All I Got on Classroom Management

Not enough people write about classroom management in a practical and realistic way. But this does! Helpful tips.

— Michael Pershan (@mpershan) August 9, 2017

Classroom management is hard, and what’s “practical and realistic” for one person could be entirely impractical and unrealistic for someone else to follow. Take a math lesson taught successfully at a parochial school in a class of 12 students wearing uniforms and bring it into an inner-city public school in a class of 37 students wearing skins in shades of brown, black, and yellow, and you might find that you need to tweak the lesson a bit.

You and I are two different people. You and I are two different teachers. What irks me may not even faze you. You and I can tolerate different ranges of decibels emitting from classroom activities. You like foldables, and I like baguettes.

Your students are different than mine. The humans in our classrooms are fussy and demanding and moody and social and shy and are constantly muttering under their breath I-hate-this-shit. Good luck with that lesson on factoring trinomials.

Therefore, any advice on classroom management is making huge assumptions about who you are, what your students are like, and what your admins had for breakfast. I don’t blame you if after reading a how-to book on classroom management, and you feel stuck at step 4 below.

Unfortunately, the final step of “add small details” is what you must do — like practice, fail, practice, fail, shit, practice, shit, fail again — in the classroom!

No book is gonna help you master this thing. I’m sorry. You don’t become a chef by reading cookbooks. You just gotta go into the kitchen, roll up your sleeves, make a big mess, and voila boeuf bourguignon! Or not.

But before you accuse me of writing a post that is completely useless and unhelpful, please allow me to offer just these three tidbits.

Observe your colleague.

Intentionally schedule a time when you may come in to observe a colleague whom you hold in high regard and whom you may ask a thousand follow-up questions. It’s equally important that this colleague reciprocates the observation and gives you constructive feedback. Most likely you know this colleague better than you know any author of some book, and of course, you two share pretty much the same clientele. For optimal efficiency, and if possible, choose a time when your colleague has the same students who seem to be giving you trouble. Kids act differently for different teachers.

Know what you absolutely value above all things.

For me, it’s respect. Not just respect for me the teacher, but respect for all of us in the room. I don’t always handle this gracefully when disrespect unveils itself in my room because it tops my list of all things that make Ms. Win go ape-shit crazy. But because I know this about myself, and being proactive always yields better results than being reactive, I tell my kids of my zero-tolerance for disrespect from the get-go. I say, “I need you to be respectful. That’s the only way we are going to get along in here. Before we can do any mathematics or have any fun in here, we are going to be respectful to each other.” And may God give me the grace to apologize when I am being disrespectful to my students. I find that doughnuts help them forgive me quicker.

Separate the behavior from the child.

We know this already. But there are adult assholes out there. My hypothesis is that we teachers — and parents and society at large — have allowed the adorable children in our care to morph into assholes without effective intervention. What happened? I don’t know exactly, but I do know that we tend to let misbehaviors slide for fear of hurting the kid’s feeling or that it’s not the best time to deal with it. Well, I always try to immediately find the time and will immediately tell a kid that her actions/words are not okay because while the humans are young, their behaviors are especially removed from their true selves. I’m reprimanding the behavior, but I’m keeping the kid. Being a parent for 22 years and a teacher for 26, I conclude that children are highly manipulative. Not because they think it’s a desirable trait, but because they can’t drive and have no income, being manipulative is their survival mode of choice.

A few years ago I was sitting in the lodge at CMC-North in Asilomar when someone recognized me from my Ignite talk and came over to chit chat. He was lamenting the frequency in which his students were asking to use the restroom pass. I asked some related questions to learn more before I realized that he wasn’t lacking classroom management skills as much as just lacking a good lesson.

So, there’s that, step 0 as I call it — find that great math task.

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  1. Christian
    Posted August 11, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I oh-so-love this.

  2. Wendy Bartlett
    Posted August 11, 2017 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    This is awesome! Going to share with my PLT

  3. Posted August 11, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re totally right that classroom management is so dependent on our individual contexts. But sometimes I wonder if it’s only the most obvious case of this. I wonder if a lot of the other things we talk about on the internet is dependent on context in less obvious ways. When we share a worksheet or talk about a great mathematical moment, what are the ways that context matters there?

    Are there ways that we’ve learned to talk about these other context-dependent aspects of teaching? Could we learn to talk about classroom management in ways that bridge the context gap too? Or could we learn to have these conversations, first seeking the common context, like you did with the person via conversation at the conference?

    In any event, I really appreciate the point about separating the behavior from the child, and also hearing about how you don’t let things slide. I know I let too many behavior things slide, and that’s an aspect of management I’d like to get better at. Thank you for this post!

