As a teacher, classroom management often takes a backseat to instruction and activities – as it should. The purpose of classes is for students to learn. However, I would argue that effective classroom management is not a second-fiddle, but rather a foundation for learning. Students in well-managed classes often report more positive feelings toward the class, the teacher, and their fellow students. These positive feelings of comfort and safety translate into a productive learning environment. Effective classroom management is a prerequisite to effective learning.
My classroom management is far from perfect. I could stand to apply more of these tips in my own class. These suggestions stem from both my experience and my reading on the subject. I hope they help you promote peace and cooperation in your classes.
1 – Learn students’ names.
Learning my students’ name took substantial effort upfront. I used a flashcard method to deliberately practice their names. But the return on investment for classroom management and rapport-building is incredible,
I like to imagine my mischievous teenage self back in high school. I was a notorious chatterbox and frequently found myself off-task. Most teachers learned my name, but I imagine how I’d feel if they didn’t.
The teacher points at me. “Hey, you! Excuse me? Can you please be quiet and listen?”
Would it work? Maybe. For a minute. But the impersonal nature of the request often allowed easy exit from my ears. As a result, my side conversations resumed as the teacher lost points in my eyes.
Fast-forward ten years. I’m addressing the class with brief activity instructions and I notice two students looking down, whispering, tinkering with teenage bric-a-brac.
They look up immediately with a slightly embarrassed (but not resentful) expression.
And I continue teaching.
But above defending against disruptions, addressing students by name provides ample affirmative mileage in terms of rapport. The more I address students with a name and a smile, the more positive they feel in class – the more likely they focus and give great effort.
If you do nothing else, memorize as many students’ names as you can. The effort will reward you a hundred times over.
2 – Introduce Rules And Routines In Class
Effective classroom management extends from effective rules.
Opinions mix on what makes good classroom rules. A forthcoming post will share my thoughts on making classroom rules.
Students (like all people) are creatures of habit. When we find ourselves in familiar settings with familiar behavioral cues, our behavior is calm and predictable. We feel comfortable. When our environment becomes unfamiliar, we tightrope on edge. Our behavior nudges into unpredictable straits.
So I start my class with the same four questions every time.
“What is today?”
“What is the date?”
“How is the weather?”
“How do you feel?”
I typically allow students to have a few side whispers during this time, just to get things “out of their system.” But once that last question finishes, I change the slide, which cues most students to be quiet. At the very least, enough students calm down that I can call out one or two chatters by name to bring the class to full attention.
Teachers at different levels can use different cues to signal whole-class attention.
*Ring a bell*
*Clap your hands*
*Throw up quiet wolf sign*
The possibilities are endless. The key is consistency.
3 – Praise Until You Can’t Praise No More
The research literature on behavioral change and classroom management is clear – positive reinforcement is the most effective tool for promoting desired behavior.
That reinforcement comes in the form of verbal praise, high-fives, or even material rewards like candy or stickers. I tend to shy away from material rewards and instead opt for more praise and high-fives. Praise is free and proves effective with everyone from small children to workplace adults in encouraging focus and productivity.
“Wow, we all listened very well while Team 5 shared.”
“That is such a creative answer!”
“You finished that quickly. I appreciate your effort. Maybe we can improve this.”
“You have more energy than last week. It’s great to see you awake today.”
“Thank you for putting the dictionary away.”
“Great question! Thank you.”
I teach high school students, most of whom have serviceable levels of English. In lower-level students, praise is still effective, but the tone of voice is paramount. Speaking with a kind, enthusiastic tone makes or breaks moments of positive reinforcement.
I praise anything and everything that represents any progress. Psychologist John Gottman’s research suggests a 5:1 minimum ratio of positive to critical interactions for satisfying relationships. Granted, Gottman researches marriages. But teacher-student relationships are still relationships. I find that effective rapport builds when teachers praise students five-to-ten times for every one criticism.
Praise. It’s easy. It’s free. It’s effective.
