Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Top 5 Tricks for Successful Classroom Management

We all manage our classrooms differently because we are all different. Even all of the teachers in my English department (and there are only 6 of us!) manage our classes very differently. There's nothing wrong with that, unless your solution is to ignore the problem until it gets right in your face. That might be a classroom management issue.

In college we had to create these extensive classroom management plans. Looking back on that thing, it was pretty unrealistic. My classroom management plans have morphed quite a bit over the last three years. What I have right now works pretty well, though honestly it can depend on the group of kids you have. What I'd like to share today are my Top 5 Tricks for Successful Classroom Management. These are five parts of my classroom management plan that haven't changed because they all contribute to a well-run classroom. I'm not saying these are perfect or that they work in all situations. I'm just saying they've worked for mine and maybe they'll work for you too. :)

5. No empty threats. Follow through on everything. If you tell Stanley that if he gets out of his seat one more time that he will no longer be allowed to have a seat for the rest of the day, then by God, you take his seat away if he does it again. You can very quickly undermine yourself in the classroom by making empty threats. This also means that you can't make ridiculous threats you cannot keep, for two reasons. Reason 1: if you tell Stanley that you will hang him from the ceiling by his toes and hit him with a salami, you really aren't going to be able to follow through with that. That's an empty (albeit hilarious) threat. Reason 2: kids love a challenge. If you make an outlandish threat, kids will often test the water to see what you will go through with and what you won't. Conclusion: Make realistic threats and follow through with them.

4. Prioritize. Is it really worth your time to send a kid to the office because he's been throwing paper wads? Personally, I don't think so, but that is something you need to decide. Before the first day of school, figure out where the lines in the sand are. What kinds of things would a student have to do to get sent to the office, versus sent out into the hall for a "time out" if you will, versus a quiet reprimand in class? We are all different, we all tolerate behavior differently, and we all work in different schools with different policies. What might be "major" to one teacher may very well be a very minor thing to another. I'm pretty relaxed in my classroom. For me, it depends on how the behavior is impacting my classroom.

  • If the behavior is really only impacting that particular student (they forget their materials, they stare at the ceiling instead of participating, they fall asleep...) then I reprimand them in class (I will talk about how I do this later in the post) and we move on with life. 
  • If the behavior is having a negative effect on a small portion of the class (distracting a small group of students by talking, silly behavior, arguing...), that usually leads to the student being asked to step into the hallway. I remove the distraction and we just keep on going. After a little time I excuse myself to the hallway to speak with the student without making a show for the rest of the class. 
  • If the behavior disrupts the entire classroom (disrespectfully arguing with the teacher or students, wandering around and pestering others...) that is when I decide to send a student to the office.
Conclusion: Figure out where different types of behavior lie. What can you deal with in class, in the hallway, or in the office? Keep in mind there is a lot of gray area here, but this is just a guideline for dealing out discipline.

3. Do not make rash decisions out of anger. This never works for anyone. For example, nothing makes me angrier at my class than when a substitute covers my class and my students are awful for that substitute. I have good, well-managed classes, so it drives me crazy when they misbehave as soon as I walk out of the door. I used to do really petty things out of anger, like give extra homework assignments that I didn't count for points or I wouldn't allow them to talk that next day. This was not successful. So now, step #1 is to cool off. Most of the time we get our bad sub reports first thing in the morning when we walk into the classroom. Don't let it mess up your whole day. Nowadays, I don't even address the bad substitute note the day I get back. We just continue with our day. Then, after I've had time to cool off, step #2 is what my students so fondly call my Come to Jesus Meetings. I explain the information the substitute left for me and I give students the opportunity to defend themselves (because, sometimes there are subs who have really bad days and lose their tempers, and sometimes the students will tattle on themselves). Then we talk about what went wrong and I express my disappointment, not my anger. Since I generally have a good relationship with my students that D-word stings. Then comes step #3: the letter. The students usually then have to write a letter of apology explaining what went wrong and how they will better manage themselves in the future. This letter works like a charm primarily because the students who didn't do anything wrong get really frustrated with their peers and the class begins to manage itself while I'm away. They keep each other from doing stupid things so they don't have to write that letter again. Conclusion: When you are angry with your class, you need to cool down, talk it out with your students, and have an appropriate negative consequence for those actions.

2. When possible, do not make a scene. My #1 Go-To Classroom Management Tool is my pad of Post-It notes. This works beautifully for reprimanding individual students without making a scene. You may remember back in your methods classes in college they often talked about the power of "the look" and non-verbal actions. This is so, so true. I've got a nasty frosty stare that I can turn on a kid and they know I mean business. I'm sure any veteran teacher could tell you the same. We use a lot of non-verbal cues too - a shake of the head, a finger pointing in one direction or the other (not the middle one... that doesn't end well). I also use my pad of Post-Its. When a student is not on task or if they are starting to become a distraction, I just write a little note and stick it to their desk. It is important to note that class does not come to a grinding halt when I do this. We keep going. But that Post-It note is a warning, an acknowledgment that the current behavior isn't acceptable. Almost always, the Post-It note stops the behavior and I've nipped a problem in the bud without wasting time. Discipline without a scene is much more effective. When you make a scene or "make an example" of a student, you are not only embarrassing them (a MAJOR no-no in my book) but you are also creating bad blood. That kid will never want to listen to you ever again. Conclusion: Disciplinary action does not have to be a show for the other 25 students in the room. Disciplinary action should be swift, firm, and should not alter the course of the class.

1. Choice. I tell my students from Day 1 that they have a choice. They can choose to do their homework or not, they can choose to attend class or not, they can choose to behave well or not. They also know that their choices will have consequences, both positive and negative. The first day of school we talk a lot about choices and consequences. Near my classroom rules (by the way, I only have five) are lists of positive consequences (homework passes, free periods, drawing items from the grab bag) and negative consequences (letters of apology, parent conferences, visits to the office). It's a goal of mine for the students to see their choices in the classroom, so that they will hopefully be able to more clearly see their life choices. When they ask, "Do I have to do that?" (this, by the way, is an inevitable question), I just always say, "You have a choice." I try to make my classroom management style less about mandatory things and more about free will. I think this contributes to a more relaxed environment. Conclusion: Aim for less "must do" and more "can do." Let students know that you support good choices, but it is their choice nonetheless. That way, students take full responsibility for their actions. When they complain about a grade, you can very easily say, "Didn't you choose this grade?" or when they are angry about a reprimand, you can say, "You chose to behave that way."

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