted her students to believe she was very angry (good teachers are good actors in control of their emotions), would speak in a barely audible whisper. Students would strain to hear her voice, but were terrified at the same time! We’re not after maximum decibel-levels, rather variation. Similarly, I worked in a school where students were sent out left, right and centre. There were always a dozen or so students milling around the secondary corridors, all of whom had been sent out. This presents obvious problems, but to make matters worse, being sent out was in itself ‘the punishment’, that’s to say there was little further follow-up. As far as humanly possible, deal with the student yourself (see ‘take responsibility’) in the classroom.
And remember, it’s not personal
Just as we’ll want our students to test linguistic boundaries in their English lessons, we as teachers should remember that they’re teenagers and it’s therefore their job to test the boundaries of what’s acceptable behaviour. They don’t have a personal vendetta against us! At least most of them don’t. This can be easier said than done, but as far as possible, we want to keep thoughts about students’ misbehaviour within the school walls, rather than taking them home with us. Try to be philosophical and find some relaxation techniques to help you to unwind.
Wait, there’s more!
In this post we’ve largely been looking at discipline, but that’s only one piece in the puzzle of effective classroom management. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3!
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