- Education and Science
How Any Teacher Can Establish Great Classroom Management
How to Establish Great Classroom Management
Classroom management is often the number one concern for teachers, especially new teachers. Every new teacher leaves her/his university training having studied pedagogy and theory but she/he has usually had precious little training in the primary, nuts-and-bolts of running a classroom and creating a learning environment by managing student behavior! It's most new teachers' greatest worry; "Can I manage behavior?"
The good news is "Yes, you can learn to be a great classroom manager!" And it's not nearly as difficult as you might have feared either.
And, once you have mastered some simple guidelines for great classroom management, your reward? Teaching will be what you always dreamed it would; you will be free to create a stellar learning environment. Your love for your students will not only shine through, but they will be very receptive to it. Your students will "let you in" and open themselves up to your caring influence and guidance.
There's nothing more rewarding and I'm excited to imagine your future classroom successes once you master these techniques!
As an aside, this page is written from a high school/middle school perspective because that is where my experience has been. But I know from working with them - if you're an elementary school teacher, you can modify it to fit your classroom management needs as well.
Why Is Great Classroom Management Sometimes a Challenge for Teachers?
Old Fears Come into Play
All teachers want to be caring, impactful resources for their students. We want our students to allow us access to them - to let us influence them as learners and growing young adults. And for good reason: there is no better place for a young person to mature into a responsible, productive, lifelong learner than a school. And you are a caring, intelligent mentor with much to offer your students!
Yet, without good classroom management, those ideals will never be realized because misbehavior, frustration (of both the students and, especially, you) will be insurmountable obstacles. If poor classroom management blocks you from truly reaching and influencing your students (academically, socially, and personally), not only will your students fail to reach their potential, but you will most likely be unhappy in your profession. As I'm sure you already know, the stress of poor classroom management (student misbehavior and an inability to correct it) is, year-in and year-out, the top reason teachers leave the profession.
And, really, how much learning is taking place in a classroom which is disorderly, disruptive, inattentive, off-task, and/or out of the teacher's control? You don't need a degree in education to know that much less learning is taking place than under a teacher with great classroom management.
You may be struggling with "old" images of classroom management where the teacher is a despot. Ruling with an iron hand and being disliked by students in order to maintain a quiet, focused environment probably doesn't sound very appealing to you and certainly doesn't jibe with your desire to be a caring, involved mentor for your students. These fears may even stop you from employing good classroom management techniques.
But don't fall into the trap these old images and fears lay for you! If you follow the guidelines in this lens you will find that even the "toughest" students respond relatively quickly and positively. Walk through your fears and follow this advice; you will soon find that rewarding teaching career you envisioned. And, in fact, I believe you'll find it even more rewarding than you imagined!
Why Classroom Management is a Much Simpler Proposition Than You Imagined
And Why It's Nothing to "Worry" About
This section contains a revelation that may sound scary at first, especially if you've never had your own classroom to manage (or if you've had mostly bad experiences with classroom management thus far).
Here it is: Every class will test you. No matter how "good" the students are. Always. Count on it.
But you don't need to freak out about that! Allow me to remind you of a few things about children and child development.
Your students will mostly fall into one of two categories:
- Students who have been taught at home to automatically trust a teacher and (mostly) automatically conform to the teacher's classroom rules
- Students who have not been taught at home to automatically trust a teacher and (mostly) automatically conform to the teacher's classroom rules
Both of these groups will still test your classroom management every year. And, without good classroom management, the first group will quickly seem like they belong in group two. But, as I said, this is not bad news and it's nothing to stress over.
Child development 101. Every person, but especially a child (or young adult), has to know where her boundaries are to feel physically and emotionally "safe". It is a basic human instinct to need to know if our boundaries are "real" and to know where they are (their true limits).
Here are some examples you can actually replicate with if you so desire. Take a toddler and place her on a football field. Tell her to "play". She will, in almost every instance, first crawl/toddle around until she finds the boundaries of her environment before she feels safe enough to relax and begin to play freely. She will not feel comfortable "letting go" and losing herself in her play until she knows what those boundaries are.
