I remember the first time I was placed in a classroom with students all on my own. I had been hired as a 7th grade teacher and it was the first day of school. A student came up and tried to give me a tissue box. My initial reaction was, “What sort of trick is this?” I nearly had a panic attack. What was I supposed to do with these tissues? Why was this child trying to pawn them off on me? (Turns out the kid was just trying to turn in the tissues his mom had sent in with him.) What this showed me almost immediately was that as much as my student-teaching experience prepared me for creating lessons plans, writing assessments, understanding curriculum, and other such teacher things, it did not really prepare me for how to manage my classroom. My cooperating teacher had done the work of setting the classroom expectations and management aspects. I had merely been there to maintain it. Now I had my own classroom and the question was how did I set this up for myself? And there was no easy fix, no book I could read or video I could watch. This was something I needed to learn by doing. I spent the next 18 years (I have been teaching for 18 years by the way) learning how to manage my classroom by actually having to manage my classroom. I have learned some things over the years and have a decent grasp on classroom management but I have also accepted that even on year 30 I will still be adjusting and learning how to best manage my classroom.
Thankfully this was not something reserved just for me, as I noticed when observing most new teachers. The aspect they struggle with more than anything else is the classroom management piece. Simple things like getting all students quiet before giving instruction, creating classroom expectations, and even the placement of the desks and chairs can get overlooked or not used to the best of their potential. The other thing I learned from these observations is that there is no one size fits all or universal way to manage a classroom. Some teachers use authority to manage their classroom while others use empathy. Neither one of these is right or wrong. They are just a different style of management. The key to being a great classroom manager is to find the style that works best with your personality and play to those strengths. Do not try to be something you are not. For instance, I am not what one would describe as touchy feely and if I tried to act like that with students, they would probably just think I am creepy. I have seen others who this style fits better with their personality, and use this technique to great success.
Because I am a bigger guy and can be seen as intimidating, I decided for some odd reason that my best strategy for classroom management would be to yell a lot. This worked sometimes but other times was completely ineffective to the situation. Not only that, it was exhausting and not very fun for me or the students. After two years I decided I didn’t want to spend the next 28 years of my life yelling at kids, so I sought to change the way I managed my classroom so that I would not be put in a situation where I would have to even raise my voice. Most of this came in the form of expectations. Students are very adept at adapting to whatever the teacher will allow in the classroom. If the teacher expects that students will be quiet when others are speaking, for the most part they will be quiet. It the teacher does not clearly set out that expectation, students will adapt to that and be more talkative no matter if they are good kids or not.
I am not suggesting that you become rigid and assign everyone to a seat and have rule after rule. What I’m suggesting is that students take a lot of cues from their teacher. If you make clear to them the expectations you have and reinforce these with reminders and suggestions, they will understand these expectations and be able to better adhere to them. For example, I was never one for assigned seats. I understood the benefit of doing this to better manage the classroom, but instead of assigned seats I allowed students to sit wherever they wanted under the expectation that they be productive and on task. If one student violated this expectation, I did not punish the entire class by assigning everyone to a different seat, I simply moved the one student who was causing the problem. Other students would see this and understand that if they wanted to have some say in where they sat they would have to pay attention and be on task. It became an expectation between me and my students.
As I began to get a better grasp on the management of my classroom, it allowed me more freedom to spread my wings and try different methods of teaching other than lining them up in rows of desks and having them read from a textbook for 45 minutes. I began to have students work in groups more often as I determined this was a valuable 21st century skill that all students should posses and I decided the best way to do this was to have students working on projects. This led to an entirely different set of challenges for managing my classroom. This project-based learning called for a very specific type of classroom management. Because often in PBL students are working independently of the teacher, my classroom management technique needed to provide students space. This meant both physical and mental space.
Physical space meant setting up the classroom so that students could get the most out of their class time. One way to assess this is to look at how your classroom is set up. Is it inviting to the sort of work you want to do with students? If not, what needs to change to make it easier for students to get their work done? For my PBL classroom there were essentially three ways students would be working. Students would be working in groups a lot and I had to have a configuration that allowed them to do this. If I had chairs with desks attached, were they easy to put into a circle so students could work together? Did I need to clear a space on the floor so that students could work on more hands-on aspects? Did I need to use another room or the hallway to give students the space to spread out in order to work effectively? In a nutshell, I needed to provide a space to allow students to work together as well as it being flexible for groups to adjust to whatever sort of work they were doing.
The second space students needed was a conference room set up. This involved all desks and chairs pointing to a specific spot in the room, usually toward the whiteboard or LCD projector, so that if I needed to give direct instruction, whether it be demonstrating a problem on the board, giving a lecture, or leading a discussion, students were in the proper configuration to hear the message I was delivering and maintain their focus. I would also need this configuration for when students were giving presentations from the PBL work, for it would allow the other students to sit as an audience.
The third configuration students would need in a PBL classroom was an individual office space. Did the students have a work space that allowed them to work independently? Although many times students would be collaborating with others, if they had a specific task or were conducting an individual project, they would need a space to call their own. Think of it like their own little cubicle.
All three of these configurations can be achieved in a single classroom. The configuration looked something like this in mine:
The individual desks bordered along the walls so that students had their own personal space to work if need be. The chairs while in conference room formation, pointed at the LCD screen for any teacher instruction, and there were three tables at the back of the room that students could use when they were collaborating. The chairs in conference room formation could easily be moved to the individual desks or the tables on a needed basis. Notice where the teacher desk is, in the middle of the classroom. As the project manager, I decided I wanted to be at the center of the action, observing the process of my students as they worked on their projects. What better way to do that than by being in the center of the room? Many teachers put their desks in the corner or in today’s technology age, near the computer jack. What this often does is cuts students off from approaching the teacher. It acts as a border between their space and the teacher’s space. Setting my desk in the middle of the room made for a more inviting environment where students had easy access to me and I to them.
The other type of space I needed to provide students was the mental space. What I mean by this is as the teacher I cannot be looking over their shoulder all the time. Although I would be trying to help and monitor progress, some students find this stifling to their process and creativity. I needed to back off and allow students the freedom to do their own thing. This seems scary to some teachers but if you have laid out the structure and expectations, students will be fine. I did schedule meetings/conferences with them from time to time to make sure they were on the right track but otherwise observed from afar unless I had students who asked for my help. In many ways this mental space was more valuable than the physical space as it set classroom expectations for how to work in the classroom. Students understood as long as they were doing what they were supposed to I would leave them alone.
I have seen behavior management systems such as PBIS and CHAMPS put into practice and understand the benefit such systems provide for a classroom in regard to consistency. But I also understand that teachers need to develop a classroom management system that allows them to be the teacher they are able to be and more importantly, allows the students to reach their potential. Through trial and error you must figure out what works best for you and what does not. My only suggestion is that you be open minded about new approaches. Just like we need to get the latest phone or the most recent computer to keep up with the changes in technology, we as teachers need to be willing to upgrade our teaching methods and classroom management skills to keep up with our students.
If you are interested in learning more about how I manage my classroom you can check out my new book Creating Life Long Learners: Using Project-Based Management to Teach 21st Century Skills.