"How Do I Begin to Manage a Class?"
by Jan Birney
Congratulations! You've just signed your first teaching contract. You are about to begin the career you've trained and studied for and you are ready! You have a portfolio full of perfectly designed lessons. Your objectives are behavioral, your initiations are enticing, you use a variety of materials that will bring your lessons alive. You remember to model for understanding and you've got plenty of independent practice for each lesson. And your lesson closures? Your students will be begging for the next class to begin so they can see what's coming next.
Ok, ok, you know that you're exaggerating a bit. Maybe everything won't go perfectly every day. Maybe you'll have a few rough moments. After all, you're very new to this game. In fact, what if.... What if the kids don't listen? What if you have to shout to be heard? What if the principal walks in and there's chaos? What if your perfect little students run all the way to lunch and the superintendent of schools sees them?
Now you're getting nervous. How will you ever create a classroom environment that captures the excitement of your creative, engaging lessons and still maintain a climate that is conducive to learning? Should you impose martial law? Maybe you shouldn't smile for the first month of school so they know who's boss. Or maybe you should run your classroom as a democracy-the kids make the rules so they feel as if they are an important part of the class. But won't that add to the chaos? What to do? What to do?
You are now in a full-blown panic! You know you'd better think about managing your class, but where do you begin? Well, the fact that you are thinking about your classroom climate before you enter the classroom means you're already on the right track, because thinking is the first step in designing a classroom management system that helps children learn and helps you keep your sanity.
Children gain self-esteem and confidence (which is what it means to feel "important") when they succeed at doing what is expected of them. So your first job is to have high expectations for the children that you teach. Expect excellence. Then help them attain excellence. Your standards, rules, and procedures should be set by you, the teacher, as you are the one who will guide your students to competency. So before you decide on any rules you will have in your class, sit down and think long and hard.
Think about what you want your classroom to "look" like. I don't mean its decorations, although, of course, the physical environment is important. But think about the emotional climate of your class. Think about your own personality. Are you the type of teacher who likes quiet industriousness? Do you need order and structure? Do you prefer "controlled chaos"--can you tolerate a bit of noise as long as children are on task and learning? Do you believe, as stated so well by Frank McCourt in his memoir, 'Tis, that "a 'WOW' in any classroom means something is happening"? Are you afraid that the "WOWs" will run away with you and leave you with a classroom of out-of-control children? Are you soft-spoken and calm, or energetic and animated? Or something in between? Think about these things before you begin, because you want to work with your own personality as you build your classroom climate. Only after you have done your thinking will you be ready to set your standards and procedures.
One of the biggest mistakes we teachers make is that we tend to assume that our students know how to behave. We think they know how to be silent, how to line up for lunch, how to walk in the hallways (or how to walk at all!). We think that all they need to do is listen and follow our instructions and everything will be fine. If they don't do what we tell them to, they must not be complying and we must do something to get them to obey. We must punish those who don't comply, or reward those who do. And the punishments and rewards rarely accomplish their purpose. The problem is, our students' idea of silence, and walking, and lining up doesn't always match with our idea of the same. So it is up to us to teach them these things.
On the very first day of school, every year, with every grade level I teach (I teach computer skills in grades K-8, so I see them all), I give the "silence lesson." I teach silence. I talk about what silence is, and what silence isn't. I model silence. I model behavior that isn't silent (they love this). I teach them what noise is, too. I teach them the difference between controllable noise (talking, whispering, shouting, tapping, kicking, clicking), visual noise (fidgeting, shuffling, wiggling with inattention), and uncontrollable noise (the intercom, a sneeze, Mr. Gaspar cutting the grass outside our window). Of course, I make allowances for very young children--kindergartners, first and second graders are not always physically able to sit still for very long, but if they are attentive, it counts as silence.
Then we practice making and keeping silence. I give feedback-"Jehosophat is silent because he's watching me, he's sitting still in his seat, and he's ready for our lesson." "Esmeralda is not silent, even though she's not talking. When she looks at me and stops playing with her computer mouse, we'll be ready to begin." Notice that I don't praise, I don't condemn. I just observe and report on my observations. I'll expand on this in a minute.
I also teach my students my signal for silence-I wait. I catch the eye of the kid who is farthest away from me and I speak just loudly enough for that kid to hear me. And I wait for everyone else to get the message. It usually doesn't take long because I have taught them my signal so they are ready for it. You, of course, will use your own signal, which will be perfect for you. Some teachers clap, others blink the lights. One of the kindergarten teachers at our school puts "a magic finger" up to her lips. The important thing is to have a signal, teach it to the children, and again, model and practice. This lesson seems tedious and elementary here, but it does help set the tone and sends a strong message to the kids that you have expectations for them. Because you have taught, modeled, and practiced making and keeping silence, your students know that it is important to you. They know what to expect from you and they know what you expect from them. Teach other important standards andprocedures in much the same way: teach, model, practice, give feedback. In fact, create a lesson plan for this, because it's probably the most important lesson you'll teach all year! This method works for lessons in respect, lining up, teasing, or walking in the halls. In fact, any classroom management issues that you face could probably be resolved by conducting a lesson that teaches, models, and practices the behavior you want your students to exhibit.
Now about rewards: you don't need to reward goodbehavior; in fact, why reward kids for doing what is expected of them? Your goal is to guide your students to excellence and to help them live up to your expectations. You do give feedback, as I mentioned earlier. Feedback is emotionally neutral (which comes in handy with kids who like to see you squirm). Feedback is an objective comment upon what you observe and it helps kids learn how to self-correct their behavior. It also helps them save face. The last thing you need is to find yourself in a power-struggle with a fifth grader because he is miffed that he was called to task in front of his friends! And, of course, there is never any excuse for a teacher to embarrass a student. Punishment, too, has pitfalls. Not only does it set a negative tone for your class, but avoidance of punishment does nothing to encourage self-control and responsibility. Since feedback doesn't carry any extrinsic reward, and it respects their sensibilities, it encourages kids to gain self-control and self-discipline, which is a worthy goal indeed. Sooner or later, they'll stop trying to please you and begin to see themselves as competent, civilized citizens of your class because you see them that way. Remember your Psych 101 course: Self-fulfilling prophecies!
I can't tell you specific rules and procedures to have in your class. That is for you to decide and why the thinking session is so important. Each teacher, each school, each class personality is different so you will have to use your good sense, intuition, and educational training to figure these things out (and you will, because you are capable of excellence, just as your students are).
There's so much more I can tell you, but for now ponder, reflect, and decide. And smile--don't waste a precious month trying to be what you're not (unless you're not the smiling type, but then you probably wouldn't be a teacher). Read the Teachers.Net chatboards and visit the rest of the site, too. There are some wonderful, knowledgeable teachers here who share their expertise regularly. Now, go have a nice cup of tea to celebrate the beginning of a bright, productive, career.