College taught me a lot about teaching. I learned about Bloom’s taxonomy and the Common Core State Standards. I learned about the history of education and discussed the efficacy of various grading systems. But the one thing that my peers and I desperately wanted to learn, but were never taught, was how to manage a classroom. Now that I have eight years of teaching experience in a Title 1 school, I want to share what college didn’t teach you about classroom management.
Introduction to Classroom Management
Often when I was in college, a classmate would raise her hand. The professor would call on the student and my peer would ask, “What about classroom management? How do we actually get students to do that?”
The entire class would perk up, lean in, and listen for the words of wisdom that were to come.
Except, the answer we received for four years was always the same: “I can’t teach you that. Classroom management is something you have to learn on the job.”
I left college knowing that classroom management made the difference between mediocre and great teachers, but I had no idea how to actually manage a classroom.
During my first year of teaching, I faced pretty much every problem a poorly managed classroom would create: poor academics, loud and disrespectful students, and a line of administrators in and out of my classroom with unhelpful platitudes like, “You just need to be the captain of your ship.”
For years, I was given incredibly unhelpful advice and left to struggle with students I couldn’t relate to or understand.
But, with each year, my management skills got better. Now, I can say with pride that I have some of the lowest referral numbers in my school.
When I do send a student out of my classroom, the dean’s secretary always looks at them and says, “You came from Heather? Boy, you must have really messed up.”
So, in this post I’m going to try and put into words what no professor could verbalize for me.
What is Classroom Management?
First, let’s talk about what classroom management is. “Classroom management” is a huge umbrella term that covers many things:
- The routines and procedures in your classroom
- The expectations in your classroom
- Student behavior
- The transitions and general ebb and flow of activities in your classroom
- The consequences in place for students who choose not to meet expectations
I don’t think anyone ever broke down classroom management for me. Had I known all the moving parts that went into it, maybe I would have had an easier time my first few years.
Why is Classroom Management Important?
Without classroom management, nothing gets done in a classroom.
Great classroom management leads to more positive outcomes for students and staff:
- Students get more work done
- Instructors get through more material
- Everyone feels respected and safe
- Less time is spend on managing behaviors or doling out punishments
- Attitudes are more positive
A well-managed classroom is more likely to see more learning, higher grades, and respectful students.
A poorly-managed classroom is more likely to lead to failing students and nights in which you leave at 7 pm and cry in your car before heading home.
If I’m honest, classroom management is my least favorite part of teaching and my least favorite topic. But it’s also the number one skill that makes a difference in hating your life and enjoying your job.
Classroom Management Strategy #1: Plan for Engagement
I believe that the best offense when it comes to classroom management is a good defense. Meaning, it’s a lot easier to get students to do something that they want to do.
What you teach can impact the ease with which you manage your classroom.
Now, not everyone has complete freedom over their content. I get that. So choose the classroom management techniques that work for you and leave the ones that are impossible.
So much of classroom misbehavior and disengagement stems from boredom; if students are engaged in the material, much of that is eliminated.
The following tips are designed to help prevent student boredom (or frustration!) before it sets in.
Choose Interesting and Relevant Topics
As much as we all love everything about our content areas, we know that not every teenager feels the same way. For example, I could label parts of speech all day, but it makes my students cringe.
When possible, choose topics that are interesting and relevant to your students.
There’s a time and a place to teach the canon and to get students to grapple with difficult texts. But it doesn’t have to happen in every unit. Mixing in a book that’s a little more modern or deals with issues that are relevant today goes a long way.
In this post, I talk about swapping out I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for The Hate U Give. The newer text still satisfies my need to teach an African American literature unit, but the issues presented in Thomas’s work are so immediately relevant to my students, that I don’t have to beg for buy-in.
You don’t have to ditch everything traditional, but when you can, try to incorporate some text that is newer, speaks to issues your students care about, or sounds like them.
Create Dynamic Lesson Structures
If this is your first year teaching (or your first year at a new school, with a new grade, or teaching a new class), don’t worry about this one.