But if you take that same toddler and put her on the same football field, except in a playpen of some sort, she will immediately see her boundaries and will begin to freely play almost instantly.
If those examples make sense to you (and I hope they do), you can extrapolate the psychology to the children you teach.
Each year, students enter your classroom and:
- You establish and communicate your classroom rules to them
- They hear and understand those rules
- But they will not feel "safe" in your classroom until they know, for a fact, if those rules are geniune
- Like the toddler on the football field, some (or all) of your students will "test" the rules, by violating them, to see if they are genuine
- Your response to their "testing" is, in fact, your classroom management
If you have great classroom management, you will respond appropriately and put your students' minds as ease. Although they will not be conscious of the process, what you are really doing when you have great classroom management is assuring your students that your classroom boundaries are real and that they can feel safe and "play" (start to engage in unabashed learning with you).
It really is that simple.
What a Teacher with Great Classroom Management Already Knows
And What You'll Soon Know Too
As a teacher with great classroom management, the first (and, perhaps, most important) feather in your cap is your knowledge of child development and psychology described above. You already know that your students will test your rules. No more stress - you expect it to happen and are ready for it!
As a great classroom manager, you are not only expecting your students to test your rules, but you are also ready for it. And, just as importantly, you know that they are not testing your rules because they are "bad" students who "don't know how to behave"; your students are going to test your rules merely because that's what people do!
This annual testing of your rules is, in teacher-talk, the time when it's being decided who will "be in charge of your classroom". You or your students? Trust me when I tell you that even the "toughest" students would much prefer that YOU be in charge of your classroom (even if they act like they don't like that at first)! Having you be in charge, even if they don't openly show it at first, is your students' preference because, as we established earlier, that is what will put them at ease and make them feel safe.
The only major difference, I've found, between the "tough" students (group two) and the "easier" students (group one) is that the tough students may test you a little harder and a little longer. But, in the end, your great classroom management (and their desire for safety) will win out and you will have a wonderful learning community in your classroom.
And, if you have "tough" students, here is the best news about having great classroom management!
In the case of your "toughest" students, unfortunately, many of them do not have home environments where they feel "safe" (they don't have defined, appropriate, and genuine boundaries). In fact, you'll find that the "toughest" students (those who test your rules the hardest and act the most annoyed and bothered by your great classroom management) will become your best allies in the classroom and often bond with you the tightest - because they appreciate the safety! (Once again, even if that all unfolds on a subconscious level for them).
Your "toughest" students will see (just as your "easier" students will a little sooner) that your having "real" boundaries, by having great classroom management, is you caring for them!
A Great Classroom Manager's Rules for Student Conduct
Short, Sweet, and Simple
First let's talk about your rules/expectations. Your first priority is to keep them simple and few. I suggest no more than three rules (which you'll state on the first day of class, of course).
My classroom rules?
- No talking when anyone else is talking
- Do what you're asked to do, when you're asked to do it (primarily concerning classroom work)
- If you're late to class, come in quietly, make no disruption, and take your seat (I'll sort out your note/excuse later)
That's it. Short, sweet, and simple. Easy to remember too. And, from my experience, if those three rules are adhered to, your classroom will continually have the greatest chance of generating a day-in, day-out learning environment. And a true learning community can develop.
Also, on the first day, I always state my "Golden Rule". I believe your students will benefit from this rule too (and, in addition to helping your great classroom management, it also contains a seminal life-lesson for any young person to learn):
"How you feel about me and my class is, in a sense, none of my business. I hope you love my class (and I believe you will), but if you don't you are still welcome to think anything you want about me or the class. The only thing I care about is if you make a point to let me know that you don't like me or this class. Your job in this class, every day, is to make me think this is the most important hour of your day. Make me think that even if, or especially if, it isn't the most important hour of your day (and, of course, many times it won't be) and you will thrive in my class!"
