Don’t let them see you smile until Thanksgiving! How many of you got that advice when you started teaching? And how many of you thought it didn’t sound quite right? I certainly didn’t think it seemed like a good way to build relationships, but I also didn’t want my classes to be out of control. So, why do people say this? Does good classroom management mean we have to be strict?
What does “strict” even mean?
If you’re like me, when you hear the word strict, you picture someone with a stern looking face who wants a completely silent class that has little room for fun.
The word does have a certain connotation, right? The Cambridge Dictionary supports that as it states that strict means
“strongly limiting someone’s freedom to behave as they wish, or likely to severely punish someone if they do not obey.” That certainly doesn’t sound very fun for anyone – teacher or students.
I don’t think the traditional idea of “strict” is what we need for good classroom management. Instead, it’s more important that we follow the three C’s: Clarity, consequences, and consistency because that’s what leads to both a well managed class and strong relationships with students.
We need to make our expectations clear. That means that we explain and model what we want. Let’s take group work, for example. I always get some volunteers to help me model what a good discussion looks like. Then, we discuss the pros and cons of group work. I ask the students for suggestions for how we can make it work better, and then I tell them what my expectations are. One thing I make clear is that it’s ok to chat off topic – as long as their work is done. If they work to complete their assigned task, of course they can do something else (without distracting others).
I also build “clarity” by being pretty active when students are doing group work. If they are off task, I’ll remind them (nicely…with a smile…) that they have work to do and can continue their chat once it’s done. If I see some not participating, I might say, Hey, Jed, I’m sure you have some thoughts on the matter. What would you add? OR What is it we’re supposed to be doing, people? What do you need to do to get back on track?
What if you have a student on a cell phone or is distracted in another way? First of all, I’m a big proponent of creating a technology code of conduct with students. That way, they get a voice in rules for cell phone use in your classroom. If you’ve done a code of conduct, you can remind the student of what the class decided – again in a conversational rather than confrontational way: Hey there, Steph! Take a look at that anchor chart up here.
The anchor chart will have the “rules” the class decided on, and often the distracted student will say, Sorry! Forgot! or something like that. Sometimes they will roll their eyes and mutter under their breath too, but at least you’ve made your expectations clear without having to be too cranky.
All the clarity in the world won’t matter if the students think you won’t hold them to your expectations. And consequences doesn’t have to equal punishment, either. What it does mean as that you do as you say. Let’s stick with the group work scenario. If group A is off task, and you’ve already warned them, what will you do next? Ignore them because you don’t want to be a nag? Or remind them once again, saying if they don’t get to work, you’ll send them back to their desks to work on the task on their own?
I know the temptation to do the former is great, but in all seriousness, the students will respect you more if you do the latter – especially if you use a tone that isn’t “nagging”: hey, come on people! Let’s stop chatting and get this done. If not, you’ll have to do this on your own. Fair? ( you have to imagine me saying this with a cajoling tone, not a growly one 😉).
There are some groups that won’t comply, but this approach worked for me 90% of the time. It’s similar with the cell phone use. Most will put the phone away with a reminder, but if they don’t you have to follow through. I usually use a three strikes and the phone goes in my desk (again, part of the code of conduct process), and I had to do the hard thing and stand by it, even if there was a “fight.” However, I can count on one hand the number of times it got that far.
And please know that this is not just made up fluff for my blog. I had very few issues with cell phones in my class because I followed my Three C’s.
This June, I had a student come to me after class to thank me for the semester. She said, “you were the perfect mix of strict and fun. We knew we had to do our work, but you let us have fun too. Some teachers are either too strict or to slack, so I really enjoyed that.”
I know most students won’t speak up and say these things, but I was so glad that this one did, as it underlined the fact that I was on the right track with finding that balance.
If you want students to respect your rules and expectations (and you) you need to uphold them consistently and apply any necessary consequences consistently too.
With our group work scenario – if one day you hold them to task and another you don’t, they will never be sure which version of you is showing up and will push the envelop to find out what they can get away with. That is not to say that we can’t have off days. But you know what? If you are honest with your students and say, I’m not having a great day, people. Please do your best for me! usually they will. Once you’ve established your relationships and your expectations, students tend to respect that from you.
It’s also SUPER important that you apply consequences consistently with all students. You will have some who annoy the heck out of you and so your patience will be in short supply. There are students who are so sweet and kind that you may want to overlook transgressions. However, that is the kiss of death for classroom management. Your students are watching you, and if you show any kind of favoritism – even unintentionally – they will not be happy.
But, if they see clear expectations followed by fairly and consistently applied consequences, they will be on your side in the long run, even if they are not happy with you in the moment. It’s so much like parenting, isn’t it?
Engagement v Entertainment
I’ve written about this before (read the details here), but I’m going to summarize again here, as one of the biggest keys to managing a class without being too strict is creating an engaging environment for kids to learn in.
There’s a certain mix of engaging, entertaining, and educating that produces quality learning. And when you get that mix right, that’s when the magic happens in your classroom.
And that magic starts with engagement, with students who are engaged in and engaged with their learning (note those prepositions). They are paying attention to something (you, a classmate, a book, a problem, etc.). They are asking questions that show they are interested or curious. They are collaborating with others or are intently working on their own.
To be engaged, your students need to be actively involved in a meaningful task that involves critical thinking, rather than just hunting for facts or passively consuming information. They are not feeling bored or frustrated because both of these things quickly kill engagement – and lead to a lot of distracted and distracting behavior.