But once you understand your content and you have a general idea of your semester’s flow, it’s time to start creating more engaging lessons.
Think through the lessons that are necessary, but really painful: long lectures, grammar sequences, boring or difficult reads. How can you turn these dry lessons into more engaging ones?
Can you chunk ideas into mini lessons?
Can you make the lesson hands-on in anyway?
Don’t forget how powerful movement or invoking the senses can be in making ideas stick, too.
If you know you have a lesson or topic on the drier side ahead of you, plan ahead to make it as engaging as it can be.
(Notice that I didn’t say fun. You don’t have to be fun. I am so not fun. Fun often does not lead to academic success. Engagement does.)
Use Differentiation and Choice
This goes along with the previous tip–when you can, differentiate for students and offer them a choice.
Do you all have to read the same novel? Or could you do literature circles with students choosing books that they find the most interesting?
Do all of your students have to choose the same topic for a project? Or can they choose from a short list?
(This Author Study Project is a great example of choice. Students can choose the author they’d like to study and imitate for their final project.)
Are you scaffolding big projects and assignments? Scaffolding big tasks helps prevent frustration in students, which can help prevent outbursts.
Create Meaningful Tasks
When it comes to planning for engagement, one of the best things you can do is have a big end goal.
Communicate to students how everything they are doing in class will help contribute to the success of that end goal.
I like using authentic assessments for students’ final projects. Having a real-life audience forces students to take it seriously.
Then, all of our other practice–learning the material, practicing the skills–build toward that big project. When students can see how the dots all connect to an end goal, they aren’t left questioning the dots in the first place.
Classroom Management Strategy #2: Create Routines
When I started teaching, I didn’t listen to any advice about routines. I didn’t feel that I had needed them as a student, so why should my students? My daily plan already included going over an agenda; what more could students need, right?
I was totally wrong.
I didn’t know at the time how many students struggle with anxiety or how many came from chaotic homes. Having a routine in class isn’t boring like I initially thought. It’s calming and reassuring.
If students know how class starts every single day, they won’t have to stress out about meeting expectations or reading their teacher’s minds.
Plus, routines will help you as the instructor plan and sequence your lessons appropriately. It’s a win-win for students and teachers.
Develop a Routine For the Start of Class
Students should not have to ask you what to do as they walk into the room.
Choose something that students can do every single day without your guidance, and make that your warm-up or bell ringer.
You’ll have to go over this expectation with them every day for a week or two, but after that students should get it.
As an example, for a creative writing class in which I just wanted students to write more, they had to grab their journals on the way into class every single day. I would have a journal prompt on the board for them to respond to.
What should your beginning of class routine be? It will of course depend on your course and learning outcomes.
You could do grammar warm-ups like D.O.L.s or even have students grab independent reading books and begin class by reading silently.
I’ve even used poetry analysis as my daily warm-ups.
What you do isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you do it (but these activities can provide some real rigor, too!).
Develop Daily Procedures
Getting your class started smoothly is just the beginning. You also want to create systems and procedures for other regularly recurring events in your classroom.
Do you want students to ask for a pencil every time they need one? Or is there a supply station in the room that they should use with minimal disruption?
Does your school have required bathroom passes or do you have a special one? Should students sign out on a clipboard when they leave, or no?
Will you have students pass work forward to the person in front of them when work is done or do you have a turn-in tray somewhere in your classroom?
These questions didn’t feel important to me when I first started teaching. “They’re practically adults,” I thought, “surely we’ll be able to figure out how to turn in work.”
I was so, so wrong, guys.
Students Must Be Told Your Expectations
The more explicit you can be in your directions and expectations, the smoother your day-to-day life will be. If students don’t know where to put complete work, it ends up under desks, smashed into backpacks, thrown around the room, or left behind.
You can’t expect students to just know what you want. They’re not mind readers. You have to tell them.
For me, the hardest part of setting up these procedures was just knowing how I wanted them done. I didn’t know my first year if I, personally, preferred to collect papers or have students put them into a tray.
Furthermore, these questions can be difficult to answer before your first year of teaching or if you’ve recently switched schools, especially if you don’t know what your classroom looks like yet.
