Monday, November 1, 2021

Classroom Management Secrets

This question has popped up a couple of times on my screen lately:

Which is the more essential classroom skill set - subject matter and pedagogical expertise OR the ability to “manage” behavioral issues?

It's a trick question. The ability to "manage" a classroom is rooted in subject matter and pedagogical expertise.

If you have ever wrangled toddlers, you probably know this simple trick--always be moving toward something. When I'm out and about with the Board of Directors, it's a losing proposition to say, "Okay, time to stop jumping off that log." It is never time to stop jumping off that log, and saying that it is simply opens a whole debate about when, if ever, such an imaginary time could actually come to pass. Instead, the winning proposition is, "Okay, let's go look at fire trucks." Do that, and log jumping will end on its own.

In other words, always be moving toward something rather than away from something.

In teacher school, this concept is expressed as "Focus on what you want them to do, not what you want them to not do." 

This makes many layers of sense. For one, the direction to stop doing something is always a step or two removed from your actual objective. Presumably you want students to "stop talking" for some reason, so why not move directly to the main thing you actually want-- look at this diagram or finish writing your sentences or tell me how this widget should be adjusted. So ask for that. "I'm not going to start class until everyone is quiet," is not the threat that you think it is.

But being able to move toward something requires you to have a firm grasp of what you want to move toward. Everyone has their favorite teaching metaphors; one of mine is thinking of teaching as helping students navigate a large territory, covered with forest and ponds and hills and any number of features. A teacher is a guide to that territory, and the better you know the territory, the better you can serve as a guide. You have to know what's there, the many ways to get from one point to another, and the various pitfalls that one might encounter. 

What are you trying to teach, why are you trying to teach it, and how are you trying to teach it. Know the answers and push forward, keeping your eye on the target just like a driver keeps their eyes on the road. 

It's not an easy balance to maintain. Push forward too fast and students are left behind. Too slowly, and they get bored waiting for you. Either way, issues will develop.

Really, classroom management is not like organizing activities for some strange alien race. Young humans have low tolerance for the same things as grown humans. Wasted time. Pointless activities. Demands for compliance for compliance's sake. Disrespect. These things draw out the contrary behavior in grown humans; why should young humans be any different? 

Yes, there is a world of classroom management techniques that are worth knowing. But everything is rooted in Knowing What The Hell You're Doing, both in your grasp of content and your lesson design. This is why tying teachers to a script or a tightly defined program is a recipe for chaos, and that's why so many schools that do such tying team it up with a heavily enforced demand for student compliance, a heavy-handed attempt to beat down the problems that they have asked for in their instructional design.

Deep content knowledge. Sound instructional design. Respect. Those three pillars undergird the whole business of classroom management. They look different depending on the teacher and the students, but without any one of them, you'll simply be trying to right the structure with a patchwork of classroom management techniques and compliance demands. 


  1. Every new teacher should make a conscious effort to develop this "secret" for classroom management: Your "reputation" (among students, parents, and colleagues).

    Kids will talk about you. What would you want them to say to their younger sibling who sees your name on their new school year schedule?

    What will they talk about? Everything that affects their time in and out of their class!

    Are you . . .
    knowledgeable?, organized?, fair?, age appropriate?, interesting?, on their side?, professional?, a teacher?(seriously, can't count the number of times I've heard kids complain that Mr. X doesn't teach), in control?, and . . . are you there?(attendance).

  2. This is a really great post! It is so frustrating as a new teacher when you hear what works for other teachers and, when you faithfully do what they do it fails to have the same impact. The problem is not the technique, but the fact that you are the one doing it. Being able to anticipate how students will react to rules and regulations requires a teacher to have wisdom and experience. Even then, it is hard to pull off in some situations. There are more variables in the "classroom management" equation than teacher behavior, even if administrators sometimes forget this fact.