Ep 74 Conquering classroom management right from the start

Having a solid classroom management plan is ESSENTIAL for a successful year. No amount of curriculum planning will be effective if you have multiple students disrupting the learning. So now that you have a plan, how do you implement it? What are the possible things that could go wrong, and why do they happen? In Part 2 of this 2-part series, I dive into how to train your students to follow your plan, as well as how to deal with parents when their student misbehaves.

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Why is classroom management such a big deal? Have you ever seen a classroom where everyone sits silently and obediently? Have you seen a classroom where students are busy and actively learning? Have you seen one where students are screaming, running around, and the teacher can’t get them to settle down?

All of those are examples of good and bad classroom management. In our minds, we would love it if our students would just listen to us and do what we ask, but we also know that that’s a dream.

Or is it? Can we really expect that from students?

If you have the right classroom management plan and you implement it properly, then yes, you really can have it. You’ve obviously seen it in action, so it MUST be possible, right? But as a new teacher, it seems to be more difficult because classroom management is just ONE component that we have to think about while teaching. You’ve also got standards, checking for understanding, student engagement, assessments….you know what I mean.

Here’s the thing: if you get your classroom management plan down pat from the beginning, you actually spend LESS time worrying about it later on. Seriously, it just happens naturally. So here’s how to implement your plan correctly from the start.

Starting off the year right

The key to having a relatively smooth year in terms of classroom management is to set the right tone. You want a tone is warm, safe, and business-like. Students WANT to like their teachers, and part of liking you and feeling safe is knowing where the boundaries are. This is CRUCIAL because if your tone is off, you’ll have battles all year long. You can diminish the number of troublemakers by simply connecting with them the right way.

So right off the bat, students will be noticing different things: your appearance, body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Being business-like but friendly will put them at ease but also communicate that education happens here. Even if you have younger students that need more hand-holding, they need to understand that you’re not their parent and you won’t let them get away with everything.

There’s a balancing act that has to happen here – you can’t be too nice or too strict. Too nice, and your students will automatically think you’re a pushover. Sure, they’ll like you instantly. In fact, they’ll like you so much that they’ll show every facet of their personality without any regard to others. And when you try to discipline them, they won’t take you seriously or wonder why you’re being a jerk.

If you’re too STRICT, then students will fear you – but only for so long. For the students that tend to have behavior problems in the classroom, you’ve just presented a delicious challenge. They’ll dig in, and no amount of consequences will get them in line. Their parents may have already given up on them and are used to receiving messages and requests for conferences. And these students will behave just long enough to NOT be held in from recess or lunch, and will then proceed to be bonkers in your class.

One way to set a more positive tone is to NOT over the rules on the first day. While younger grades need to be explicitly taught the basics like how to line up, how to ask to go to the bathroom, how to raise their hand, where to hang their backpack, etc., you don’t need to go over a million rules the first day you meet them.

And especially for secondary, don’t start with rules. They JUST met you. Can you imagine going on a first date with someone and listing off a bunch of do’s and don’ts about yourself? The same goes for your students. These students have learned some basic behavior rules from elementary school, so assume they’ll automatically implement those. 

On the first day, take the time to let them get to know you, learn about the fun things you’ll be doing this year, and perhaps where everything is in your classroom. Then teach them policies and procedures throughout that first week, and allow them to practice and demonstrate it.

I’ve heard of teachers spending an hour on the first day discussing classroom rules and grading policies. Seriously? You’ve just COMPLETELY turned off your students. You are now like every other teacher that talks at them, and you’ll have to work harder to build relationships with them. If you’re in secondary, all of your students’ teachers are going to be suuuper boring that first week, so you should stand out by embedding the boring stuff around activities that are more engaging.

For me, in order to set the right tone, I plan engaging activities right off the bat that encourage students to work together. I love to do the activity Slip or Trip where students have to decide what happened to a man who is laying at the bottom of a staircase. This gets students excited, and so they naturally engage with each other. It also sets the tone that your classroom is going to be fun and exciting, and I can sneak in what they should do when they want to volunteer an answer. 

Teaching all of this

When you get your group of new students each year, you’re going to find a mishmash of different types of behaviors. Some teachers will be stricter than you and have lots of rules, while others are pretty relaxed and just go with the flow. You’ll hear, “But last year Mrs. So-and-so let us talk while we work” or “We just use a little hand signal for the bathroom and then we just go.” This is why it’s important to really teach your rules and consequences. 

