Has the novelty of the new school year started to fade? Have you found yourself wondering what happened to the enthusiastic and friendly students who were in your class just a few short days ago? If so, don’t worry. You are not alone, and things can get better.
While I hope that you were able to make your first day count in all the ways you’d envisioned and that you’re enjoying your students and are benefiting from efficient routines, I suspect by now that you’ve encountered some resistance. Maybe it’s just a chatty group in the third row, or a few students who can’t seem to get to your class on time. But perhaps it’s a bit more serious than that.
Maybe there’s some outward disrespect toward you or others, or even some potentially harmful behavior that needs to be addressed. Or maybe there’s nothing specific you can put your finger on, but the vibe is just a bit negative. It feels tense; people aren’t smiling much; you sense that everyone—including you—is constantly walking around on eggshells.
Whatever your circumstance right now, I hope to provide you with three guiding principles that will help you handle the conflict that exists, to varying degrees, in nearly every classroom.
By offering principles, rather than strategies, I hope to give you a framework with which specific techniques can be developed. Checking your classroom management approach against these principles will help you create a culture where you and your students can flourish.
Principle 1: Honor Students’ Humanity
At the most basic level, it is important to remember that the students in your classroom are someone else’s children. Treat them the way you’d want your own children to be treated by an adult to whose care you’ve entrusted your most precious treasures.
I know this is obvious to us when we’re in the reading a blog mindset, but the heat of the moment mindset is a very different animal. The heat of the moment stirs up face-saving and ego-protecting behavior. It provokes shoot now, aim later words; and if we’re not grounded in a commitment to honoring our students’ humanity, these moments can result in real damage—to our relationships with kids, to their feelings, to our credibility with parents and students and colleagues.
Beyond their being someone else’s children, your students are also works in progress, just like we are.
You have to remember this. Consider how you can help them grow—how you can guide them in practicing the type of behavior you desire so they can become the types of students (and ultimately, citizens) we want them to become. Communicate that you believe in their ability to change and that, because you want good for their lives, you expect that they will change. And ensure them that you’re in their corner, even when they make you angry or hurt your feelings.
You’re the adult. Model to them how they should react when faced with conflict. Encourage them to accept responsibility. Assure them of your forgiveness and of your belief in second (and third and fourth) chances. And then work to show them that reconciliation has occurred. Let them back into the normal flow of the classroom; don’t continue reminding them of their offense. Forgive them and move forward.
Another way that helps in honoring your students’ humanity is to keep in mind that they are whole people. They have full lives outside of your classroom, and if you think about it, the time they spend with you is but a paragraph, maybe two, in the full story of their lives.
They are brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, best friends and neighbors. They have hobbies and passions and dreams. They come to us with many stories and with hearts that are eager to experience many more.
They have been designed with purpose. Treat them graciously. Realize they’re just passing through your room, and work to make their experience special.
Here’s the big idea: If you’re struggling with a student, see him/her as more than just the kid in 2nd period who really drives you crazy. His identity is not limited to his connection to you, to his being a student, or to his bad behavior. Consider ways that you could get to know more details of his story. Work to honor him by learning about the fullness of who he is. And have patience as you remember that in the same way that your class is a small moment in the entirety of his life, his presence with you is but a blip on the radar screen of your career.
Principle 2: Model Humility
With the thousands of decisions we make every day and tens of thousands of words we speak, we are going to make mistakes. This doesn’t make us bad teachers or bad people. This just shows our humanity.
So if you mess up, own it. Say you’re sorry for what you said or did (or didn’t say or do), ask for your students’ forgiveness, assure them you’re committed to honoring your relationship with them, and move on.
In so doing, you will have diffused a tense situation; you will have modeled the very behavior you want from your students, and you will have gained allies.
The alternative? Never admit your errors. Become defensive at the smallest criticism. Blame shift and make every problem the students’ fault. The result? Maybe you’ll have saved face for a moment, but you’ll have cultivated resentment, and you’ll have missed a chance to show students that you are open to the same type of growth you encourage them to value.
Some readers will struggle with the idea that teachers should ever apologize to their students. They’ll contend that doing so will make them look weak, or they’ll say some statement that is almost guaranteed to start with either, “Well, I’m the teacher…… or “Well, in the real world….”
Ok, where to start? First, being the teacher doesn’t mean you’re infallible. If anything, it means you’re the person most likely to make mistakes because you’re the one who’s most responsible for ensuring safety, delivering instruction, etc. Beyond this, think of any authority figure you know who has taken a “because I said so” or “because I’m in charge” attitude. How have you felt about him/her? What if your principal treated you that way? What if s/he never owned mistakes or accepted responsibility? Would you nominate her for Leader of the Year? No way. You’d probably fear her, or avoid her, or even disparage her. You would be very unlikely to want to receive her feedback, to trust her intentions, or to have any interest in cultivating a meaningful relationship with her. Students are no different.
Secondly, can we start telling kids a more honest story about the real world? The fact is that there are plenty of do overs there. Most of us have probably needed a few of our own in many aspects of our lives, including our jobs. Related to this, people in authority do mess up and do apologize for it—all the time. This is the real world.
