Fixing Education: Classroom Management–Part 1

One of the biggest deterrents to success in class is how the teacher manages his/her time as well as behavioral issues among the class members.  Although all teacher training programs now require that prospective teachers complete a class in classroom management techniques, such classes are often offered early in the program, or are not treated by students as being vital to their own success.  Many teachers who have been practicing for years may not have mastered effective management techniques, and their instincts may not be in tune with a particular class-full of students.  (One thing we all pick up on, whether self-contained teachers or subject specialists and sometimes later rather than sooner, is that a class can have a distinct personality as much as an individual student has.)  For some teachers, classroom management is not part of what teachers do, and their classes reflect that attitude.  Unfortunately, a poorly managed classroom is more detrimental to learning than a teacher with subject matter deficiencies.

Although classroom management is important, beginning teachers (years 1 to 3) spend more time learning the teaching materials for their class(es) than on how to keep students engaged and actively learning.  Certainly, being familiar with the curriculum is of paramount importance, but so are the interactions between teacher and class that help facilitate learning.  Students do not learn well in a dysfunctional environment, and newer teachers especially may need help in negotiating management techniques that work with certain individual and class personalities.

The school administrator can help all teachers–new or experienced–by providing general in-service workshops specifically geared toward classroom management techniques that work.  Among these techniques–the most obvious, yet the least used–is to give students ownership of the class.  That doesn’t mean the students run the class; rather, it means that they take much responsibility for their own behaviors and learning.  Once students feel they have a real voice in their learning, any lack of subject matter knowledge or technique weaknesses that a teacher may have become irrelevant, and students can learn subject matter and skills appropriate to their learning abilities and styles instead of only rote materials and skills for a state proficiency exam.  The net result is that teachers can stop teaching to the test (see earlier post), and start teaching for developmental learning.

Before I go on to how to give the students ownership in the class, I want to define developmental learning, as it means something very different in k-12 education than in post-secondary education.  In post-secondary education, “developmental” is synonymous with “remedial.”  At the k-12 level, it refers to the student’s level of learning readiness–more specifically, traditional “grade level” work.  Thus, if a beginning fifth grade student has a developmental reading level of 7.0, that student is reading two years above the average for his/her grade.  But there is another catch here: when we say that a student’s standardized reading test score is 7.0, that means this is the level that may actually be the first point at which the student can have major difficulty.  Thus, when looking at student test scores, it is important to know whether a grade-level score is developmental (the level at which the student is actually learning with relative ease) or what is called a frustration-level score (the level at which learning difficulty is just a smidge too high).  To clarify, a fifth-grader with a developmental reading score of 7.0 is capable of reading and understanding material in a typical 7th-grade text.  If a fifth-grader’s standardized test reading score is 7.0, that is the level at which the student can no longer learn except with great difficulty.  Do not give the latter a 7th-grade text, as the student will be unable to grasp the material even at the fringes of “comfort.”  (Isn’t educational jargon fun?)

How does a teacher “give” the class to the students?  Well, whether from Day 1 of the school term, or somewhere in the middle, allowing the students to create their own class rules is the beginning step.  The only rules are that the students can generate no more than 7-10 rules (initially determined by the teacher), that these rules must be stated in the simplest possible terms (and with as few words as possible), that the rules express the behaviors they want to display in positive wording whenever possible (“do” as opposed to “do not”–“Be respectful” as opposed to “Don’t disrespect anyone”), and that the full set of rules refer to all possible classroom conditions the students can think of.

Students can vote on each rule as it is finalized, or after a review of all the generated rules (or both) to see if any can be grouped into a single idea, and they should discuss why they object to a rule or support it.  The pros and cons of each rule should be discussed by students thoroughly before a vote.  This helps clarify the meaning of the rule.  Rules as they are generated and as they are finalized can be written out by the teacher or (better) a student volunteer.  It might take more than half a day in a self-contained classroom, or several periods in secondary level classes, to finalize the rules, but the result is that the students own the rules they come up with and help classmates stick to the rules.  The bonus is that they often come up with the same rules the teacher would have generated.