If you’re in the same situation, I recommend just choose a method and sticking to it for a semester. You can change it later, but don’t expect for a routine or procedure to just magically create itself during a semester. Unfortunately, that line of thinking never works.
Once you’ve chosen a procedure for day-to-day events, you need to explicitly communicate them to students.
I do this during the first day of school with my Back-to-School Scavenger Hunt Activity. You can grab your FREE version right here and edit it according to your routines and procedures.
Create A Seating Chart
I fought a seating chart my first year of teaching. (Have you noticed the pattern yet in which I did everything absolutely wrong my first year?!)
Teaching high school, I want to be able to treat my students like adults. Some students are more adult than others, though, and as I learned the harder way it is much more difficult to enforce a seating chart midway through a semester than it is to let one go midway through a semester.
Start your class with a seating chart. I like to explain to my students that the chart is for me. It helps me learn names and faces more easily.
I ask students on the first day to communicate with me privately if they need to move seats for a legitimate reason (to see the board, to get away from a distracting peer, etc.). Students sometimes grumble for the first five minutes, but usually, that’s the end of it.
When I haven’t started with a seating chart, however, and needed one desperately later in the semester, trying to create one is a disaster. Suddenly moving students leads to a full-blown mutiny.
You can always take away a seating chart, but you can’t add one later.
Classroom Management Strategy #3: Build Relationships with Students
As an introvert with social anxiety, this one is tough for me. I love my content area, and I do not love small talk. Over the years, however, I’ve learned how important it is to build relationships with students.
When students like and respect their teacher, they’re more likely to learn more. They’re more likely to comply with requests. They’ll even advocate for you when other students are disrespectful.
But neglect the relationship with your students and you set yourself for failure. Or at least, for an uphill battle every single day.
A Word of Warning About Student Relationships
Before I talk about specific strategies for building relationships with students, let me preface with a warning.
You want to earn students’ respect; you do not want to earn their friendship.
While I struggle at times to connect with students, I’ve seen too many colleagues who struggle on the other end of the spectrum: they end up too close to students. Suddenly, they have crying teenagers in their office during lunch, they get constant requests for rides, and they’re giving away all of their spare money to buy lunches, clothing, or more for students.
I know that you are in this profession to help students. That’s amazing. But if you don’t keep your own boundaries thick, this job will seep into every other area of your life.
You’ll start losing money to the constant needs of other people’s children. You’ll take on their problems (which are substantial) and risk your own mental health and sleep.
Worse, when you help students too much, you teach them to depend on you. You are not their parent, not their friend, and have no relation to them. You are not a permanent fixture in their lives. A student who relies on you for lunches or rides to school will just feel let down one day when you can no longer do that.
Do not become direct support for students. Help guide them to support systems–like their counselors or social services–but do not let students rely on you for day-to-day needs. You will suffer, and ultimately, so will the student.
Remember, too, that becoming too close with a single student or spending time alone with a single student can put your job–your income–at risk. You won’t be able to help anyone if you lose your career.
As educators, we should aim to be role models, not mother and father figures. Remember that.
Show Students Respect First
There is this old school belief that respect needs to be earned.
I disagree. Respect should be automatic, and then perhaps taken away later if need be.
We need to model for our students what respect looks like and sounds like if we ever want to receive it.
One way to show respect immediately is to avoid giving commands (“Sit down!”) and instead use requests with an explanation (“Could you please take a seat? I’m really excited to get started with today’s lesson!”).
Speak to your students the same way that you would speak to a colleague.
As much as I love sarcasm and dark humor, it’s best to avoid it in the classroom. A sarcastic comment might be meant with good humor by you, but you don’t know how a hormonal, sensitive teen might take it.
Use the names and pronouns that students prefer. (I mention this a bit in this post here.)
Ultimately, the best way to get respect is to give it first.
Students know when you’re being dishonest. If you think they’re dumb, annoying, or worthless, they’ll be able to pick it up in your interactions.
An underrated skill of the teaching profession is being able to find a way to like people.
