Classroom management is really important.
No, seriously. I am going to write that again because it is that important: Classroom management is really important.
Teachers do a lot of things throughout the course of their days. It is often claimed (based on work reported by Dr. Philip W. Jackson in his book Life in Classrooms) that teachers make approximately 1,500 decisions a day. I get to work at about 7:30 am and am making decisions directly related to my classroom until 3:30 pm every day. That’s eight hours. In those 4 hours, I guarantee that I am making some kind of decision at least every 15 seconds, probably closer to 10. But let’s go with 15, or 4 decisions a minute. That’s 240 decisions an hour, which is a total of 1,920 decisions a day. So, really, I think Dr. Jackson was actually lowballing the number of decisions a teacher makes.
Every single one of those decisions impacts how the class is managed, or run. Classroom management is so important that, when searching the term, Google came up with 19,100,000 results in 0.73 seconds. If even just one-tenth of those were unique hits, that still gives us nearly 2,000,000 websites, books, articles, and other resources about this concept. Search just books on classroom management on Goodreads and you find 790 results in 0.15 seconds.
All of which is to say there is no way I could possibly address all the nuances and ideas and theories that abound when it comes to what classroom management actually is, how it works, how to do it effectively, and how to adjust to different situations as they arise. As an educator leader I recently listened to once said, when it comes to students, one size fits one; there is no magic cure that will address every need every time.
So what am I writing about classroom management for? Mostly because I wanted to tease out my own thoughts on four foundational components of running an organisation such as a classroom: rewards, punishment, consequences, and discipline. For me, these terms all have very specific meaning and very specific uses that need to be clearly taught, not just to students, but also to parents, teachers, and other adults.
The first two are fairly straightforward and have had long-standing definitions that are generally understood by everyone: do the right thing and receive a reward, one that is either tangible and extrinsic or intangible and extrinsic. Do the wrong thing and something unpleasant or undesirable happens to you: a punishment.
The second two, on the other hand, seem to get a bit messier when we try to discuss them with others. What I have observed in my years teaching and in general is that “consequences” are often equated with “punishment.” Teachers often talk about “natural consequences” but what they usually refer to are the negative ones; the punishment. But consequences are simply what happens as a result of a decision. Rewards are consequences for desired behaviour. Punishment is the consequence for undesired behaviour. If you are working quietly on your exam and you are focused on the questions, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform at your best. If you are trying to talk to others and are easily distracted, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform poorly. The point is that consequences, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad; they simply are.
Discipline, likewise, is far too often equated with punishment. If a student receives an office discipline referral, it isn’t because the student has done something desirable. If you hear a parent talk about disciplining a child at home, it rarely means anything other than meting out punishment that, hopefully, matches the severity of the crime. But that’s not what discipline really is, even if that is the usage that has been around for over a thousand years. Discipline is, at it’s root, a word that refers to instruction given, teaching, learning, gaining knowledge. I find it incredible disheartening that we have, for centuries, taken the view that the only way to learn something is through punishment; that we do things out of fear of something unpleasant instead of a desire for something good. (A related word, disciple, incidentally, seems to have only positive connotations as it reflects the idea of being one who has taken hold of, grasped, or fully comprehended something.)
How does all of this relate to my classroom management approach? My practice is rooted in the belief that children are still learning how to be people, how to interact with other children, with adults, with peers, and with authority figures. They are learning, in short, how to be. Sometimes this learning results in punishment, yes. Sometimes it results in rewards. I hope that they always connect their actions to the consequences that follow and, in so doing, learn personal discipline, or self-mastery. Everything I do as a teacher, all of those thousands of decisions I make each day, all come back to one single question: what is best for the students? If I can honestly say that what I have done has been because I am putting the needs of my 23 individual students, and of my class, my school, my district, and/or my community first, then I am doing what I need to do: teaching my students to be masters of their own selves. But if I am focusing on just the first two and ignoring the second, then I am not teaching them how to be, I am simply teaching them how to do.
That’s not good enough for me, and, I hope, it isn’t good enough for them, either.
Way back when in my first year of teaching at Wiley, my fourth grade partner at the time was talking with me about classroom management strategies and we were pondering ways we could tackle some challenges of students who needed visual reminders of expectations but also wanted to avoid the pitfalls of assertive discipline. (As a PBIS school, we strive to approach discipline from the assumption that students will rise to the positive expectations they are presented with if they are taught and given the opportunity to do them.)
One of the ideas she discovered was the Clip Chart. We both researched it, read about it, and felt it would be a good tool for our class. However, our principal at the time was worried that it would too easily turn into an assertive approach and thus counseled us to try something different. Giving deference to our principal’s guidance, we did try something different and it worked.
Jump ahead five years. My new teaching partner and I were experience some challenges that were very similar to what I had my first year and she brought up the ideas of the Clip Chart. She put it into place in her classroom and, after just one week, reported a huge change in student behaviour. The chart doesn’t force them to do anything; all it does is lets them visually see what they are doing and how they are impacting others.
