Give or take, scenes from my classroom last week:
- A walks into class, talking at full volume until someone shushes her and points to the obvious math talk on the board.
- B slouches in his desk, head barely above seat-back.
- C decides to dump out contents of his binder to find the math paper from 24 hours ago.
- D talks while I’m talking.
- E and F are talking while someone else is sharing.
- G and H are playing footsie; H is better at this.
- Someone lets out a shockingly loud fart — we all look at row 7, seat 5 because the occupant is giggling and beaming proudly.
- I continually scans the room like she’s seeing it for the first time.
- J asks to use the restroom when there are fewer than ten minutes left of class.
- K and L try to talk to each other half way across the room.
- M makes squishy noises with his water bottle.
- N taps his pencil.
- O clicks his pen.
- P and Q… well, they’re just minding themselves.
- R blurts out, “I already got the answer!”
- S needs to borrow a pencil from classmate for the 95th day of school.
- T volunteers, “Yes, I’m very bright. I’m a genius. But I need help with section nine four.”
- U returns my look with a look of what-Mrs.Win-?-I’m-doing-my-work-see-?-hehe-okay-I’ll-do-my-work-now.
- V yells at person sitting in front of her, “Stop pushing your desk into me!!”
- W walks across room to get a drink of water. Five sets of eyes follow W and then at me to see my reaction.
- X asks out of the blue, “Have you eaten at that Korean place, Mrs. Win? It’s so good.”
- Y sticks out his foot to trip Z as he walks by.
- A through N immediately engage in lively conversations just as I say, “I need you to take out a piece of graph paper.” So, I have to say, “Guys! You don’t have to talk just to get out a piece of paper!”
- O through Z immediately engage in lively conversations just as I say, “Make sure your name is on the paper.”
I may only talk about classroom management with your understanding that my own classroom is sometimes chaotic, sometimes louder than it should be, sometimes messy — but somewhere in this soup of chaos, noise, and mess, I have to believe that there is learning of mathematics. More so on some days.
I can’t help but draw parallels between teaching and parenting because both roles have defined me. Their enormous responsibilities have brought out the best and worst in me. It’s easy to love children. It’s much harder to discipline them. A wise colleague once reminded our staff that discipline is not a dirty word — to discipline means to teach. And I think teaching is the purest form of love because teaching is sharing.
Classroom management is used interchangeably as classroom discipline, and that’s okay. It’s all part of classroom teaching. I’ve been around long enough to see teachers leave the profession because they lacked “classroom control.” Nothing in teacher school adequately prepares you for this. No manual outlines what to do when a kid cusses you out. Step 1: remain calm. Step 2: breathe deeply and count to 10. Step 3: fuck this shit and find another job.
I bought this hardcover book long ago.
I’m sure it’s full of good intentions and sound advice. (Serendipitous that 20 years later the author Randall S. Sprick enters my life again when our school currently adopts his CHAMPS program.) But it’s really hard to see classroom management in action from reading a book or a blog post. It’s ideal to directly observe a teacher and her students, and not just for a day or two, but over a period of time. The classroom culture is undeniably real and one has to be in it to fully appreciate and honor this culture. I know there’s a thing called student teaching where one is immersed in a real classroom for a semester. But I swear to God, the kids we get during student teaching are sent down from Heaven. And the real kids, the ones we get after we’re hired and on our own, are sent up from the Other Place.
What I’m saying is it might be very helpful to observe these same kids whom you currently have in another teacher’s classroom.
It was around the end of the first quarter of my third year in the classroom when a colleague – a new hire – told me the vice-principal had suggested for her to observe me for a couple of periods. Afterward, she said, “Fawn, Joey is like a different kid in your room. I never knew he could sit still for 5 minutes! He’s out of control in my room. In your room, he just… blends in.”
Apparently Joey behaved differently for different teachers or at least in different settings. The teacher didn’t come back the next year — and this made me sad because she worked hard andwanted to be a teacher. There were other teachers who left the school after putting in just one year. It was a “tough” school – plagued with the usual inner city inadequacies and brokenness.
Having said that, I find kids are kids. I’ve taught in the poorest neighborhood and in the most affluent. Kids who live in fancy homes have better rides to school and wear designer labels, but at their core, they are kids who mostly want to learn and not be shunned at the lunch table.
