I wish that there was one secret trick to achieve a classroom culture that is respectful and conducive to learning.
This is an area where a lot of little things count. A teacher must employ a plethora of techniques consistently, and at the same time mix it up. Every part of your lessons and classroom procedures are opportunities to create a smoothly running class. For example, even the bathroom pass can become a problem or a non-issue depending on how you use it.
Following are 7 fundamental procedures that a successful teacher should include in their “tool belt” to create a calm and cohesive classroom environment.
1. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS with your students.
You cannot understand the importance of this until you’ve been in the classroom for awhile.
As a high school teacher in the Bronx, New York for 17 years I have had students tell me where to place certain body parts, if you get my drift. However, this has NEVER happened with a student in my class; it occurred in the hallway speaking to a student that I did not know and who did not know me.
My priority in the beginning of the school year and throughout is to get to know each and every student. It’s powerful and enlightening to find out which student has insomnia, is color blind, brings a younger sibling to school each morning, has a sick parent at home, has many siblings, is an only child, etc.
I had one student who would not stop talking and giggling in class and wanted the pass (“Miss, it’s an emergency!”) in order to walk the hall for 15 minutes looking for friends every day. As I got to know her better she confided in me that her parents were extremely strict; once she got home from school she could not go out with friends. As a result school was her entire social life.
I responded by having her to distribute papers to the class, so she had an opportunity to briefly talk to classmates. I also allowed her to take the pass most days with the understanding that she would be back in 5 minutes. Is this a perfect solution? No. You want perfection, become an accountant:)
You will not like all of your students; that’s impossible. But try your very best to understand and respect all of them. It’s amazing how many students initially give a negative vibe, only to become endearing — or at least tolerable — once you “get” them.
2. HAVE STUDENTS RUN THE CLASS
Whenever possible hand classroom procedures and discussion over to the students. This is a great way to establish buy-in. You may be amazed at what they accomplish.
I have a different student each week act as the do-now or warm-up teacher. After modeling for a week or two myself the student comes to the front of the room and “teaches” the warm-up. They practice public speaking and gain confidence. And the rest of the class responds well and is respectful of their classmate.
Students can learn to run discussions. Choose one student to start, then they call on another, who calls on another, and so on. I sometimes use a light ball and throw it to the first student, who tosses it to the next one to speak. This helps all students stay somewhat aware, just in case the ball is coming their way!
Any time you see an opportunity to hand over the mike to the students take advantage. You will all be better for it.
3. CREATE A SIGNAL FOR ATTENTION.
In my school, group work is mandatory every day unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. (I know, I know!) Nevertheless, any good high school class sometimes involves group work. How do you get students’ attention to stop their discussion and come back as a whole class?
You need a signal of some sort. This should fit your personality. I have a bell that I ring three times. One teacher has a screaming rubber chicken that students respond as a class by yelling “chicken” whenever she squeezes the thing:) Many teachers use clapping: you clap once, they clap once, you clap twice, they clap twice. Some use hand motions, two fingers up, and students respond by putting their fingers up when they notice. Any method is fine, except standing on top of your desk and yelling “I need everyone’s attention!” (I did do that once many years ago, not recommended)
4. ALWAYS ASK FIRST
Anytime there seems to be a breach in classroom procedures: talking, a student with their head down or walking around, ALWAYS ask them first for an explanation. Even if you know they’re breaking the rules for no good reason it gives them a chance to be heard first and they are less defensive. Also, sometimes there really is a good excuse.
Teens become defensive EXTREMELY easily. The more you can diffuse that with respectful conversation the better off everyone will be. Kill them with kindness!
Additionally, be sure to speak to the student privately one-on-one. Do not stop lecturing and yell, “Hey, Eddie stop talking, you’re being rude!” I have done this and it works less than half the time. The other half ends up with a back and forth: “Everyone’s talking, why are you picking on me?” “Eddie, I’m only addressing your behavior now; don’t worry about the others.” And on and on it will go. I promise, been there, done that.