Every student starts the day Ready to Learn. Ideally, they rise to the expectations given and go from Good Day to Great Job to Outstanding. Sometimes, however, they slip up and may need to Think About It, receive a Teacher’s Choice consequence, a Parent Contact, or even an Office Referral. Throughout the day, clips move from one space to another. If a student is at Outstanding and makes a mistake, they move down to Great Job. There is no skipping stages up or down.
To help boost this strategy in my room, our latest classroom incentive is to earn 300 “Outstandings.” We count how many students are at Outstanding at the end of each day and fill in our chart. When we hit 300, we will have a student-selected classroom celebration. Some days are great, with over 20 students at Outstanding. Other days are rougher, with maybe only 2 or 3. But each day is an opportunity for students to start at Ready to Learn.
I am grateful that the Clip Chart is working in my classroom. I hope my students will continue to respond positively to it and use the reminders to prompt themselves to move upward and set goals for growth each day!
Over the years, I have found myself reflecting on the nature of tests and what they are for. A common theme is that tests are a way to prepare for when the information, the skill, or the procedure is actually needed, when it is relevant. We have tests of the Emergency Alert System on the radio and television so that we will know what to do in the case of a real emergency. We have tests that we take before receiving certification or licensure so that we can demonstrate that we actually know what to do in the job or position. We test the severe weather sirens in this area on the first Tuesday of every month so that we are conditioned to know what to do when we hear the sound. We have fire drills in schools to get us ready for what to do in the case of an actual fire.
I have also found that my students often ask, when they hear an alarm go off, “Is this for real?” My response is always the same: “Yes, the alarm is really going off. It does not matter if there is an actual fire or not. What matters is that something has triggered the alarm and that means we need to immediately exit the building and wait for further instructions.”
Today we had a chance to put the practice into action. In the early afternoon, shortly after lunch and just as we were about to start our math lesson, I heard a buzzing coming from the hallway. I immediately recognised this as the fire alarm, as did all of my students. With little prompting, they quickly stood up, walked out the door, down the hall, exited the building, and walked down to the sidewalk. I grabbed my emergency attendance folder and made sure that all of my students were accounted for.
Then we waited.
It was cold and started to drizzle. But the alarms were still going off, and so we waited. The students were, for the most part, doing exactly what they should have been doing: they stayed closed, they huddled together to keep warm, and they waited.
We were finally given directions to go to one of the churches on the corner that serve as gathering places during emergencies. The students again knew exactly what to do and even made sure the three student teachers with us knew what to do, too. After getting to the church, they sat down and waited, grateful for the warmth. Once we were given the all clear, we returned to the building and took a couple of minutes to process what had happened.
I made sure that all of the students knew that they did exactly what they were supposed to do and understood that this is why we practice the way we do. The tests prepare them for when it is “for real,” but they only knew what to do because they took the tests seriously.
Next week we start PARCC testing in our building. It is just a test. It is not life or death. It won’t determine if they advance to the next grade, if they get into college, or what jobs they get. What it does do is help them think about what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to know as they progress through school and become more active participants in our society.
Lofty ideas, for sure, but isn’t that what tests are all about, anyway?
Many years ago, my wife and I found ourselves without a car. During that time, I rode my bike everywhere I could as often as I could. After nearly passing out from heat exhaustion on a day when the heat index was over 90° F (32° C), I decided that was my upper limit for biking. As winter came, I also discovered that biking when the wind chill was below 20° F (-6° C) was equally a bad idea! On those days, I was fortunate to have coworkers who were kind enough to give me a ride to work. For the most part, though, as long as it wasn’t too hot, too cold, or raining, I was on my bike.
Even after we got a new (to us) car, I continued to bike as often as possible. Cycling was a great form of exercise, it saved a lot of money on automobile costs, it helped energise me in the morning, and it was fun. My students also recognised me when they saw me biking, so they knew that I was setting a good example for the physical activity that we are frequently telling students they all ought to be getting! Then I started graduate school. I still rode my bike a few times, but I quickly realised that biking home in the dark was not particularly safe, even with reflective gear and lights. So I started driving my car again.
I had wanted to get back into the (bicycle) saddle again this year, but it seemed like every day it was too hot, too cold, too wet, or too foggy, and so I was driving my car all the time. In fact, I think I rode my bike once all of the first semester and, until today, not once since then.
But I got back into the saddle again today. It wasn’t too cold, it wasn’t raining or foggy, and I knew I needed to stop making excuses. I woke up earlier than usual, got myself ready, and hopped on my bike, expecting to get to work in about 30 minutes, which is about what I used to average.
I forgot to take into account two important things: one, it has been months since I last rode my bike and two, it was a windy morning. It took me about 40 minutes to get to work, which may not seem like much, but it did mean that I didn’t give myself nearly as much time to get settled in at the start of the day.
All that being said, I am glad I am back on my bike. Graduate school was great for my mind but not so kind to my waistline. I am hoping that cycling 9-10 miles every day will bring back all of those positive outcomes that I saw back when I was biking more regularly. In the meantime, I think I ought to get up about 15 minutes earlier to give myself just a little bit more time in the morning!
