I’ve been working with a few new teachers lately. I have, since I was around long enough to be considered a not-new teacher, loved working with new (especially prospective) teachers. They do, among a lot of other good things, keep me mindful of what it felt like to not-quite-yet have my own classroom, how these places I had been around most of my conscious life were suddenly terrifying unknowns.
My biggest worry then, and very often (bordering on absolutely always) the biggest worry now of teachers on the way in, is how in god’s name to manage a room full of kids.
Classroom Management seems to be the one thing every prospective teacher most wants to know about, and the one thing they don’t feel ever gets addressed enough during their preparation.
So, I get asked, kindof a lot, about how to manage a classroom.
I’ve tried a lot of things. I don’t get it right all the time now. I know I should have an attention-getter thing that I yell out and the students respond, but I always feel silly doing them. I know that, especially when my patience is low, I insist on quiet that I don’t really need or react with sharpness or loudness that is really unhelpful.
There are some strategies, some skills, some philosophies I’ve found to be helpful. I really wish I had a better answer, but I don’t. Like just about everything in teaching, it’s all a lot messier than anyone trying to sell you something will tell you.
Proximity: If you get a chance to watch a master teacher work, watch where they place themselves in the room through a whole class. Often times, walking and standing near a student or group will change the whole dynamics in how that group is working.
Volume: I had a coach who, two years ago, jotted a little note to me after an observation wondering why I was always talking so loud. There was no good reason, but I had fallen into the bad habit. I spent the next few days very conscious of the level of noise coming from me, and how often my loud would invite loud from everyone, and that it probably wasn’t great to always sound like I was shouting.
High and Clear Expectations: It seems obvious and essential, but consistent expectations can be very rarely practiced because patience is hard. Students are smart. When they know where your limits are, and if they are reasonable, they will adjust. If your limits are all over the place, or unspoken or unclear, students will fuck with them constantly, find the holes in the system, find the ways to get by with whatever.
Humor: Teaching doesn’t need to be about entertaining your students, but, man, if you can do it, it sure doesn’t hurt. I joke and tease with students constantly, make fun of myself and just about everything else in the world. It helps disarm some tough situations, and also helps those moments that I’m very serious or frustrated really stand out. You don’t need to be funny though. The main thing is to embrace who you are. Some teachers succeed wildly by showing how caring they are, how passionate they are about their subject, how serious they are about education… whatever your thing, it’s important to let yourself be yourself.
De-Escalation: This is probably the most important thing about teaching that I sucked at the longest. When students challenged me, I would instantly give them an ultimatum. Put that thing away or else… Be quiet or… I spent too many times standing in front of student with a hand out waiting for a cell phone that would never be handed over, too many times moved a student from slightly disrupting class to kicking them to the hallway, to following them down the hallway shouting “do not walk away from me” as if there was anything I could do to stop them.
I’ve gotten a lot better at not letting things get there. I’ve learned a lot of things from raising a kid about how to redirect angry or bored or frustrated energy. I’ve learned a lot from middle schoolers about when to pull back with my kid before a total meltdown, when to push, and when to back off.
Above all, I ask myself often, especially when my blood pressure is up and my patience is low, “is this the hill I want to die on today?” Sometimes, it is. Sometimes, the student simply has to put their phone away or simply has to get their work done or whatever. Most times, mostly most times, coaching and encouraging and giving space and time and presenting options instead of ultimatums does a better job than pushing a situations until it breaks wide open.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of taking two breaths before you address a student or a situation. It’s really, really hard to deescalate a situation if you’re coming at it really, really escalated.
Observation: One thing that newer teachers often struggle with is how to sit and have a solo conversation with a student without losing track of everything that’s happening in the classroom. When teachers talk about being “on” all day, this is what we mean… it’s not just answering questions and making decisions and telling students that it’s not a great idea to color their tongues with marker; even when I’m at my desk answering some emails during worktime, I’m half-hearing five conversations in the classroom at once. I’m aware of what three specific kids are doing at any given moment because they’ve shown me they need that. I’m watching students struggle and deciding how long to give them before I go check in.
The level of awareness required of a Middle School teacher is absurd. I don’t imagine that Elementary is any better. In my first few years, I found it frantic and exhausting. It got better.
Respect: Respect is the foundation of my classroom management. Sure, I’m only 14 years in, have only taught in four different schools and students in seven different grades, but, so far, it’s turned out to be pretty universally true that if you show students that you respect them, they will show you respect in kind.
An example: I catch a student on their phone for the third time in an hour. I could most definitely take the phone away, could probably lecture the student about how engaging in class is important to their future and all the things. Or, you know, I could ask the student what’s up. I will often ask something along the lines of, “is there something going on with your phone that’s important?” Sometimes, the answer is yes, and then I can usually figure out a good way with the student how to balance the phone stuff and the school stuff. Sometimes, the answer is no, and then the conversation can move to how I’ve seen it way too much that hour, and it needs to stay away. I try hard not to sound angry and annoyed. In the first case, I have shown the student that I value them as a person who can have real-person problems. In the second, I’ve shown them that I believe they are capable of regulating their behavior without being scolded for it.
There are other central beliefs that teachers base their classroom management on. A lot of them work just fine. For some, it is maintaining authority and control, which doesn’t mean the teacher isn’t necessarily showing care and concern. We’ve all got different personalities, and our styles match those personalities. I’ve seen a few teachers that base their management on fear. I wrote about that a lot in my book, but, spoilers, I do not endorse it.
Talk to people like they are people and usually they’ll act like people. That’s my best and worst advice for classroom management. Everything else, I swear, you kinda figure out as you go, and it’s not nearly so bad as you may be imagining it.