The hardest part of the rule generation and finalization processes for the teacher is staying out of the discussion except to facilitate, ask for explanation, or “wonder if…” .  We teachers want to take over, and it is difficult for many of us to merely facilitate.  Allowing oneself the right to comment and not the right to override is one of the most difficult tasks for many teachers, but the results are worth the teacher’s temperance.

Once the rules have been voted on and accepted, they should be transferred to posterboard or some other semi-permanent media, and immediately posted in a prominent location that will not interfere with normal classroom activity.  Students should be encouraged to help each other stick to their own rules by pointing to the rule that is being “broken” when another student is displaying behaviors/actions outside of the accepted rules, as long as this is done positively–using positive verbage and expressing in a supportive manner what the “offending” student needs to do, rather than what he/she needs to stop doing.  If feasible, students should role-play possible scenarios so that they get an idea of how positive support works.

Some readers will object to all of this as students self-policing.  What it really demonstrates is positive socialization practices that help students identify inappropriate behavior in themselves and their classmates, allow for positive feedback while providing positive replacement behaviors, and actually help promote positive self-esteem.  Students should be encouraged to compliment each other when positive behaviors replace offending ones.  Every now and then, the teacher should praise the class on generating such a wonderful set of rules and sticking to them, but only if the praise is genuine (students at all levels–k-12 as well as post-secondary–can spot phony praise a mile away, and will stop respecting the teacher’s words).  Within weeks, both students and teacher will hardly remember that they went through this process, but the behaviors of individual students will improve remarkably.  The classroom environment has become one that is conducive to true learning.

It would be naive to assume that all students will always remember the rules.  Anger over a remark or a perceived slight may create a situation in which the teacher must stop actively teaching and/or facilitating learning, and review the class-generated rules.  This should always be a general discussion of the rules that have been broken, not of the individual offender.  Further, it may be necessary (or at least helpful) to have the situation re-enacted.  Depending on the students involved, the teacher should decide whether to ask the students involved in breaking a rule or reacting negatively to an action by another student to re-enact the situation in light of the rules and discussion, or whether students not involved in a situation should be asked to re-enact it.  On occasion, it may even be necessary to revisit a rule and discuss how it can be strengthened or re-stated.  All this should be in the hands of the students, but facilitated by the teacher.  The teacher may start the process, but just as in the original rule-generation stage, the students should control the discussion with no more than facilitation by the teacher.

Why does this work?  It works because we seem to be programmed to try to succeed at those goals we set for ourselves.  We value what we ourselves generate.  That is why a democratic society succeeds when its citizens continue to have a say in their own governance.  When we are genuinely praised for success, we try harder to maintain the positive perceptions of those sharing the environment with us.  We also tend to function better in a society that allows us freedom of expression and movement, as long as everyone has a similar understanding of the “rules”/laws, and is striving to stay within them.

There will always be one or two individuals who want to be above the rules or simply think they are stupid.  This is true in society and the classroom.  At some later point, I will discuss ways to deal with the recalcitrant student.  Tomorrow’s post will move on to other classroom management techniques that work.

Please share your views about with me and other readers by commenting on this post.  I always learn from others’ experiences, and take constructive criticism seriously.

Thanks!

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About DrEMiller

K-12 teacher for 13 years (Special Education for 10 years); Post-secondary educator since 2002; Education consulting since 1995. When teaching, held teaching certificates in K-12 special education, reading specialist; and secondary social studies. Doctorate: Educational Psychology Programmer/analyst for 10 years, including project management and training of corporate execs.
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3 Responses to Fixing Education: Classroom Management–Part 1

  1. Sandy P says:

    Classroom management is a great topic. I like the idea of letting the class create its own rules. However, I’m not sure how the paragraph on developmental learning fits in with the topic. Am I missing something?

    • DrEMiller says:

      See? Good thing this is a practice post. I believe you’re right about it being extraneous. I recently gave a doctoral student a difficult time because she did not differentiate between the two, and had wasted a lot of her time. She couldn’t understand how in some studies a developmental level was positive, while in others it was negative. I think the section on developmental test scores versus frustration scores got in there because a lot of educators are unaware of what standardized grade equivalents really are. I’m not going to edit that out of this version, but it will definitely come out of the next. Thanks for your insights, Sandy!

  2. Pingback: Fixing Education: Classroom Management–Part 2 | Eleanore's Ramblings…

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