    • Fawn
      Posted August 20, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Hi Michael. This is what I’m thinking: the difference between sharing a math task with someone and a sharing a classroom management strategy with someone is that the outcome of the latter is much more dependent on the teacher herself. Managing a classroom is like being married — you have to juggle all the pieces, whereas implementing a task is like executing a meal in the kitchen with someone. The task is just a small part of the big picture of classroom management, therefore by its sheer size, it’s just easier to talk about and tweak. But I also believe there are viable classroom strategies, especially when it comes to logistics and classroom routines, to make a classroom run smoothly. I hope some of this makes sense, Michael.

  4. Posted August 11, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I love your advice to “know what you absolutely value above all things” and to let the kids know about it too right up front. Oddly enough, what I value above all things in the classroom isn’t as easy to identify for me as I would have thought, which tells me I need to think it out thoroughly NOW if I’m going to communicate it clearly to kids in 2 weeks. I believe having that bedrock would help me react to classroom management problems more quickly and clearly in the moment.

    The classroom management advice I’ve grown wary of over the years is that which is so inflexible that I don’t think it allows for a range of successful styles. The hardest things to address are those in which it’s not obvious which value to prioritize, because they can come into conflict at least sometimes (e.g. “I want all kids involved in doing math joyfully together” and “I want a calm space in which everyone can concentrate”). Sometimes something has to give, and without prioritizing those values, it’s difficult to identify what you can compromise on compared to your ideals.

    I think my core math education value is “Math should make sense.” But for my core classroom behavior value… empathy seems closer than respect, for me; and the other main candidate is something like “being willing to think.” Hmmm. Needs more work!

  5. Pat Ciula
    Posted August 12, 2017 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    This is an insightful post. I just gotta say, having a new post from you show up in my mailbox is like a little present, every time. Sometimes I don’t open it right away, savoring the anticipation. (I’m that weird.) Always makes me laugh (or cry), always impressively wise and thoughtful, always worth the wait.

    • Fawn
      Posted August 20, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Hi Pat. Be as weird as you want, but your comment is super kind and I really appreciate it. Thank you.

  6. JDoma
    Posted August 13, 2017 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I have found that when a particular student is challenging in your class, observing them in a class that they are doing better (best) often gives you insights into making the experience in your class better.
    A follow up with the teacher in the class where the student is doing better can also be supportive.

  7. Mr M
    Posted August 15, 2017 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    What a great read! Having taught in a few different schools, your advice on observing students with different colleagues is something I did during training and will be getting my student teacher to do so going forward! Thank you so much for sharing!

  8. JKim
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your post!
    As a teacher candidate, I am most concerned with behavior management in my future classroom, but this post helped me get mentally prepared for it. I had observed two different classrooms so far; the two teachers had a very different behavior management strategies because they were different people, they had different group of students, they work at different schools, etc. As you mentioned in your post, no single management strategy will work in all classrooms due to the different contexts; however, observing various classrooms will definitely help.
    About knowing what I value absolutely above all things, I agree that respect should be the most valuable thing in a classrooms, and it is important to get the message through to everyone. From your experience, what do you think is the most effective way to deliver that message? Should I reinforce it every now and then? Or when problems occur?

  9. Dani P.
    Posted November 21, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! As a pre-service teacher, this is probably some of the best advice on classroom management that I’ve received thus far. I love what you said about knowing what you absolutely value above all things. From a student perspective, I think it would be difficult to remember multiple rules in each class, especially having 6+ different teachers. If each classroom had one most important rule, such as respect for you, then it’s easier for the students to understand and for the teacher to control. Now I need to just figure out what is the one thing I value above all else..

  10. Nick R.
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    This was brief, but insightful reading for me. Like Dani above, I also am a pre-service teacher and having been placed in two different schools (a high school and a middle school), I’ve heard so much advice and suggestions from so many people; not just my mentor teacher, but all the other teachers who looked back to their first years of teaching and had pity for me. What I’ve learned though is exactly what you said: that there is not just one style of classroom management that works, but that there are so many factors that play into it. Hopefully, I can find a mixture that I can make my own as I begin teaching. Thank you!

  11. Naama W
    Posted April 23, 2018 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Wow, this post was really interesting! I think what you said about observing one’s colleagues was fascinating. How do you decide who you want to observe? What kinds of things do you look for in a mentor teacher?
    Also, do you have any personal thought strategies to deal with subtle ethnic bias? (on the teachers part or on the part of students and administrators)


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