FAQ: How do I get my classroom under control?
Perhaps this is the most common beginner teacher question that is asked in schools. The very fact that it is asked so often, hints that behavior management is the most pressing concern that beginner teachers have.
Out of Control
So before I begin to explore this issue, let’s just pause for a moment and consider what an out of control classroom looks like. It is one where the students dictate how much learning takes place. It is usually noisy. It negatively catches the attention of other teachers and administrators. It is a classroom that reeks of disobedience, defiance, rudeness.
The teacher will probably feel intimidated, scared, out of their depths, isolated, powerless. It is a place that is fertile for bullying and student squabbling. Worst of all, it is a place where students struggle to get any real learning done. No wonder beginner teachers ask how to fix it!
The fantastic thing is, once you make the decision to take control you are already in some degree, in control. The psychology behind this is easy to understand: we no longer feel powerless, isolated, out of our depths.
Why? Because we have decided that we will do everything within our power, with the help of others, to implement the changes necessary. We can see a solution; a light at the end of the tunnel.
So let’s have a look at what things a beginning teacher, indeed any teacher, must do to win back that classroom and make it a learning environment again.
Look the part
When you look the part, you outwardly and inwardly begin to feel the part. It pains me to no end, when I see teachers dressed inappropriately. I have witnessed everything from the beach-bum look to the night-on-the-town look.
You have to look appropriate for your students to start taking you seriously. Furthermore, if you dress professionally, your colleagues are more like to treat you professionally. So it’s a win-win situation.
I wrote a blog post on this topic, check it out: A simple dress code for Teachers. It was no accident, that it was one of the first posts I ever wrote.
It’s vitally important that you have planned a lesson that will not only engage and challenge your students, but which will keep them busy right up till the end of the lesson. Furthermore, expect the unexpected. If your lesson relies on technology and that technology fails, what is your backup plan?
You have to be able to move on and keep the students engaged. In the classroom, boredom precedes bedlam, so always have enough stimulating and engaging material for your students to work with.
Your other preparation involves knowing what to do with any disruptive or non-compliant students. Make sure your preparation includes reading the behaviour management policy of the school and speaking to your line manager on what to do in certain situations.
They may tell you that they have a buddy-system in place for chronic offenders where you can arrange to send a student to another class with work you have set for them.
Buddy systems can be great when worked well. In my experience buddying a student out for one lesson rarely works; a week long exclusion from your class gets much better results.
The system is brilliant for removing instigators and troublemakers from the class, so they cannot orchestrate mayhem. Once the conductor disappears, the discord stops. You will find that the followers in the class realise there is no one to follow and they will probably come back in line with their tails between their legs.
Occasionally you will get some other non-compliant student attempting to step up to fill the vacuum, but you just repeat the previous steps. It really works, trust me.
Always arrange with a teacher before hand if you are going to buddy a student out. You don’t want to suddenly drop a student at a colleague’s class if they are unaware; you might just destroy their lesson.
In unforeseen situations, if you have to remove a student from class to regain control but you haven’t arranged a buddy teacher, just rely on your common sense: send them outside, phone for help, send the offender to the Office etc.
I also find it works best when you buddy across several year levels, keeping them away from friends for the most part. For example, in the past, I have found buddying Grade 12 students to Grade 8 classes (and vice-versa) best as they really feel uncomfortable about it and are more likely to come on board again after a week of this.
Another tip is to tell the student prior to the lesson if possible, that they will be spending the next week in someone else’s class. Avoid confrontational times when they are in class for instance, with their mates around them: they will feel peer pressure and are likely to cause mayhem.
I have used the class line up to do this quite successfully in the past: when you invite the class into the room but instruct one student to remain outside to speak to them, students begin to sense you are in control. The fact that the other student gets sent packing really helps some students to modify their own behaviours.
For more on being organised and prepared as a teacher, you may want to read this previous post: 10 Top Tips for Becoming an Organised Teacher (in 3 parts)
Explicitly share your expectations
You really need to have a classroom expectations talk with your class. This is best done at the begin of a term or semester and then supplemented with reminders as you go along.
For the beginning teacher, this is something that is often overlooked. I think it’s partially due to a lack of confidence and lack of experience. But it has to happen.
The best way to broach the subject with a class, is to do so before a lesson starts, like this for example: “Students, before the lesson commences, I will spend the next few minutes clearly outlining to you what the learning and behavioural expectations are in my classes. Everyone needs to listen and give their complete attention as it affects all of you personally.”
Ensure that your expectations comply with the school behaviour management policy. Tell students that they will be reminded regularly about these expectations. Post visual reminders of rules and expectations on your classroom walls if possible.
Read the school behaviour management plan
And so few do. But it is your key to understanding how to effectively manage a classroom with non-compliant students. When you know the rules of the game, you are effectively ten steps in front of those who don’t. So make that an immediate goal for yourself.
You might find the school behaviour management plan on the network drive of your school’s computer system, or it might be in the Office. Wherever it is, locate it and read it.
Follow through with consequences
Don’t make idle threats. If you tell a student that they are doing a detention, make them do it. If you show inconsistency in this area your classes will always be a mess. You can see why it is in this area, where teachers are most likely to destroy any hopes of taking control if they do not follow through on consequences.