During my first few years of teaching, I made it my mission to find at least one characteristic or trait that I enjoyed or admired in each of my students. For some kids, that was difficult. But focusing on what I liked about them helped me to approach them with genuine kindness, compassion, and positivity, even when they were screwing up my lesson plans.
You also need to be as authentically “you” as you possible can be, while still maintaining professionalism.
My imposter syndrome was really bad my first year of teaching, so I tried to be “an English teacher” instead of being “Heather, teaching English.” I spoke the way I thought an English teacher should and taught the way I thought an English teacher should.
About halfway through the year, I looked at a student, exasperated, and said, “Dude. Really?” He was dumbfounded.
“Did you just say ‘dude’?”
At that moment, I realized what I had been doing. “Dude” is a very regular word in my personal lexicon, but my teacher persona was so forced that these students didn’t know that.
Students like knowing the messy, imperfect you. It makes you relatable. Don’t be afraid to laugh with them about tripping down the stairs that morning or to share cute photos of your dog.
I was so fixated on being a “professional” during my first year that I neglected to be human.
When interacting with students, be as genuine as you can be.
Use Positive Reinforcement Early and Often
Now, let me share my biggest trick of all in managing my classroom: the words “Thank you.”
When we discuss classroom management in college and often with colleagues, we tend to fixate on punishments. Do you use a “three strikes” rule? What qualifies for a referral?
In fifth grade, my class had a shame-inducing “card flipping” protocol, which meant everyone could see the “color” of our screw-ups all day.
But research shows us that positive reinforcement is much more impactful and that our positive interactions with students need to grossly outweigh the negative ones.
So how do you provide positive feedback when your class is a nightmare?
The words “thank you.”
This, for me, was a revelation and led to a complete transformation in my classroom. Instead of trying to correct all of the bad behavior in my classroom, I started to instead praise the correct behavior.
Example of Using “Thank You” to Guide Student Behavior
Is a student working really hard on an assignment? Thank them, out loud, for others to hear. “Thank you, Juan, for working so hard today. I really appreciate it.”
You need to be specific for what you are thanking them for. This cues the other students into what you are looking for.
“Thank you, Juliana, for helping your neighbor get caught up on notes.” Verbally and specifically thanking students not only makes them feel good, but models for the other students how to behave in a classroom.
What if nothing good is happening in your classroom? Lower the bar.
“Thanks, Scott, for taking a seat.”
“Jamaul, I love that you have a pencil, and you look so ready to work. Thank you!”
“Leah, you remembered your notebook today. Way to go!”
For us, having a pencil may not seem praise worthy, but if one out of twenty students has a pencil, you better celebrate it!
The advantage of thanking students often also means that if you do have to reprimand a student, it’s not your first commentary on their behavior. Rather, it’s one negative blip amongst many positive interactions.
Whenever you see a student on-task, thank them for it.
Assume Positive Intentions
Another way to positively deal with unwanted behavior and to show students respect is to assume that they have the best intentions.
When a student in my class isn’t following directions, I’ll usually ask a question that implies they didn’t mean to be off-task or disruptive. Even if the student and I both know the assumption is wrong, it gives them a way out without escalating the situation or making them look bad around their peers.
For example, if I catch students chatting in the back of the room when they should be listening, I might say, “Gentlemen, did you have a question?”
Now they know that I’ve heard them talk, but they can say “no” and correct their behavior without losing face in front of the rest of the class. Alternatively, they might very well actually have a question, and now they have an opportunity to ask it.
Another common one is students having their phones out. Sometimes I’ll get a little playful with my assumptions: “Oh, Angelina, I know you’re probably looking up more of Shakespeare’s plays because I can tell you love his work so much, but let’s try and wait until after class, ok?”
This will often get a little chuckle out of students even as you’re redirecting them.
Give Students Choices
No matter how much respect you’ve earned from students or how well planned you are, students will still have bad days.
When you do need to correct behavior, instead of telling a student what to do, give him or her a choice. This way, the onus is on the student–not you.
Let’s say a student has their head down while they should be working.