These rules work well and are proven in the classroom. Feel free to use them. When I was mastering student teaching under my "Yoda" (Mr. Charlie Mitchell of Louisville, KY, now retired), I copied his rules verbatim. Later, as I became a master in my own right, I altered them to suite my personality and style.
But what do you do when your students test these rules, as all students (and people) do? What do you do when, upon your next class meeting, someone doesn't pay attention, goofs off, and/or talks when you are talking?
Your Plan For Great Classroom Management
A Plan Handed Down by the Yoda of Classroom Management
This plan is simple, straightforward, and effective. Taught to me by Mr. Charlie Mitchell of Louisville, KY, I have used it to become a master of classroom management (and taught it to many, many teachers along the way).
This is where your great classroom management plan come into play. And to take out all the stress, I always expected to employ it on the second class meeting (because I, like you, know that the students will test my rules - because that's what people naturally do with rules). In fact, if the class followed my rules on the second class meeting, I often wondered why they didn't test them and knew that they would the next time. No stress.
Here is my iron-clad rule for myself: when a rule is violated I do not get angry. Under no circumstances do I make my responses to rule violations personal. Remember - the only true power (in many ways) that a misbehaving child has is to alter your mood - to get "under your skin" and get you upset. Do not give such a student that power.
Additionally, your mindset should be that your classroom rules are unquestionable. Violating them, from your viewpoint, should be ridiculous and absurd. You and your students have much more important things to do!
So your response to a rule violation should be done almost with a sense of sadness and regret. As in: "Oh, gee, one of our (notice I specifically said "our" - because these are the classroom's rules, not "your's") rules have been broken. Too bad. Well, you know what that means. Sorry we have to do this; I don't really want to either. But rules are rules."
Here are two vital points about the consequences for rule violations. And when a rule is violated, the consequence must be global and immediate.
Global - The consequence should involve every student. Why? First, this is a classroom community and these are the community's rules; if a member of the community violates a rule it means the entire community must switch gears and fulfill a consequence. But the real reason for making the consequence global is that in very short order you will quickly have 20 or so of your students keeping peer behavior in check! They'll do it for you! In fact, once you hear students telling peers, "Be quiet!", you'll know you've essentially "won" and your classroom has accepted your leadership.
Immediate - Delayed consequences like "...you'll get more homework..." or "...write sentences at home..." or "...you'll miss time on the playground..." (or even, often, "...you'll get a referral...", more about that later) don't work for many reasons. Research has shown that for a consequence to be most effective it must be given in conjunction with the violation or the student will lose the connection between the two. Additionally, delayed consequences like those listed, will have little effect simply because the misbehaving student will often not fulfill the consequence anyway! Finally, if you're using a global consequence, the students who fulfill it will most often not be the ones who were misbehaving.
And what should the global and immediate consequence be for violating your rule(s)? The consequence should still suite an educational purpose and still allow you to cover material. But the consequence needs to be (and this is very important) unwanted by the students! Let's explore consequences next.
By the way, as a classroom teacher I almost never wrote referrals. Why? Not only is that not an immediate consequence, but that also takes the power of being a great classroom manager out of my hands! Certainly, for egregious rule violations and procedural violations (like too many tardies or class cuts) a referral is in order. But for classroom management issues (violating the classroom rules), it is important for you to be the final authority!
A Great Classroom Manager's Consequences
Unwanted but Not Necessarily Devoid of Educational Value
You may not agree with my favorite consequence at first blush. But you owe it to yourself to read thoroughly before making any snap judgments about it, especially what I share at the end.
My favorite consequence is, simply, note-taking. Here is the script I almost always used, word-for-word:
- When your students violate your rules (as you're already expecting them to on the second or third class meeting) say, "Well, this is too bad (remember, keeping a pragmatic tone, not showing anger or irritation). I had a really cool lesson planned for today, but you guys have violated our rules. Sorry guys...get out a piece of paper."
- Keep your sentences brief and to the point. You want them writing, not listening!
- Then instruct them, "Take down each note I give you, word for word. This is a boring way to cover the information, but this how we need to cover it when you violate our rules."