Knowing the school behaviour management plan will give you tremendous insight into what consequences students may face for various transgressions. So don’t bluff. They will find you out.
In class when a student violates a classroom expectation, remind them of those expectations. If continued non-compliance occurs, follow up with warnings, then consequences. The range of possibilities you have to correct a poor behaviour are limitless: start with the ones that allow the student to comply easily: that might be a simple redirection. See my post on Using your Voice as an effective Behaviour Management tool for more help on this.
But remember we want to eventually move our dysfunctional classroom to one that is a pleasant learning environment, so bring the students with you. The reality is most will come on-board. So don’t hit them with the very worst consequence straight up, that will breed resentment. Be fair and they will recognise that.
Don’t try to be their friend
O that sounds harsh! But it isn’t. You are there to be a teacher, not a mate. I have seen many casualties from teachers trying to be friends with students. That doesn’t mean you cannot be friendly, but their is a huge difference between the former and the latter. Being a friend leads you to being treated like an equal: you’re not.
You are the teacher, they are the students. You are someone they should respect, look up to as an authority figure in the school. So that means, not trusting them with any information that a student shouldn’t have. Never speak about other staff members or students with them. That also means not befriending them on social media. That means no inappropriate contact either in person or by phone etc. The list goes on.
As a rule, just remember to keep that professional distance: be friendly not a friend. If you have a student who seems like they need you as a friend, maintain a professional distance, get some advice from your colleagues and if possible refer the student to a Guidance counsellor or other appropriate person in the school. There are probably other issues at play here.
Lean on School Resources
As mentioned above when discussing the school behaviour management plan, you have to use the resources available to you to get your class the way you want it to be. That means using colleagues to help you fix things. I have heard beginning teachers say that they didn’t want to ask for help because they would appear weak or underperforming.
The opposite is true. When you are a real professional you recognise the areas in which you lack experience or need support in: you then go and seek an expert to help you. If you want to look unprofessional, try and do everything on your own and be a superhero. Things quickly will fall apart. The great thing is, most teachers are caring souls and want to help you. Just ask them.
Lean on off-site resources
It’s a fact of life that you won’t find all the experts in your own school. So look around, extend your professional network group, go to professional development opportunities, tap into some of the amazing resources that have been written on all areas of a teacher’s practice.
In previous posts I have recommended experts like Bill Rogers. His advice is down to earth and pragmatic enough to cover a whole range of classroom situations. His bestselling Classroom Behaviour, now in its 4th Edition, is available here at amazon or here at the Book Depository. I’ve read Bill and I have no qualms about recommending him.
I always suggest to teachers not to reinvent the wheel. Learn from the experts in their field. Do what they do and grow quickly into the teacher you aspire to be. Take 5 or 1o minutes to look around the likes of amazon and read the comments that others have made on books in your field.
Many books have preview pages, so read through them, especially the content pages, and see if it’s what you are looking for. Remember it’s not an exaggeration to say that a $20 book might be the thing that makes your job something that you actually enjoy.
Get a mentor teacher
If you are a beginning teacher, you may have been assigned a mentor teacher. If you haven’t been assigned one, ask your school leaders for one. Better still, identify one you look up to and professionally respect; approach them and suggest it to them.
Meet regularly with your mentor and be open and honest about the good and bad parts of your practice. Don’t keep your guard up in these situations. Nobody is perfect and you can be sure that the experienced teachers in your school started out just as raw and inexperienced as the rest of us.
More experienced teachers tend not to have a mentor; that is a mistake. Having a fellow teacher to collaborate with and who can professionally critique your practice, is something we all should have. When we have reached the point when we think we know everything, it is then more than ever, that we may need to reassess and reflect on what we doing.
Observe a good teacher at work
Classroom observations are extremely powerful for beginning teachers. Invite your mentor, administrator or other colleague into your classroom to observe your practice. They might see things in a different way that can help you.
Equally powerful are those times when you observe experienced teachers at work. Ask a teacher who has great behaviour management skills, if you can sit in on one of their classes. Your school leaders are likely to fully support this.
Observe and then reflect on why their classes are great learning environments. What are they doing that you’re not? Take from those observations, ideas and strategies that you can implement in your own classes.
Make sure that you adapt them to your own personality and learning situation though, before you try them out. There are things that seem only to work for me, and there are things that never work for me. Trial and error is part of the whole learning curve.
And so you will develop what teachers refer to as presence. Students can just sense a teacher who has a certain aura. Usually they are the ones who have implemented the steps above. A teacher who has presence has developed confidence and self-assuredness.
This has been the result of time and effort, professionally planning and preparing their lessons, trialling behaviour strategies, observing good practice and seeking support from colleagues.
Teachers who put in that effort, grow excellent reputations not only among their fellow teachers, but perhaps more importantly among the students that they teach. It’s a fact that students know who to mess with and who never to mess with!
Sorting out your class rarely happens overnight, but when you make a commitment to make it happen, a magic thing occurs: you begin to take control. But remember, you have to back up that commitment with action.
Too many times have I heard teachers say that their class is a riot but that it’s too late to fix it this term/semester/year, but next year they will take charge. You know what, that never happens. So make sure you don’t repeat that mistake: be bold, take control, pray for strength and start enjoying your job.