A series of seven posts on major turning points in my teaching career. A study of where I was, where I am, and where I'm headed.
Classroom Management is the most unique challenge in the profession. Every year brings with it new challenges and joys. Your experiences with this can vary wildly from year to year or even from hour to hour during the day. After you clear those initial hurdles and develop some solid strategies there are opportunities to expand on your relationship with the people in your room. How do you balance the need to have strong procedures in place for learning and offer flexibility for the unexpected?
Where It Was
This topic is so difficult to write about because teachers come from so many different place on this. I cannot think of something harder to replicate than classroom management styles. It is so heavily dependent on the personality of the individual. But, I did learn some important lessons early on and have been able to evolve the way I deal with young people.
I have been fortunate in that my altercations with students have been minimal over the years. I have always had a policy of being slow to anger and trying to hold on very tight to the idea that in times of crisis the issue is not a personal attack on me. My second year I got in a small shouting contest with a girl who didn't want to complete an assignment. I pressed. She pressed back. At a certain point you get caught in that moment where you think about what happens to your credibility if you let the class see you blink.
Coaching is full of these moments. I dealt with ninth graders and each and every group had different ways of getting to me. In each and every case I had to remember it was nothing to do with me personally, it's the nature of crowd dynamics when you get a certain number of 14 year olds together. You straddle a fine line of doing what's best for the young man in the long run and what's best for the team immediately. I can't say I always made the correct decision dealing with incidents.
But slowly, thing started to change. Kids were still kids, and yes, I had moments where it was time to hold firm on something. And yet, after several years of being deeply involved my school community, I started to see the residents of my room differently. Out there were kids I'd known since seventh or eighth grade. Others were younger siblings of former students, finally getting their turn in my room. It stopped being random names on an attendance sheet, but people I had a history with who happened to need some math education from me.
Where It Is
In the day to day, my primary goal remains. I have math tasks that need to get accomplished. I push on the to do list each and every day. Kids will say they like a class because they never do anything. That is never the reputation I'm after. Many kids tell me they appreciate how much they do. They notice I don't take my foot off the gas when it comes to learning.
However, that history was still getting to me. If this handful of kids I know run into challenges, surely this must be common? Are there some little things I can do to make everyone feel a little more comfortable? And when an issue arises, how can we prevent public confrontations?
I made three shifts that have made a huge difference.
Listen. Build in time where you can just wander around the room while students work. I do this frequently. Often a couple days a week are dedicated to classwork or a project. In this time while I do bop around answering questions, I just keep my ears open. What are kids talking about? Often it's work related, but you know kids, they'll talk about three things at once while working. From time to time I interject myself into the conversation. They'll balk at me being nosy, but I tell them it's my room, I do what I want. Sports, girlfriends, cheerleader drama, school events, or whatever, I just listen. After a while they welcome my participation. It makes it very easy to redirect them back to work. We'll have our quick chat and I point back to the papers. Everyone gets back to it with little argument.
Sympathize. Kids have bad days. I have bad days. I'm an old person though, so I recognize the importance of maintaining professionalism. Kids can't always cope in the same way. I made a point to keep an eye on the signs. A student suddenly has little to say, has a look of exasperation, or just can't seem to concentrate. Very quietly I will see if they're alright and if they just want to chill out. Some are fine, others need five minutes, and others need the tissue box and time in the hallway. Some will tell you what's up, others won't. I'm fine with either situation. Forcing them to complete an assignment isn't always the best medicine for emotional duress. Establishing this pattern communicates that it's ok if things are not ok. Some students need this policy more than others. One student last year would just give me the signal when it was hallway time. If a student makes it clear that today is just not the day, I'll leave them be and follow up the next day. Sometimes it was just a headache, other times it's more. Each student always appreciates that I took the time to notice.
De-Escalate. Incidents happen. Last year I had a class that had a dynamic of getting too riled up too often. A few students would consistently create a challenging environment for everyone else. Though I came close, at no point did I turn it into any kind of shouting match. I stopped what I was doing, silently waited for them to realize they were causing a problem, and then moved on. Much later, most often the next day, is when the problem gets dealt with. Often in 30 seconds or less while I'm greeting kids at the door. I'll stop yesterday's offender for a second and have a quick discussion about their side of the story. I have brokered dozens of peace treaties this way. Should the problem be so egregious that I really should do it right then, I never kick a kid out in the hallway. I press on and wait for a pause in the action (the benefits of building in lots of classwork time). I'll calmly (emphasis on calm, composure is everything) find the offender and ask them to come with me to the hall, or I'll nudge them to stay for a second after class ends.
Where It Is Going
These efforts have made me enjoy the school day more. I look forward to seeing my little communities as we laugh and learn together. My idea of classroom management builds on the family aspect I have talked about before. There's a level of comfort and productivity that is unique to the environment. Kids take risks, they'll let loose, and everyone benefits.
Things like Summer Camp came to be to further build community in my classroom. It is such an important building block in how I get stuff done. While there are a lot of math related reasons why my AP program is improving, the calm environment I provide plays no small part.
This is a really tough topic. What works for me may not work for you. Likewise I would probably fail at running a classroom like you do. But I think in the great classroom management problem there is some common ground. We all have a lot of complicated people that we spend nine months taking care of. The more we're able to see eye to eye with the people under our care, the better we can improve the learning experience for the kids of today and tomorrow.