Students are the best part of a teaching career. But sometimes they can also be the most challenging part.
As teachers prepare for a new school year, many of us are concerned about which students we’ll be teaching. Which ones will show up on that fateful first day of class? More importantly, will they be hard kids or easy kids? We’ve all been there, my friends.
When it comes to classroom management problems, teachers often rely on the most common solution: asking other teachers what they do. This is a great strategy, but it always needs to be followed with the question “Why do they do that?”
The Basics of Classroom Management
One of the keys to effective classroom management is developing rules, procedures, and consequences that match your beliefs. Too often teachers want a quick and easy fix. Do this and the problem is solved. Unfortunately, student behavior is never that simple.
As teachers, we must be thinkers and adhere to a strong set of beliefs in all classroom management. If our practices don’t match our beliefs, either our classroom management will be less effective or we will lack true commitment to our practices. Here are a couple of examples why I feel this is important.
Conviction is the Key
This first example comes from a great classroom management book by Richard L. Curwin, Allen N. Mendler, and Brian D. Mendler called Discipline with Dignity:
One must believe in what one does in order for any approach or technique to “work.” —Discipline with Dignity Click To Tweet
Joan Stevenson took a course in behavior modification and learned how to set up a contingency program in her class. Her principal supported the concept and even brought in a consultant who worked with five teachers to set up model programs. Unfortunately, Joan’s plan failed. No one bothered to tell her that because her value system was opposed to the philosophy of behavior modification, the plan would not work for her. Joan felt like a failure when the consultant told her that behavior modification was a “proven method” that worked if correctly applied. She hadn’t learned that one must believe in what one does in order for any approach or technique to “work.”
The second example is a personal one. In the mid-1980s, I received my first administrative assignment as an assistant principal at a junior high school scheduled to open that fall. One day during the summer the principal asked me to train the entire staff in what was then a very popular classroom management program.
I was quite familiar with the program, having been through some training in it. I agreed with many aspects of the program and had practiced them as a teacher. But there were also some components that I did not feel were effective in working with students, and I reflected overnight about the principal’s request. Besides my own conflicting personal issues with some parts of the program, I reflected on our newly formed faculty. Many of our teachers had transferred from other schools for the opening of this new school. Among those faculty members were three teachers that had been my three best teachers when I was a student in junior high school. I was now serving as their assistant principal. These were master teachers who I knew were very skilled in classroom management.
The following day, I met with the newly appointed principal to talk about my concerns. My question for him was “Who are we to tell these master teachers to change what has worked in classroom management for them?” Instead, I asked that I be allowed to train any of our new teachers that were interested but not make it a mandatory training or a school-wide model of classroom management. The principal understood the reasoning and agreed to modify our plan. (Want more on teacher ed? Try Secrets of Teacher Ed Part 1: A Game-Changing Tool)
It’s Time to Get Aligned
Because your personal beliefs about your classroom management system are so important, it’s vital for teachers—and especially new teachers—to align their own actions with their beliefs. As I have taught classroom management for the past 10+ years to preservice teachers, my emphasis has been on helping them identify what they believe is important in classroom management. Once they identify their priorities, they can create procedures, rules, and consequences that match those beliefs.It’s vital for teachers to align their actions with their beliefs on classroom management. Click To Tweet
A quick example of what this looks like might help clarify what I’m saying. In many states, especially in the southeast portion of the US, corporal punishment is still legal. Even though many teachers may use corporal punishment to “change” student behavior, I personally believe that it is an ineffective form of classroom management. If I were a teacher in one of these areas and approached a colleague with a classroom management problem, that teacher may say, “I’ve found paddling works. You should try it.” I am now faced with a dilemma. Do I do what my colleague suggests, or do I find other approaches that may better match my beliefs? Because paddling a student to change behavior certainly does not match my beliefs.
Another obstacle in classroom management is all the myths that surround the subject. I often started my student teaching course by sharing some of the most common myths about classroom management, purposely phrasing them to create some discomfort and questions in their minds. This is exactly why most of us hate True-False questions.5 Prolific Classroom Management Myths Teachers Still Believe Click To Tweet
More than anything, it’s important for new teachers to first be aware of the myths out there, second to question them, and third to decide how they feel about these ideas. This is the easiest way to make sure their classroom management policies align with their beliefs. To show you what I mean, here are five myths that have been most relevant to my student teachers:
Myth 1: Good instruction eliminates discipline problems.
The key word here is “eliminates.” Most of my students feel that good instruction is important to effective classroom management, but a strong, well-taught lesson plan does not necessarily eliminate all misbehavior.
Many years ago, as I went through my teacher preparation program, this was the only idea shared with us regarding classroom management. It was reiterated to us that if we had good lesson plans we didn’t have to worry about students misbehaving. A strong lesson plan keeps all students so highly engaged that they wouldn’t even think about acting up.
If it had only been that easy! Most of us that have taught recognize that an effectively taught lesson does reduce discipline problems but doesn’t eliminate all of them.
Myth 2: Never smile until Christmas.
When I share this belief, I always see many smiles on the faces of my student teachers. They always unanimously claim that they don’t believe this is important in effective classroom management. No one could possibly believe this principle, right?
I then share with them that each fall as our student teachers and interns return to campus for the first couple weeks of school, I always have several who report that their mentor, cooperating teacher, or a veteran teacher across the hall has shared this counsel on how to be successful as a teacher: “Never smile until Christmas.” As we discuss this, many of them realize that they do have a similar belief in their belief systems already: it is easier to relax your expectations later in the school year than it is to start the school year very casual and then tighten your expectations up later. For most of us, this is a firmly held belief, and from this comes the “never smile until Christmas” counsel.