4 – Re-frame Criticism Into Suggestions
Students aren’t perfect. Sometimes a teacher must point out less-than-desirable behavior. If anything, many students are oblivious to their disruptive behavior. Moreover, most students improve self-regulation when they know a teacher is monitoring their behavior.
In such situations, I find positive corrections to be more effective than negative criticism.
“Please don’t talk right now” –> “Please listen”.
After all, pointing out disruptive behavior does nothing to direct students toward more desirable counterparts. Moreover, frequent criticism will eviscerate classroom rapport if one is not mindful. Rapport takes substantial time to build and a blink-of-an-eye to destroy.
Oftentimes, I don’t find myself having to criticize at all. Simply saying a student’s name in a firm tone of voice interrupts most disruptions.
So whenever possible, re-frame criticisms into positive requests and model that desirable behavior whenever you can. Generally, keep your behavioral criticisms short, positive, and far between.
Finally, it’s crucial to focus on behavior rather than character. I fall into this trap myself – not so much during class time, but when I discuss teaching with friends outside of class.
“Yeah, a lot of students in class 2-3 are unfocused. They’re challenging.”
I used to think I was speaking kindly when I labeled students “unfocused” rather than “bad.” But I now realize that this criticism still characterizes students rather than focusing on behavior. After all, every “unfocused” student I have has shown instances of focused effort at one time or other.
“Yeah, some students in Class 2-3 struggled to focus today.”
The keyword is “today.” With temporal labels, we can recognize behavior for what it is – temporary, malleable, and possibly behavior that is unrelated to your class. Maybe they had a fight with their parents. Maybe they’re hungry. Maybe they got two hours of sleep last night. Maybe that girl or boy they like just turned them down. There are so many factors that go into behavior aside from teachers’ class management skills and students’ attitudes toward the class. As a result, teachers would benefit from considering students’ behavior as fluid and subject to constant change.
5 – Make Small Requests
One small action that produces a surprising amount of rapport is making small requests of students in class. Most of the time, these requests come at the end of class.
“Please put dictionaries over there next to the whiteboard.”
“Hwa-young, can you take that trash out please?”
“Tae-yeon can you bring that box to the cabinet?”
I cannot fully articulate why this helps with classroom management. Perhaps making small requests establishes a teacher’s authority in class. Or maybe it’s the Benjamin Franklin Effect in action.
This effect stems from a Ben Franklin parable. Franklin, wishing to build bridges with a political rival, asked to borrow his rare book. The rival not only acquiesced but also entered into a lifelong friendship with Franklin.
The theory rests on the assumption that humans tend to rationalize their behavior post-mortem. When I comply with someone’s small request, my mind seeks to explain why I complied. Most often, the answer is that I respect or like the asker.
So when students execute my small requests, I like to believe that they slowly trick themselves into liking me and respecting my authority.
6 – Manage Your Expectations
In an online MOOC, I once learned that the average effective classroom experiences a disruption every four minutes on average. After an especially challenging class, I sometimes have to check my expectations and remind myself of reality.
“They’re not angels. They’re not devils. They’re teenagers. They’re impulsive. They don’t mean me disrespect.”
Unconditional positive regard is the best gift we can bestow upon our students. We can assume (against all contrary evidence) that our students are doing the best they can given their current knowledge and life circumstances.
This mindset produces the one result that may undergird all of classroom management.
As long a teacher keeps composure, they remain capable of reigning in the most chaotic of classrooms. Once a teacher loses composure, they lose their authority. They lose their students. Most disruptive behavior is reinforced by the teacher in some capacity. The most disruptive of students often feed off of teachers’ sweat and agitation. The longer we deprive students of this pleasure the sooner their disruptive behavior will subside.
Teaching is tough. We can talk for hours about classroom management without even touching on the fact that we also have to teach something. However if we can establish a strong foundation of rapport and positive classroom culture the teaching becomes the true focus.
When managing class hums like a background application we know we are doing it right.
Best of luck to us all.