- Then give your class their first note to take down.
- While they're writing, slip in, "Although this is boring to me too, when we do this at least I know that you're all hearing and writing down the information."
- Then give your class their second note to take down.
- While they're writing, say, "One good thing - this is an easy grade for you. It's all or nothing - if you turn in every note I've given you word-for-word, at the end of class you get 100%. If you're missing anything, though, you get a 0% - so make sure you get it all down."
- Then give your class their third note to take down. And continue with the note-taking until class ends. You don't need to say anything else until all the notes are taken.
These are important points in the consequence too:
- Do not spend time discussing the consequence beyond what I've written above
- Your students will groan and complain, ignore them and simply follow the script
- Do not spend time repeating your notes; simply state that you will say each note twice and then you're moving on ("We can't waste time because we have too much to cover and not enough time"). They have to be quiet or they will miss a note
- Do not relent when your students bargain with you ("Please let us try again; we promise to follow the rules this time"); simply smile (genuinely) and say, "Guys, this not how our (notice my use of "our" again, instead of "my"?) classroom operates and you know that" before continuing on with the next note
- Make sure to give at least 20 notes, otherwise the consequence will not be unpleasant enough. Ideally continue giving notes until the end of the class
- Ignore your students grumbling as they leave the classroom, they have just learned an important lesson and you are well on your way to eradicating their unwanted behavior (behavior which stops your desired learning community in its tracks)
I know some of you are saying: "This is mean" or "Rote note-taking has little educational value in my classroom; my students are not authentically engaged while note taking" or "You should never use something educational as a 'punishment' " And you have good points!
But this is the part I asked you to read carefully before you dismiss this consequence:
- You are not using note-taking as a "punishment", you are using it as an alternative way to cover the material
- I might not agree that using note-taking is "mean"; your students knowingly violated your rules, after all! But is is certainly "unwanted" by your students - and that's precisely the point!
- Trust me, if you follow my script, once you do this with your class once or twice (maybe three times if they are an especially "testing" group), you will never have to use note taking in this way again
- Isn't having your class take notes once or twice (maybe three times) worth the end reward of ensuring them that your boundaries are real and they are "safe" in your classroom? Isn't it worth having a real, "bought-in" learning community when you're done?
Because, trust me, once you've done this a few times, you will have successfully become a great classroom manager and you will see the results as your students come in each day read to listen, participate, and learn!
And guess what happens when your students come in each day read to listen, participate, and learn? You can finally be that cool, funny, insightful, mentoring teacher you've always wanted to be! Your students will respect and admire you as the true classroom leader and they will appreciate your true personality as it can now come out. You can plan great, engaging lessons for your students and they will gladly do as you ask - knowing that your classroom is a "real" classroom where "real" learning is taking place. Because that is not only what you ask of them, but (as you've demonstrated) that is what you require of them.
And when they slip up and violate your rules in a few weeks? Just to test you again (because that's what young people do)? Simply role out the above script with a genuine smile of regret and follow through (as a reminder). You'll see less and less "testing" by the time you're into October (if you even see it that far into the school year).
You're now on your way. Teaching will finally become that fulfilling, uplifting career you always envisioned!
What About the "Hardcore", Hold-Out Student Too "Cool" to Conform Even to Peer Pressure?
A Surefire Way to Gain a Great Ally
What about the "too-cool-for-school", hard-headed student who just refuses to follow your rules? The one who won't even respond to peer pressure and keeps misbehaving, repeatedly bringing consequences down upon the entire class without signs of stopping?
Here is how to handle that student. Bear in mind, what you will say to her/him is not B.S.! You are telling her/him the truth (only what you tell her/him is actually nothing different than what you would do for any student - but she/he won't know that):
- Call her/him out into the hall to speak with her/him one-on-one (while you have the rest of the class working on something)
- Speak to her/him in a mentoring, conversational tone; you should not sound irritated or angry
- Tell her/him, "I want you to know that I noticed your leadership characteristics immediately. I want to share something with you about leadership and I want to make a deal with you"
- Tell her/him, "Here's the deal with leadership. You are a leader among these students; they all look up to you and your decisions mean a lot to them."
