I have been asked to support a first year high school English teacher who is struggling with classroom management. The students are prone to outbursts, inappropriate comments and general off task behavior. From my own classroom experience, I know rules, expectations, and procedures need to be created and put into place from day one, but this has not happened and she is trying to get through the rest of the year with some control. My background is in elementary education, but these strategies do not necessarily work with high schools students. Can you give me some ideas on how to support her and suggestions of strategies to try with the students?
Classroom Management Help
Dear Classroom Management Help,
This letter hit home as I remembered my struggles with classroom management in the earliest years of my teaching career. I remember being completely blindsided by the behaviors of my students. There was the student who ducktaped himself to a chair before I had developed “eyes in the back of my head.” There was the class that almost seemed to “run as a pack” and completely obliterated any presence I had. There were the students that made habits out of inappropriate behaviors because I couldn’t get ahead of them. Yes, I undoubtedly had work to do and some tough lessons to learn.
I think there are two approaches for thinking about classroom management: what we address directly and what we must take care of indirectly. I remember how my brain felt in those early years of teaching, the years I most struggle with classroom management. It seemed fuzzy all the time because I was overloaded with curriculum and planning and learning the culture and assessments and all the school procedures that it was tough to also be present enough in class to handle the management issues head-on. That’s why I think this is a two-pronged approach: specific management issues and creating brain space in the background.
When You’re Directly Addressing Classroom Management
- It’s okay to say “no” and mean it. Don’t worry. Saying “no” doesn’t mean the students won’t like you. I remember wanting so desperately for the students to enjoy being in class, that I was afraid to bring in anything that would seem negative. However, saying “no” isn’t negative, it’s respectful and helps establish boundaries. If this is still tough to stomach ask yourself: do you want your students to like you or respect you for having helped them learn?
- Follow through. Say what you mean and mean what you say. This was another tough one for me to learn. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to say things like, “The next time I see the phone out, I’ll take it away.” But I would keep saying that three or four times before actually taking the darn thing away. Not only did it waste time and encourage bad habits, but I also undermined myself. Each time I put off actually following through I was essentially telling my students they wouldn’t really need to listen. Unfortunately, this can translate to purposeful learning as well.
- Praise the good and ignore the bad. (As much as ignoring the bad is possible.) Once you’re able to say no and follow through, you’re ready to publically thank students for their positive behavior and try to ignore the negative. When you can do this, it creates an environment of positivity you were hoping for when you couldn’t say no.
- Tomorrow isn’t too late to start a routine. It doesn’t have to be a new year, semester, or week. All you need to get started with new routines is a new day and a commitment on your part to stick to your routines. There’s nothing wrong with introducing new routines to students (especially high schoolers) mid-swing as long as you are clear and as long as the routines are fair. Try to stay away from elaborate systems, but instead opt for a few clear teaching moves the kids (and you) can always count on.
- Host a “start over.” I’ve actually had a New Year’s celebration in the middle of the semester before when I felt like we need a reboot right then and there. It’s a light, but clear way to let everyone know we get a reboot with enough accountability to recognize what has to change.
When You’re Indirectly Addressing Classroom Management
- Develop a presence. This is easier said than done and something that develops over time. You can’t just say, “today I will have a presence!” But you can work towards it. Remember that you are the teacher. Although it’s a shared learning space, you’re the lead learner and your most important job is protecting that space by being sure of who you are, what the learning should look like today and how you’re going to get there. This is about having purpose every day. It’s like yoga: set an intention and pursue it!
- Spend more time getting clear on the lesson so there’s more brain space to pay attention to the classroom. I know this may sound either counter-intuitive or completely obvious. Either way, it’s true. The clearer you are on the lesson, on what the purposeful learning looks like for the day, the more presence you’ll have, the more you’ll be able to react in constructive ways to the direct management issues.
- Lean in. This may seem risky, but once you’ve practiced some of those direct strategies and you’re making a little headway in establishing strong routines, you’ll be ready to give this a try. Here’s the principle: whatever the management issue is, find a way to help them do more of it in constructive ways. If they’re talking, give them more time to talk by developing productive group work throughout the lesson. If they keep having their cell phones out, find a way to incorporate them productively into the lesson.
As with everything in teaching, there aren’t easy answers or quick fixes. But there are always first steps. To, you, the mentor: thank you for supporting this new teacher. And, new teacher, you’ll find strength, not weakness, in asking for help.