First, I’ll assume best intentions: “Marcus, are you feeling ok? I see you’ve got your head down. Can I do anything for you? Do you need to see the nurse?”
The student will usually either admit to having a headache or something, or sit up, shake his head “no”, and try to at least look like he’s working for you. If that doesn’t happen–if the student is rude or ignores you–then you can offer options.
“Marcus, the expectation right now is that we work on our essay outlines. You can either work in here and get some of your essay done, which would be so wonderful, or you can choose to go see the dean. What will you choose?”
Now, you’re not sending the student out of the room for misbehavior. If he goes to the dean’s, it’s because he made the choice. It forces the student to take responsibility.
This should work for about 90% of issues. There will be times, however, when a student continues to ignore you or starts screaming or getting violent.
If a student ignores me, I usually give them a time limit. “I’ll give you two minutes to think about it, and then I’ll check back to see what choice you’ve made. If you don’t make a choice, though, you will have to go to the dean’s office.” Often, the students will walk themselves out.
(Talk to your dean about noncompliance. If a student completely ignores me, but won’t leave the room, I call for security to escort them. Your school’s rules around this will vary, so make sure you know the preferred protocol.)
Having no options is disempowering. When you give students choices, you’re empowering them.
Classroom Management Strategy #4: Enforcing Classroom Expectations
This is the part we dread the most: enforcing classroom expectations. Hopefully, of all the items I’ve listed in this post, this will be the one you need to use the least.
Regardless, having a classroom management plan for enforcing your rules is necessary for successful classroom management.
This is one of the most important classroom management strategies there is, but it’s also one of the hardest to put into practice. You must be consistent when enforcing the rules.
If you decide to have a “three strikes” policy, then it must always be three strikes–not two on some days and five on others. If the straight-A, never-does-wrong students has a bad day, they get three strikes. The “naughty kid” also gets three strikes.
You must be consistent with each student.
Get Your Dean on Board
I highly recommend cultivating a solid relationship with your dean of students (or whoever is in charge of doling out the serious punishments in your building).
If you plan on doing any kind of serious crackdowns in your room or are having problems with a specific student, it helps to have a dean to talk to.
For example, in the past I’ve had a couple of classes slowly get out of control. They were getting rude and disrespectful and taking any freedom they had for granted. I told my dean ahead of time that I would be instilling a “no tolerance” policy for the seating chart that week. That way, he was ready for an unusual surge of students as I regained control of my class.
And, for what it’s worth, you can do the same with your counselors. If two of your students are toxic together, see if the counselors can swap their schedules so they’re no longer in the same classes. I know this isn’t possible for many, but prevention is always the best cure.
Don’t Take Student Behavior Personally
Even if a student calls you a c*nt, don’t take it personally. I know this is much easier said than done, but misbehavior is almost never about you.
There are a million reasons why a student might act out–trouble at home, academic stress, hunger, hormones, personal issues, drama, low confidence.
Always assume that a student’s disrespectful or distracting behavior is not about you. This will help you deal with the situation professionally, objectively, and without letting it ruin your whole day (or week, or quarter, or year…).
One year, I had a student literally scream at me every single day. The next year, he came up to me on the first day of school, threw his arms around me in a giant hug, and started telling me all about how much he missed me.
If you remain calm, patient, and understanding, you can discipline a student without ruining the relationship. If you take it personally, however, and respond emotionally, you risk all of the prior work with that child.
Kids have a lot going on. If they have a bad day, it was already bad before they got to your class. You’re not the culprit; you just need to be the adult who handles it, so others can get back to learning.
Keep Paperwork Professional and Objective
If you have an incident in your classroom, you may need to fill out a referral or documentation of some kind (sometimes even a police report).
Whenever you do paperwork about a student, keep it objective and professional. Do not assume anything about the student; just write down matter-of-factly what happened. When possible, use exact quotes from the student (and show this using quotation marks).
For example, if a student ignores you, you should write “I asked Student to choose between completing work or going to talk to the dean. Student did not respond. At that point, I sent Student to the dean’s.”