- Tell her/him, "And here's something else about leadership. When you're blessed with it, and you are, it doesn't matter whether you actually want it or not. When you got it, you got it; there's nothing you can do about it."
- Tell her/him, "Have you ever noticed that teachers seem to always single you out, almost like they're picking on you? (She/he will say, "Yes") That's because teachers know you're a leader and they know they need you 'on their side' to make their classroom run better."
- Tell her/him, "I want to make a deal with you. You use your leadership in my classroom and I'll help you out"
- Explain, "I'm going to have a special signal just you and I know. (I always used a sly finger-point to my temple because it was easy for her/him to recognize, but didn't "call her/him out" in front of peers) When you see me give you that signal, that's my reminder to you that you've forgotten our classroom rules."
- Tell her/him, "When you see this signal (demonstrate) that's your reminder to say, 'Oh yeah, I forgot I'm in (your) classroom. (You) expect a little more out of me and I just forgot that.' "
- Tell her/him, "When you see this signal, I'll expect that you'll remember our rules and stop doing whatever it is you're doing."
- Tell her/him, "If you stop what you're doing when you see that signal, I will help you out. You'll get a good grade in my class (remember - you've only asked her/him to do what you expect of every student and you're only promising what you'd do for every student) if you simply:
- Be here each day
- Do the work
- And help me by remembering my classroom rules
Finish by saying, "But if you ignore my signal, you are saying to me, loud and clear, 'I do not want (your) help and I'm going to sink or swim all on my own without (your) help.' "
I've never seen this approach fail to make a huge difference in this type of student. She/he will be flattered by your comments (they are true, after all) and will be encouraged by your individual offer of help (which is actually no different from the help you were always ready to give her/him, or any other student in your classroom). Just make sure the conversation is friendly and private.
Let Me Know What You Think About Yourself as a Great Classroom Manager
Please let me know how you feel about being a great classroom manager after reading this lens.
A Great Classroom Manager? Me?
About the Author
Author Greg Kuhn is a professional educator and a futurist, specializing in framing new paradigms for 21st Century living. Greg has worked as a high school coach, teacher, and administrator since 1992.
Since 1995 Greg has written for his father, Clifford Kuhn, M.D. about health, wellness, and personal growth, crafting five self-help books for him and over thirty self-help articles for publication. Recently Greg published Why Quantum Physicists Don't Get Fat, which is a portion of his larger self-help quantum formula, teaching people with unwanted weight how to finally lose it using quantum physicists. Why Quantum Physicists Don't Get Fat has earned praise from both nurses and physicians alike.
In addition to performing entertaining and well-received speaking engagements and media interviews about quantum physics' power for personal growth, Greg also collaborates and speaks with Intentional Wellness, a Louisville, KY-based organization of doctors, nurses, and nutritionists who actively train people to have healthier lifestyles
In his new book, Why Quantum Physicists Don't Get Fat Greg finally unveils his cutting-edge research into revolutionary new paradigms culled directly from the amazing science of quantum physics.
Always entertaining, Greg reveals simple, easy-to-use, "street-level" techniques for losing your unwanted weight sooner than you thought possible. You'll not only master these techniques quickly, you'll also have fun using them.
Future topics in Greg's Why Quantum Physicists... series will unmask new paradigms for successful teaching, parenting, romantic relationships, financial success, divorce, and blending families.
Be sure to check out Greg's awesome blog about using quantum physics on a "street-level" basis, Why Quantum Physicists...
I have some reservations about including this disclaimer, because I know that teachers with great classroom management can overcome just about any obstacle. But, having worked in schools since 1992, I feel I must add that there are occasionally students who seem to be constitutionally incapable of adhering to teacher expectations for conduct and decorum. My hope is that you do not use this disclaimer as an "excuse" to stop applying the techniques of great classroom management. You can do this and you will love the results!
Some Important Stuff that You Ought to Know
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