To me, one of the greatest rewards of teaching is the personal joy that comes through student teacher relationships and having fun during the learning process. I could never accept this counsel as part of my belief system since it just wouldn’t work for me. I don’t feel it creates the learning environment that helps students succeed. This myth is a prime example of how a new teacher may accept recommended practices that conflict with their own beliefs of how learning can best take place.
Myth 3: The best way to solve discipline problems is to make the punishments stiffer.
Most student teachers quickly disagree with this belief. They then start to experience some doubt as I share that the laws established in our country and state are based on this belief. DUI penalties are more severe than speeding penalties. Penalties for murder are more severe than those for theft. The whole concept of capital punishment is based on this belief.
Some students counter that although this may work for society, it does not work in schools. I share with them that many practices in school are based on this even though most teachers say they don’t believe that stiffer punishments solve discipline problems. Let’s look at some examples.
One of the most commonly accepted practices is the docking of points for late assignments: 5% for 1 day late, 10% for 2 days and so on. Isn’t this an attempt by a teacher to increase the punishment? Teachers claim that stiffer punishments aren’t the best way to solve problems, but the practices they adopt are often based on that belief. So teachers need to either change their beliefs or live in a state of disharmony where their beliefs and practices don’t match.
Another common example is the recent attendance issues policies. Students can miss a certain number of class periods in the term and still earn an A grade. Many schools have chosen to “solve” this problem by allowing teachers to give a NC (no credit) grade to students who miss a certain number of days. Again, this practice conflicts with most educators’ beliefs.
After watching many great teachers over the years, my own belief system is that offering something meaningful during the class period is the best way to get students to attend. Soon they’ll realize that they can’t miss class because they know it will affect their understanding of the material. All of us have had classes that we knew we could miss without really missing anything. The classes that are really motivating to attend are the ones that don’t count participation points or days absent; they’re the ones we simply knew that we needed to be there to succeed.Best attendance policy? Offer something meaningful during the class period. The students will come. Click To Tweet
Myth 4: Your current practices regarding classroom management and discipline are mostly a reflection of your former teachers.
This statement usually draws mixed acceptance with many student teachers agreeing and others disagreeing. As the discussion proceeds, we try to identify what factors can impact our classroom management beliefs and practices. Some other factors include how you parent, how you were parented, books or classes on the topic, school rules and procedures, fellow teaching colleagues, and societal expectations.
Most students readily respond to the prompts, “When I teach I want to _____ like Mr(s.) ______ did when I was a student” or “When I teach I will never ______ like Mr(s). ______ did when I was a student.” These ideas form a major foundation of how a new teacher approaches classroom management.
These foundational ideas are then refined as new teachers reflect on what other teachers do and what they want to do. But be cautious! When you see a teacher use a classroom management strategy or procedure, ask yourself, “Does this match my beliefs?” If it does, then start implementing it. If it doesn’t, either reevaluate your beliefs or find another approach.Classroom management practices that conflict with your belief system just won’t work for you! Click To Tweet
Myth 5: 90% of classroom management occurs before a student ever acts out.
On this issue, my students have started to reevaluate some of their beliefs but feel that prevention is much more important than reaction in effective classroom management. This is the belief that has the most support in the literature.
Harry Wong states, “The effective teacher MANAGES a classroom. The ineffective teacher DISCIPLINES a classroom.” This emphasizes the proactive part of classroom management as compared to the reactive part.
Rick Smith writes, “You want to focus on prevention strategies and ways that teachers make classrooms run smoothly before there’s even a problem.”
In the book Educator’s Guide to Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems by Mark Boynton and Christine Boynton, they identify four crucial components of effective classroom management and have assigned percentages to each of these components. Their final component is given 10% of the total and deals with solving discipline problems. The other 90% is focused on proactive components, including student-teacher relationships, clear expectations (rules and procedures), and monitoring.
Final thoughts: Do what’s right by you
I think one of the most important steps for a teacher when reflecting on how they plan to manage a class is to identify what he or she believes about classroom management and student behavior. With this as a basis, rules, procedures, and consequences can be created that are based on these beliefs rather than another teacher’s philosophy.
A very simple example of this would be determining the procedure you will use to regain students’ attention. Many authors cite this as the most important procedure a teacher must determine and teach to students. There are dozens of strategies for this, everything from waiting for the students to quiet down or ringing a chime to get their attention. Each of these work for various teachers. The procedure I once used in class was the five-finger countdown.
My belief behind this was that I respected my students. I don’t expect them to stop mid-thought or mid-word when I ask them to return their attention to me. Many teachers direct students to talk to a partner and then at a certain time give the direction, “Everyone stop and listen to me.” I’ve always felt that this practice does not respect the student because it’s expecting them to stop instantly. When I tell students to talk in groups, I normally cue them when they have 30 or 45 seconds left so they know they need to wrap up. The final five-second countdown then allows students to finish their thoughts.
There is a belief connected to every procedure. For an effective teacher, each rule that is created, each procedure that is established, and each approach to deal with a management issue is based upon a firmly held belief by that teacher. When a teacher can explain the “why” behind rules and consequences, that teacher is well on their way to managing a classroom well.
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Discipline with Dignity: New Challenges, New Solutions. 3rd edition. Richard L. Curwin, Allen N. Mendler, and Brian D. Mendler.