Classroom management, to me, is the first skill a teacher must master. Lesson design, unit planning, and All The Other Things don’t matter much if your kids are hanging from the fluorescent lights or constantly speaking over and under you and each other. Sadly, classroom management is also a skill that most teaching certification programs don’t guarantee before granting credentials. It’s not your fault that this stuff feels like drowning early on in your career, and frankly, based on how many schools hardly remediate for classroom management issues, it’s not your fault if you still struggle with this years into the work.
The good news is that classroom management deficiencies are completely fixable. Like playing tennis or coding software, classroom management is a learnable skill. All you need is a little clarity (that’s what I’m here for today), some deliberate practice, a few Jedi mind tricks for when burnout threatens, and you’ll be improving in no time.
The problem (for some) with the term “classroom management”
I realize that “classroom management” isn’t a fashionable term for the semantically inclined. In my experience, however, people who have the time and energy to worry about wordsmithing “classroom management” are either
- A) advanced well beyond needing to handle the nuts and bolts of managing a room full of vigorous youth, or
- B) so enamored of their own sparkling, shiny minds and pretty ideas that they aren’t able to see that a lack of management in their classroom is stealing precious learning time from their students, every day.
Category A folks, congrats! Category B folks, cease and desist.
Suffice it to say that, if in reading this essay you get the impression that my classroom must be a lifeless, rigid place where rules extinguish the creative souls of my students, please stop by Cedar Springs sometime.
What I mean when I say classroom management is the creation of a productive, flourishing learning environment where every child has an opportunity to grow.
CARE: The four underlying pieces of lovely, powerful classrooms
There are whole books and websites dedicated to teaching you how to manage your classroom, so let me take the opposite of a “ultimate, every-last-detail guide” approach and instead try to boil the best-managed classrooms into the four underlying bits you’re likely to find in them: Consistency, Awesomeness, Relationships, and Excellence, or CARE (so you can keep it in your head for later reference).
Surprises are cool, but there are some things that shouldn’t be surprising about your room, like:
- What happens when a student disrespects someone?
- What happens when a kid needs to use the restroom, or needs a pencil, or speaks while you are speaking?
- What do kids do right when the bell rings?
Having standardized ways of handling these things communicates to your students that you know what you’re doing. And so planning for the bits of your class that will be consistent (rules, policies, procedures) is one part of Consistency.
The more difficult part of Consistency is actually teaching (and re-teaching) the routines you’ve designed and, even more difficult, enforcing your policies. It’s one thing to have the list of five “Classroom Policy” rules that hangs on my classroom wall (see Figure 1), it’s another to dispassionately enforce these like a robot . Thriving cultures are best built on the foundation of consistent norms and behaviors, and such foundations depend on consistent reinforcement.
I’m not being cute here. Literally, you want your class to produce awe in your students. You want it to be special for your kids to be in there. You achieve this in a few ways:
- Challenging your students beyond what they think they are capable of.
- Being honest with your students.
- Developing what John Hattie calls “teacher credibility” (more on that in an upcoming post).
- Reminding your students, “Hey, _______ is who we are. ______ is what we do.”
- Doing hard things.
Basically, this is going to look different in every classroom, but I think the golden standard is to achieve awesomeness while still being a team player amongst your colleagues and not exalting yourself over anyone or anything (e.g., completely disregarding your district curriculum because it’s not awesome enough — a good workaround for that situation would be to teach the curriculum fast so that you have time for more awesome things). I’ve seen the Lone Awesome Teacher thing play out enough times to know that it’s not the path to greatest impact. Be awesome, but also humble.
Here’s what tends to be the earliest win for teachers. For the first five years of my career, I was constantly changing the Consistency piece (the irony isn’t lost on me) and experimenting with the Awesomeness piece, but I scored on Relationships. I called every student’s home in the first few weeks, sharing specific praise; I took groups of kids out on weekly restaurant trips, going through my whole class roster; I held after school clubs; I conferred with kids one-on-one like a mad man.
“Mad man” is a good word, actually — most of what I did to cultivate relationships in the early years of my career was unsustainable. Once I instituted set working hours, I was forced to find more efficient means of building strong relationships with students. Nowadays, I keep a clipboard with the name of every kid on my roster on it, and during the first week of school I keep track of who I’ve had a genuine moment of connection with. To accomplish these moments, I speak with kids before, during, and after class, trying to find something specific that I like about or see in the kid.
Which brings up an important point: if you don’t like someone, you can’t have a good relationship with them. Let me tell you that, for me, finding a way to like every kid on the roster is work — every single year. But if I don’t do that work, then I’ll inevitably get to where I don’t like a kid, and then the kid will know it, and then the kid will be very difficult to teach and impossible to reach. If you’re a praying person, it’s helpful to pray that God will help you love and like each kid. If not, just work at it!
I hope what you’re getting so far is that great classroom management seeks the hearts and the minds of students through both internal and external measures. Rules are very external — and they are a part of well-managed, wonderful classrooms. Yet Awesomeness and Relationships, while created through external actions taken by the teacher, ultimately produce an internal change in your students as they transition from “Well, this is just another science class” to “I want to be here in Ms. Montoya’s class because she cares about me (Relationships) and we are doing something special (Awesomeness) and no one makes fun of me in her class (Consistency).”
Excellence, then, is the final piece of the puzzle; it’s the part that keeps us striving and reaching and improving outcomes for our students.
One of the primary reasons I don’t do the student-created, collaborative class contract thing at the start of the year anymore is because I know how to unite my students around excellence and I know that a universal commitment to excellence is something I have to declare and live out and build. First and foremost, excellence has to come from me, just like it had to come from my teachers when I was in school. Sure, I craved excellence when I was a kid, I wanted to be excellent, but I didn’t have the clarity of purpose or the personal resolve to pursue group excellence on my own, and I was never in a class where enough of my peers had that stuff to create a culture of excellence that drew me in. No — the highest performing classes I was a part of were the ones where the teacher united us around some form of excellence, be it of conduct or work quality or effort or achievement.
John Wooden, whom many have cited as one of the greatest teachers in the last century, defined success as “knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” That’s what you and I are shooting for when we strive for excellence with our students. Every great classroom has a teacher who is frequently, passionately dissatisfied with the gap between the potential of her students and their current performance. I always want my kids to be able to leave my classroom at the end of the year able to transfer over to City High School — one of the best in the state — and not feel out of place. This desire fuels both the innovation and the steadfastness required of teachers who are building great careers with greater amounts of impact year after year.
Classroom management is an inside job — it starts with you
The good news is, as we improve as classroom managers, we improve as people. Where in your life outside of the classroom have you made peace with damaging inconsistencies, lackluster performance, poor relationships, or knowing that you’re not doing your best to become the best you are capable of becoming? It’s all connected, my friends. How does CARE apply to your life? What’s the first thing you want to modify about your classroom management?
Feel free to share in the comments.
- That may not hit your ears well — “Oh no! I don’t want to be a dispassionate robot teacher!” — but this is one of those things that enables you to truly be loving. If you can remove the passion from enforcing a “Raise your hand to speak” rule, then there’s no risk of you estranging a student with your anger or taking misbehaviors personally.