It would happen every summer, just a few weeks before I’d head back to school: the recurring dream. I’d be in front of an out of control class, trying desperately to speak and no words would come out of my mouth. I’d wake up with an uncomfortable feeling that would stay with me all day.
It’s been a while since I had that dream, because after two decades of trial and error, I rarely have problems with classroom management. That’s not because I’m big and scary, or one of those teachers who never lets them see me smile until October. I think it’s because I do the following things that help me to (mostly) avoid any behaviour problems from cropping up in my room:
Make it a priority to build a rapport with your students. This is the single most important thing you can do to avoid management issues, because when your students have a good relationship with you, they are less likely to misbehave. Make it a priority to get to know your students, whether that be through a letter of introduction or some sort of back-to-school activity. Find out what they are interested in and ask them questions about their lives. I like to stand outside my door before class and not only greet the students, but also single out different ones each day to have a quick chat with. It doesn’t have to be long: a quick How was the soccer game last night? or Did you show your mom that great mark you got? does wonders to show you care about them. One of the best ways to build rapport, however, is to make sure they get to know you. Share a bit about your life and don’t edit out the bad stuff (well, within reason, of course). Let them see that you are an imperfect human, just like them.
Be yourself–we can’t all be Mr Keatings. As much as we’d like to think we are as charming, witty and inspirational as he is, most of us aren’t. In fact there are a few teachers at our school who, if they stood on a desk or asked the class to rip pages out of books, would have students rolling their eyes and running for cover. That’s because they don’t have the personality to do that. But they are excellent teachers that the students adore. They adore them because they have embraced who they are and use their strengths to teach a subject they love. Besides, variety is the spice of life and students need variety in their teachers too. So don’t look enviously down the hall at the teacher who has the students rolling in the aisles laughing if you aren’t a comedian yourself. Be the best you can be, and they will appreciate and respect you for who you are.
Relationships, as important as they are, are not everything. You also need to do some other things during the class (like cover the curriculum), and these are some things that work for me:
Use a hook to start the class. You can use a bell ringer, a writing prompt, a youtube clip, a discussion question –anything that will focus the lesson and get the students paying attention. I like to mix it up, too, so they don’t always know how things are going to start. What’s most important, though, is that they know that class will start on time with them paying attention and focused.
Tell them why the activity or lesson is relevant. I get so much more buy-in when I do this, because students can see why it might be important to learn whatever it is I want them to learn. And I’m not talking about grades and college admission here; I want students to see why what we are doing in the class can be applied to real life, how they might actually use it. So, if I start teaching persuasive writing by asking them if they would like to be able to win more arguments with their parents, or to be able to convince people to hire them, I will get far more attention than if I said I’m going to teach you persuasive writing techniques so you can write an essay.
Mix it up and include action breaks. Think about the last long meeting you had to go to. Were you fidgety and wishing you were somewhere else after ten minutes? Your students are no different. We all like variety and most find it hard to sit still for over an hour. When you plan your lessons, don’t always follow the same pattern of hook, instruction, seat work, wrap up. It’s good to have structure and consistency, but if it’s the same thing every day, boredom can set in. I also believe very much in getting students moving, not just to break things up, but to activate the kinesthetic learning style. This can be done as simply as having them do group work standing up or by giving them a two minute stretch break in the middle of class. Behaviour problems usually happen when kids are bored or tired of sitting. If you design a class that has variety and movement, you will get more focused, better behaved students. If you’d like ideas for how to get more action in your class, you can grab my freebie at my TpT store.
Be firm, fair and consistent. I know this is not new advice, but it’s ultra important. You aren’t your students’ friend and being a softy will not help them in the long run. Do what you say and say what you mean should be your mantra. However, don’t be afraid to engage in debate with your students and to concede if they present you with a good argument. I spend a lot of time and energy teaching my kids to communicate and to write and speak persuasively. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I didn’t let them practice those skills? Now, what I just wrote might seem contradictory, but it isn’t. It’s simple: don’t give in to whining or complaining, but be willing to change your mind if you are presented with a good, solid argument. There’s a big difference between you changing your mind about homework because a bunch of kids complained that they were tired of homework and changing the date of an assignment because the class presented you, respectfully, with logical evidence for why you should.
Always let the student save face. Despite your best efforts, you will have discipline issues. That’s an undeniable fact. But when you do, deal with them in a way that shows respect for the student, even if s/he isn’t showing respect for you. You have to model how to treat people respectfully, and making them look bad won’t do that. So, if you are talking to the class, and little Johnny isn’t paying attention or is talking to his neighbour, just keep on talking and add in a simple, isn’t that right, Johnny? Or do you agree, Johnny? and then keep right on talking. I also walk around the classroom as I talk and if someone isn’t paying attention, I can just stop by the desk and put my hand on his/her back or desk. Both of these methods make the student aware that you want his/her focus without drawing attention to the bad behaviour. And if you have to have a more serious discussion with a student, do it privately. Not only does the student save face, but the bravado often disappears without an audience.
I hope you’ve been able to pick up a few tips that will help you have a great year of teaching and learning in your classroom. If you have other tips that work for you, please share them in the comments. Happy back to school!
If you’d like some lessons that are sure to keep your students engaged and focused, check out my series of products that make connections to their lives. Click HERE. And, if you’d like to find out when my digital course on classroom management opens again, you can sign up to be notified here.