As I mentioned before, it’s better to spread out your rules and expectations over the first week. Students can only remember so much in the beginning, especially if they’re in secondary since they have multiple sets of rules from multiple teachers!

Students will quickly learn your expectations and will be more than happy to meet those if they have a good relationship with you. When someone breaks a rule in the beginning, implement the first consequence without humiliating them. You could just pause and give them the teacher look. Later,  you can privately ask them if they knew why you had to stop and look at them. 

When you DO go over your rules and expectations, take the time to demonstrate and model what they should and shouldn’t do. Then have THEM model what they should do. Then have a student act out what they shouldn’t do, and have students explain what they did wrong. Finally, have students explain the consequences for those behaviors.

When it comes time to enforce it, don’t get emotional. You need to be very matter-of-fact. You don’t want the student to believe in any way that you don’t like them. Once they feel that the relationship is damaged, they’ll stop trying to please you or want to listen to you.

So if you have to relocate them, just calmly say, “I need you to go sit over there for now, ok? Just for today. Thanks.” If they ask why or stall, just say, “We’ll talk about it in a minute, but for now, I need you to sit there. If they STILL won’t do it, then you give them a choice. “You have two choices, you can move over there for today and we’ll have a brief conversation about it, or you can stay here and I can ask the assistant principal to take you while I call home” or something like that. You can add, “one of these choices involves just talking it out with me while the other involves more consequences. It’s your choice.”

Here’s the thing: you HAVE to follow through. Don’t be scared or flake out because you don’t want to call home or you don’t want to bother your assistant principal. That student needs to know that you mean business or they’ll NEVER, EVER follow your directions and will know that you make empty threats.

Where parents fit in

If you have a frequent flyer who can’t seem to follow the rules, chances are that their parent has been made aware of it in the past. Some parents will deal with the child after being contacted, while others will defend the child and insist that you got it wrong.

Whenever you want to contact a parent about a behavior issue, you have to stay fairly emotionless about it and just state the facts. It’s so easy to come off as not liking their kid, so you have to be careful how you explain the behaviors and what you did to try to fix the problem. 

Don’t come in with swords blazing and put the parent on the defense. In that situation, there’s no way you can win. They may even go straight to your administrator and complain about how you handled the situation. Even if they know it, nobody likes to hear that their child is a monster. So don’t communicate that you feel that way.

Whenever I have to email or call a parent about a behavior, I first explain what happened in class. I follow up with why their child is great and then explain that the student needs reinforcement from both school and at home so that they can be successful in class. Then I ask if they could help me out by talking to their student about what happened and how they can prevent it from happening in the future.

Here’s an example: “Today I had to ask Johnny to sit down five times. He was walking around, talking to people on his way to the trash can, and was, in general, a disruption and nuisance in class.” OR you could write, “Today Johnny had difficulty staying in his seat. While I realize that he needed to throw something away as well as get a tissue, he was talking to other students along the way, which made it very difficult for me to teach my lesson and for other students to focus. I’m hoping we can work together and talk to him about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior so that he can continue to be successful in my class.”

Also, you need to document every phone call and email exchange. This way if a parent says that you never told them about their child’s behavior, you have proof. And when you send that student to the counselor or administrator, you can show them what you’ve done to try to remedy the problem.

In teacher preparation programs, a lot of time is spent on rules, tokens, and consequences. These mainly work in the earlier grades, but in middle school, they develop apathy towards them or they eventually learn that they don’t need to comply unless you reward them. You end up teaching them to expect some sort of token in exchange for doing what they should be doing anyway.

Also, yelling is not discipline. Yelling is an attempt to instill fear in order to control a class. After a while, the students consider your yelling voice as your regular voice, so there’s not much left to do when you’re really serious. Also, humiliating or punishing students will backfire. It will be harder to repair that relationship later and they’ll stop trusting you. It may seem easier at first to punish a student for misbehaving, but when the threat and fear of punishment disappears, what’s left? Being proactive and patiently teaching a student how to behave will go much further and leave you with less stress. 

Finally, if a student is a repeat offender on a daily basis, you should wipe the slate clean each day. Give them a new opportunity to right the wrong and demonstrate that they’ve learned how they should behave. This can be really, really difficult, especially if they get on your nerves. Chances are that student already knows that you’re annoyed with them and they feel like they can’t win your trust again. So they just continue to act up and you end up having a miserable year.

If you take a listen to episode 62, I discuss how to repair the relationship with a student that chronically misbehaves. This would be worth listening to, especially when you have that one student that just doesn’t seem to get it!

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