Recess is a regular, time-honoured tradition in schools, although I have read disturbing reports of schools and districts eliminating recesses across the nation. As a child, recess was a break from classroom activities, an opportunity to play with friends, to swing, to slide, to run, to jump. My friends and I came up with elaborate stories we acted out while playing, starting with Star Trek stories in which we were the captains on the ships and later our own science fiction story about the USS Aerostar traveling through time in the 4th dimension. (Or was it the 7th? I’m not quite sure…) In many ways, this was our own version of live-action role-playing, although without the costumes. We connected our play to other ventures, including artwork and writing.
As a teacher, I have a somewhat different view of recess. It is still a break from classroom activities. It is still an opportunity for students to engage in play. But it is also an opportunity for them to develop pro-social skills of taking turns. Additionally, recess is a time for physical activity, to move and expend a bunch of energy.
I realised recently that my students were not doing as much of this last part as I would prefer and, as a result, many were getting “squirrelly” or “antsy” toward the end of the day. (They have a 20-minute lunch recess and a 15-minute afternoon recess each day. Our schedule doesn’t allow for a morning recess, too.) I remembered something I did all last year in the mornings (when it was nice out): having students walk or run laps around the front lawn of the school. I decided to put this into place during our afternoon recesses. Before students have free choice for play, they have to do one, two, or three laps.
The early results have been fantastic! The students are getting my physical activity, they are doing sustained, moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise, and they are able to focus more during mathing workshop. (Keep in mind, we also do a lot of moving around in the classroom, but it isn’t the same as sustained aerobic exercise!) With the increased focus at the end of the day, we have been able to conclude our core instructional activities for the day, leaving time for my students to once again have free choice at the very end of of the day.
What do you do for recesses?
Teachers talk. A lot. Surprisingly, there are no classes in university programs that prepare prospective teachers for this. I never had a single class on how to develop and use my “teacher voice.” But I don’t think anyone goes into the education profession expecting to spend their time in quiet rooms with limited talking. Maybe it is from our own experiences that we just know that it is part of the job.
I love talking to my students but, more importantly, I love talking with my students. They have such great ideas, unique experiences, and clever wit. We can talk about life and learning and hobbies and interests and we can go from making jokes to identifying deep thoughts within a few minutes. Maybe this is why my main teaching style is discussion. I lead discussions often, whether for mathing or reading or inquiry. I believe it gives students an opportunity to express their own ideas and take risks when they do so.
Teachers also talk when they are guiding students in their behaviour. I make a point to praise positive behaviour, to acknowledge it when I see it. But I also use my voice to correct inappropriate behaviour. I try to do so with as little fanfare as possible. One of my favourite phrases to describe correcting student behaviour is to use a “matter of fact voice.” Yes, there are times when I need to increase my volume simply to be heard over the regular noise of the classroom, but I try to make sure I am not speaking out of anger.
However, there are definitely times when it is time to stop talking. When the noise of students gets too loud, it can be tempting to raise my voice to be louder. I have learned, though, that silence can speak much more clearly than volume can. Silence will get students’ attention more effectively that shouting, yelling, or screaming ever will.
Today I had one of those moments. As we approached the end of the day, I realised several of my students were getting off track and were losing their focus. It came to a head when I released students to work with partners on a math problem and chaos broke out. I immediately signaled my class with my chimes, sent them to their seats, and then waited in silence. It took a long time, much longer than I would have wished, but it was necessary. Once the entire class was refocused, I was able to speak softly and lead a discussion of what students were supposed to be doing, what had been happening, and how we could fix it moving forward. We will continue this conversation tomorrow morning, setting a goal as a class for improved behaviour that will create a better, safer, learning environment.
How do you harness the power of silence in your life?
I wrote this post in my head yesterday but didn’t realise until late at night that I didn’t actually write it and post. Does that ever happen to you? It is kind of like thinking you sent someone an email or a text message, only to find out days later that you didn’t and now they are mad at you and you are only just figuring out why.
I am a firm believer in the value of play, and not just for children. Playing, for all groups at all ages, is such an important way for us to build relationships, confirm social norms, and interact with diverse groups of people. I think this is one of the reasons that I love tabletop gaming so much. Some of my best friends are people who I met because of gaming!
I love seeing my students at play. It fascinates me how they create rules for games that are made up on the spot or modify existing rules on the fly to make sure that everyone can participate. One of the most common games I see students play outside is called Spider Monkey and, even though I’ve watched it played on a nearly daily basis for over five years, I am still convinced that the students simply make up the rules as they go. (Each time I tell students this, they insist that I am wrong; I keep hoping someone will write The Comprehensive Guide to Playing Spider Monkey for me.)
I also find it interesting that some games will involve a large number of students and others will be just two. Boys and girls will play in separate groups at times, but other times they will freely mix with one another. Some students will float from game to game while others will pick one and become an expert on just that.
It is nice to take a break from reading and writing and mathing and inquiring and remember that learning to people is important, too.