So if you’re interested in teaching your students about the really real world, let’s show them how to walk with humility and to practice the hard work of reconciliation.
Principle 3: Exercise Self-Control
This has lots of “for examples.” But one of the places I most see it lacking is when teachers escalate tense situations by engaging in verbal “one-upsmanship” with students. This is dangerous and rarely leads to the long-term results we desire.
Some of the best advice I’ve received on this issue is to realize that students don’t have to play by the same rules we do. It might be more accurate to say that they don’t face the same consequences for not following the rules. A student yelling and swearing at you will likely result in his receiving a detention or suspension. You swear at or belittle a student? Entirely different outcome.
We have to remember this: There’s very little to be gained by arguing with a student. There is, however, a great deal to be lost.
Consider the following classroom scenario:
Teacher: Today, our focus is on understanding the causes and effects of WWII. When you leave, you’ll be able to explain…
Student (under breath but loudly enough to be heard): Not another day of this stuff. Man, this class is so boring. What’s this got to do with me?
Ok, go ahead and let yourself feel that little spark of anger. Let yourself create the 20 witty retorts you could throw back his way. Hear yourself telling him ALL the reasons this lesson is important. Allow all of this to happen. In. Your. Head. And then say nothing.
You’re going to answer this concern any way. Of course you’re going to tell students why this lesson is important; and of course, you’re going to try to make it relevant to them. So go ahead and do that. But don’t do it for him. Don’t engage him now. Just choose to ignore him.
For now, continue delivering great instruction to the rest of the class, all the ones who are likely doing what you expect and who probably didn’t hear what he said anyway. If you take the bait and address his grumbling, you may end up in a back and forth that will only make the situation worse. Depending on the kid, it will escalate way past mumbling, resulting in the need for referrals, phone calls home, etc.
More than this, you’ll have just derailed your lesson. You’ll have focused all the attention on a minor offense and on the single offender in a class of dozens. And, depending on how badly things went, you may have also lost credibility. Sure, you might have set an example that students ought not enter into a verbal tango with you, but at what cost? So don’t take the bait. Ignore what can be ignored.
Having students choose to behave because they’re afraid they will be humiliated if they don’t is not effective classroom management. Rather, it is a complete misuse of authority and influence.
But let’s be clear on what ignoring behavior doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to address the issue. You will. You just have to do it at a strategic time. When you’re in the front of the room and students are all focused on you is not a strategic time. Much better is a point when the class is working on an activity and you are moving around the room.
Placing a simple note on the student’s desk to see you after class, or taking a quick knee next to his desk so that you can work through the problem is a much better option because it minimizes the chance of derailing your lesson or embarrassing the student, which will inevitably escalate the situation and/or cause resentment.
Here’s a Way You Could Frame This Private Conversation:
I noticed earlier that ________. Can you tell me what was going on there?
(Now listen to the answer).
Ok, I understand that _______, and you’re always welcome to tell me if you feel
________. But it’s important that you do so in a way that respects your
classmates and me. So if you feel frustrated about something, how about you
plan to see me or email me, or leave a note on my desk so that we can talk about
Here, you’ve modeled effective listening and you’ve told this student that his opinion matters. You’ve valued his humanity. You’ve also made yourself vulnerable by allowing him to say that he’s upset with you. This models humility. Additionally, you’ve made clear to him how you expect him to behave. This, too, values his humanity by giving him boundaries.
Finally, by entering into a private conversation after the heat of the moment has subsided, you’ve also modeled self-control and allowed him a safe place to express himself without feeling as strong a need to save face in front of his peers. It is much more likely that this student will behave acceptably tomorrow than it would be had you escalated the situation and essentially backed him into a corner in front of his classmates. You have chosen to have a long-term view of this situation, and you have built up your credibility with him and his peers.
When You Have to Address it ASAP
Ignoring some behavior temporarily doesn’t mean that you should do this for all infractions. Some disruptions are intended to hijack the entire class and have to be dealt with quickly and publicly.
Two questions to help you assess whether immediate action is necessary:
- Is this behavior threatening the security (emotional or physical) of anyone in the classroom? If so, it must be addressed immediately. There are a variety of tactics to be used here, but all still involve our three overarching principles. React firmly but not excessively.
- Has this behavior already captured the attention of the entire class? If so, and ignoring it will allow the behavior to continue, address it with the least intrusive means possible. This often involves simply waiting quietly and looking in the general direction of the student. (Minimal reaction from you is often helpful, especially as this behavior is based largely in getting a reaction). Other times, it involves using your attention signal and then waiting for 100% participation. The majority of students will return their attention to you as the pressure to follow the classroom expectation increases. (Note: There are some situations where students will be unsure whom to support: you, by joining in on the attention signal, or the student, who clearly has some control over the class. If this is the case, you may have a more serious situation on your hands; please reach out to a leader in your school for assistance in changing this dynamic.
Three Principles for Dealing with Challenging Classroom Management
- Honor Students’ Humanity
- Model Humility
- Exercise Self-Control
I hope you’ve found these principles helpful. As always, feel free to reach out to me with any questions or comments you may have.