Do not write: “Student was disrespectful and ignoring me. He does this every time he doesn’t get his way!”
It seems obvious, but I still have colleagues who let their emotions get in the way of solid paperwork. Often, these documents will be seen by parents (or even a police officer or jury). Keep it objective and professional. This will make your administration’s job much easier.
A Warning about Classroom Management
Most of the time, classroom management will involve minor misbehaviors, like talking out of turn or refusing to sit in an assigned seat. There may be times, however, in which you find yourself in a serious situation.
Some schools almost never deal with major issues. Other schools may have police officers on duty and metal detectors at the doors.
Personally, my days are usually mild, but I have had to write police reports for drug dealing (in my own classroom–during class!) and having my own phone stolen. I’ve had students suddenly burst into a rage, yelling and knocking over furniture.
I’ve also had to deal with the ridiculous–a water balloon fight that led to the damage of student computers.
Sometimes administrators will encourage you downplay situations. Some schools or principals are more concerned with PR and image and report cards than the well being of staff. Don’t play that game.
You matter more than any school report.
Assault is Not Ok
Sometimes, misbehavior isn’t misbehavior; it’s assault.
Some positions, like working with specific kinds of special education students, might put you at greater risks than others. If you’re in one of these positions, ask for training in the appropriate response. There are ways to protect yourself while also protecting the student.
I’ve heard horror stories about colleagues needing surgery after being assaulted by a student or being assaulted while pregnant. No matter how normalized this might be in your school or in your district, you should know–this is not normal.
If you have an aggressive student, talk to your administrator, the dean, the student’s counselor, to their parents–to anyone who will listen.
Switch jobs if you must.
This job isn’t worth your safety.
Don’t Break Up a Fight
Unless you have been specifically trained to do so, don’t break up a fight.
If the fight happens in your classroom, call for help or send a student. Direct your other students to go in the hallway and move to safety. Yell at the fighting student to stop or break it up.
But don’t jump in there yourself. You do not want to put yourself in unnecessary danger.
You also don’t want to put yourself into any danger of litigation. If you try to stop a fight, you could put yourself at the risk of a lawsuit. Grabbing a student wrong could lead to an accidental injury. Holding a student back could also lead to a lawsuit if it prevents them from defending themselves against their opponent.
Continue to encourage students to stop fighting while waiting for help. Keep an eye on the fight because you’ll no doubt have to do a bunch of paperwork on it shortly.
Try to stop other students from pulling out their phones and recording the fight. (Telling them that if they do so, their phones will need to be confiscated for evidence can sometimes help–even if it’s not true.)
Most of the time, students who are fighting will quickly wear themselves out and stop on their own. These students put themselves in a dangerous situation; don’t let them drag you into it, no matter how much you want to help.
It’s not worth it.
It’s Ok to Press Charges
If you are assaulted by a student, it is ok to press charges. If a student steals or damages your personal property, it’s ok to press charges.
You might feel guilt around doing so. Your administration might tell you not too.
But that’s bullshit, pardon the french.
Sometimes, big actions require big consequences. You should never feel that your safety is in jeopardy at your job.
If you feel called to press charges, do it. And don’t feel guilty about it.
My own phone was stolen by a student. I was crushed. Yes, it’s just property, but it was also photos, connections to friends, and contained passwords to bank accounts and credit cards. I pressed charges, got my phone back, and was paid restitution.
It’s better to press charges while students are minors and can recover somewhat from legal missteps than for them to not face any consequences until they’re adults.
Pressing charges does not feel good, but neither does letting this profession put your safety, wellbeing, or personal property at risk. If you feel called to press charges, don’t let anyone guilt you into not doing so.
A Final Word on Classroom Management
Classroom management is more of an art than a science. You need to be able to balance knowing when to be rigid and when to be flexible. You need an idea of how your dream classroom would run before you can create a classroom management plan to support that dream.
With every year you teach, you’ll gain more experience. Every day, every semester, every year, just try and do a little better. If you dial in your lesson plans, your routines, and your expectations just a little bit every year, you’ll look like a natural in no time!