When I first started teaching, I was passionate and loved my subject area, but I was clueless when it came to classroom management. My teacher preparation program gave me no specific strategies, so I went into the classroom thinking that if I had a well-planned lesson, classroom management would take care of itself.
I, like many teachers, learned about classroom management the hard way, through trial and error. Now, after ten years in the classroom and five years coaching teachers, I want to share three things I wish I had known.
1. Teach Time-Saving Routines and Procedures
One morning during my first year of teaching, I was entering attendance at my desk. When I looked up, every student in my class had rotated their desks so they were all facing the wall. They continued working as if nothing had happened. It was bizarre and frustrating; if they were capable of doing this so efficiently, why did it take an eternity to get into reading groups or lined up for lunch? I didn’t think I needed to teach middle-schoolers how to enter a classroom — they’ve been doing this for years! It turns out I was wrong.
Since then, I’ve learned what classroom management experts like Fred Jones know: “go slow to go fast.” Veteran teachers spend the first two weeks of the year teaching routines and procedures, so the rest of the year runs smoothly. They teach routines like any other lesson, with modeling, guided practice, and independent application.
I also learned that successful teachers have students “do it again” to get routines down, making a game of how fast they can get into peer editing groups, or pass papers up the row. Learn more about this from coach Doug Lemov. Never assume students know how to do something you haven’t taught them, no matter how small.
2. Balance Rules with Relationships
When I first started teaching, I tried to be the “cool teacher.” I thought being nice would make students like me, which would lead them to doing what I asked. Wrong again. Being a friend resulted in power struggles and hurt feelings.
In my work as a coach, I learned the Behavior Management Cycle (developed by Lee Canter), which included giving explicit directions, narrating or noticing students following the directions, and taking corrective action from a hierarchy of consequences when students misbehaved. While these steps were important, some teachers struggled because they hadn’t balanced clear rules with showing they cared for students. I helped them develop a “No-Nonsense Nurturer” persona by being “no nonsense” in front of the class, and nurturing one-on-one. I helped them realize they could hold students accountable for doing work, but also reach out to them when they were having a bad day. When they gave a kid a consequence, I made sure they greeted them the next day with a smile and a “glad to have you back.”
3. Plan to Maximize Student Thinking Time
In my teacher preparation program, a friend presented a 45-minute lesson where she spoke for a total of four minutes. The students spent the period doing carefully designed hands-on activities, building their own understanding, and then sharing what they had discovered. At the time, I felt her lesson was a cop out. “Gee, here I had to rehearse my half-hour presentation, and you just had the students do all the work.” She replied, “Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” I was skeptical. I thought good teaching couldn’t be that “easy.”
With time, I realized she was right. My 10-minute mini-lessons were becoming 30-minute maxi-lessons, leaving little time for students to apply their learning. I also realized that subconsciously, I feared giving up control by “turning it over” to them. To fix this, I used Doug Lemov’s technique, Double Plan, where you make a lesson plan in two columns — one for what I would do and one for what the students would do. I substituted the time I spent explaining what a text meant, with them reading it and debating the meaning. I also learned not to “turn it over” to students without making clear expectations for voice level, who they’d work with, and the assignment. Behavior actually improved because they were no longer expected to sit passively, they were actively learning.
I hope that following these three suggestions will save you years of learning the hard way.
What are your hard-earned classroom management lessons? Comment below!
Ryan McCarty is a coach with Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization that helps school leaders support teaching that is grounded in standards, data, and the best practices of schools across the country. He partners with schools in Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was a literacy coordinator, instructional coach, and teacher in Chicago, IL. All views are his own. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanP_McCarty.