5. BE YOURSELF – MOSTLY
Teenagers have keen b.s. radars. They can spot a phony a mile away. So don’t try to be what you’re not. If you’re not cool, that’s okay. They will like you anyway. Play up how uncool you are. “Fifty Cents, what costs fifty cents?” If you’re not funny don’t try to be. I love corny jokes. The students groan, but I keep telling them. Example:
Question: If you’re American when you go into the bathroom and you’re American when you come out of the bathroom what are you while you’re in the bathroom?
Answer: European (get it, Ur-a- pee-an?) Hahaha, that one gets me every time!
Now, here’s the thing: sometimes you have to fake it a bit. If you have a face that shows your emotions you need to fix that. Practice your expressionless face. And use it whenever necessary, which will be often. You don’t want the kids to pick up from your facial expression how you’re REALLY feeling when someone gives an awful answer, or is being obnoxious, or you’re just disliking the whole class at the moment.
6. MIX IT UP
While consistency is king, variety must play a part as well. Students respond well to structure and consistency, but can become “deaf” to the same responses after a while. I am one of five children and my mom was a yeller. That was her modus operandi. At a very young age we became immune to the sound of her yelling, barely even heard it any more. (Sorry, mom, if you read this!)
When I call the class back to attention with a prescribed signal and students don’t respond right away I will normally stand silently with my blank face and wait. This often works. However, I have been know to be “extra” with them: “IknowthatnobodyinthisroomwasraisedtoberudeandIwanttoknowrightnowwhoevertoldyouitwasok,Iknowyou’renotryingtoberudetomerightnow.” This must be articulated VERY quickly, no breaths taken, with hand on hips and chin out.
I, yes, I have stood on my desk like the picture a few times. It works, stops most in their tracks. You can’t do it regularly, that’s the secret. Have a list of tips and tricks and rotate them. And don’t fall off the desk!
I also have been known to growl. Other times I will whisper softly until they quiet down, curious to hear what I am saying. So have a few methods that you pull out once in a while to keep students from falling complacent.
And, yes, I have — once or twice — stood on top of my desk in order to gain attention.
ClassDojo is a FREE class management tool with lots of bells and whistles. You simply upload you class lists and the site creates cute avatars for each student. By clicking a + or – you can give students points or take points away. There is an app for your phone that you can open and use during class. There are many other features, such as parent invitations to join, so that they can monitor their child’s progress.
I have used this tool for a few years and tried different ways of utilizing it. On its face it can seem a bit cutesy and middle school-ish, but I assure you high schoolers, even seniors, respond to it.
I use it in the beginning of class. Students get 10 points a week, 5 for being on time each day and 5 for completing their warm-up in a timely manner. As class begins I give the entire class a point for being on time (you can do that in one click) and then just take away a point for the few latecomers. For the warm-up I hand my phone to a student to who walks around giving points to those who finish their beginning assignment, so I’m free to take attendance, help struggling students, etc. At the end of each week I record their Dojo grade as a separate grade to be averaged in with all the others.
ClassDojo is an extra tool in your belt to support your other classroom management strategies. Give it a try; you have nothing to lose!
Some final thoughts on classroom management:
- It will never, ever be perfect.
- Don’t take things personally. This can be really, really hard. But it truly never is a personal attack on you. Students bring all kinds of baggage with them to school and you will sometimes be the recipient of their inability to process it.
- So here’s a little trick. When you have a student that is blowing up your class, or that you’re afraid you will say something inappropriate to, send them on an errand. Keep a sealed envelope in your desk with a teacher’s name on it so that you are ready at all times. Ask the student to deliver the envelope to Mr. Jones in his classroom and wait for a response. Make it seem really important. You have worked out ahead of time with Mr. Jones this is a reciprocal technique to give each other a 10 minute reprieve from a student when necessary. So Mr. Jones knows that when a kid brings this envelope he will ask him to have a seat for a few minutes until he can respond. It works like a charm, but must be used sparingly or they’ll figure it out.
- Finally, once in a while turn a blind eye to an infraction. Make believe you didn’t see it. At the end of the day it’s about balance and picking your battles.
I hope some of these techniques have been useful. If you work in an urban school like I do classroom management will definitely be one of your biggest challenges. Don’t give up, just keep trying new things and you will prevail.
Please share your reactions and own “tools” so that we can all improve.
Don’t forget to enjoy your students, your job and your life!
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