We can’t say we possess great classroom management skills if we could pick and choose where and whom to teach. There’s a quote out there that I like: Parents are sending us their best; they’re not keeping the good ones at home. So, if we took the students out of the classroom-management-success equation, we are left with two variables: the teacher and the classroom.
- LOVE the kids. Fine, we don’t have to love all of them because inevitably each year there’s always one (or two or three) who pushes all our buttons and makes us throw wild tantrums at home. But aren’t we supposed to be tougher than the toughest kids? How is this child’s home life? And is this child behaving like this in all her classes? There’s something to be said about killing ’em with kindness. Why are we in teaching if we didn’t love children and love helping them learn?
- Show students respect. It should be the other way around — that kids must automatically respect us for our age and our college degree. But whom are we kidding. We all know of a few adults with advanced degrees who need to stay the hell away from us because they’re mean and psychotic. Kids tend to misbehave more for teachers whom they don’t respect. Do we honor their struggles and offer to help? Do we show up at their games and show genuine interest in something they do outside of school? Do we say please, thank you, and sorry each and every time that warrants it? Do we spend time outside of class to help a kid like we said we would?
- Command respect. Respect has to be mutual. Like trust. We have a great opportunity to be a role model for many kids. We can’t command respect by being “pals” with the students. We all know of parents who try to be buddies with their kids. We should never ignore a disrespectful comment/tone/gesture from a student. Because if we do ignore it, it won’t be the last time it happens. How do we speak of our colleagues and administrators to students? How do we speak of our family to students? Are we consistent and honest with them? Do we follow through with consequences?
- Have a sense of humor. When was the last time we laughed with the kids? The lighter moments make us more approachable and compassionate. When was the last time we shared a bonehead mistake we made? Who makes us laugh? Humor allows us more room to breathe when we need to get tough with a kid.
- Have good lessons. I can almost tie every misbehavior or off-task behavior to the lesson itself. A good lesson is no good until it’s delivered well. Logistics. A content-rich lesson that doesn’t take into account student movement and/or material management is asking for all sorts of mayhem. Please don’t envision a “good” lesson only as a hands-on task that involves group work. A good “lecture” — aka direct instruction (maybe) — should capture students’ attention too if we drew them in with questions and invited them to make conjectures along the way. Good story telling [that relates to the math topic] will have their eyes wide open and ears perked up. Good lectures are awesome.
- Establish routines:
- One of the best things we have established school-wide (K-8) from the CHAMPS program is a hand signal for silence. What’s your signal? And we need to wait for that complete silence before we speak.
- Kids will forget some of the routines and look at us like we’re crazy when we remind them. So, remind them and don’t look so crazy, like don’t make a big deal out of it.
- We need to remember that kids [and adults] crave structure. We are creatures of habit. A good structure does not mean it has to be fixed; it means it’s flexible. Like a building that’s earthquake hearty. (Ooh, I like my just now invented analogy for classroom structure. I’m brilliant.)
- Noise level. What is our tolerance level? Dead quiet has to mean dead quiet. Whispering is not dead quiet. What’s the appropriate noise level for small-group work? How often do we find ourselves yelling? There’s no rule that says we can’t stop the activity — especially when it comes to safety — if kids aren’t following protocol.
- The ONE thing. Do our kids know the one thing that upsets us? My one thing is I hate mean people. So I get really, really upset when I see a kid doing something mean to another. The lesson stops. Everything stops because this is a big deal. Most of them will say that they were just playing around. We talk about that — playing and inadvertently hurting someone. Our classroom needs to be a safe place. And I want this to be a money-back guarantee with kids; it’s my one thing.
I’d taught at my first school for 8 years before I interviewed with another school. Near the end of that interview:
Vice-Principal: Fawn, there was one thing in particular that your former vice-principal had shared about you that stuck with me.
VP: He said, She was the only teacher who could get our eighth graders to walk perfectly in a straight line and quietly from her room to the gym. How did you do that?
M: I just asked them to.
VP: You just asked them?
M: I mean they know what quiet means and what a straight line is. I told them that we needed to show respect to the other teachers and their students when we pass by their classrooms. We show this respect by walking quietly and orderly so we don’t disrupt them.
VP: How long did it take to get them to do that?
M: First time. Well, we simply didn’t move unless they were all quiet and in straight line! I saw pride in them as they walked. At least one teacher would happen to watch them go by and complimented them. When we got back to our room, I always thanked them and told them they made me proud.