I am now two weeks from concluding my first student teaching placement (Visitation School), and my classroom management skills are still being refined. After observing for five days, slowly beginning my integration into a leadership role, I took over completely from my cooperating teacher. While excited to start, initially I had a couple days where I found one 6th grade class (my homeroom) difficult to control. There were times when other classes stepped out of line, naturally, but the consistency with which my homeroom became noisy and rowdy was discouraging.
“They’re your homeroom,” my cooperating teacher reminded me. “They feel more at home in your classroom, and will try to get away with more.”
There were a few instances where students took someone else’s property, or wrote notes to classmates, but the side chatter was the major offense. I would be attempting to teach and each table would have at least someone making conversation, which obviously distracts both those who wish to pay attention and those who don’t care. I would ask them to refocus and quiet themselves, which would work for but a few precious moments. There was one day I remember I felt very much as if the students were controlling me, rather than the other way around, and I made the mistake of hesitating when I could have doled out consequences. I spoke to my cooperating teacher about it during our feedback session, and she emphasized to me that I needed to prove to the students my willingness to enforce the policies, that I have the same authority as any other teacher in the building.
At Visitation, their classroom management system revolves around “tallies,” one of which equals three laps at recess before one can begin play. My homeroom deserved a tally the day I hesitated. I needed to come up with a concrete, consistent way of disciplining disruptive behavior. So I went home and developed a simple system I had thought about a long time ago: behavior management based on soccer. I cut out and laminated a yellow card and a red card. The next day, I sat each class down in the hall before they entered the room, and told them the yellow card would be shown to them as a warning, the red card as tallies. These could be given individually or as a class, and, like soccer, a red card could be given without a yellow card.
The students were surprisingly excited about this. Perhaps turning punishment into a game intrigued them; regardless, it made me wonder if this would work. But it seemed discussing the expectations I had of them, and the enforcement of such expectations, helped a good deal. Further, I was able to overcome my hesitation that day and dole out consequences for inappropriate behavior. My homeroom I gave a yellow card and then a red card, and they walked laps the next day.
My cooperating teacher noted the system would be effective because it was visual for the students. I also found that it allowed me to easily maintain emotional control; instead of raising my voice, I simply raised a card in my hand, and the class refocused. Its visibility allowed me to say nothing at all.
While containing a different purpose and practice, this system draws important elements from the Do It Again system educator Doug Lemov describes, including no administrative follow-up and logical consequences, but most significantly group accountability (Lemov, 2010, p. 192). It holds an entire class responsible for individual actions, and “builds incentives for individuals to behave positively since it makes them accountable to their peers as well as their teacher” (p. 192). Indeed, my classes almost immediately started regulating themselves, keeping themselves accountable for following my expectations (telling each other to be quiet and settle down, for instance, before I had to say anything).
Lemov would perhaps frown upon the yellow card, and point to the behavioral management technique called No Warning (p. 199). He suggests teachers:
- Act early. Try to see the favor you are doing kids in catching off-task behavior early and using a minor intervention of consequence to prevent a major consequence later.
- Act reliably. Be predictably consistent, sufficient to take the variable of how you will react out of the equation and focus students on the action that precipitated your response.
- Act proportionately. Start small when the misbehavior is small; don’t go nuclear unless the situation is nuclear.
I have tried to follow these guidelines to the best of my ability, but Lemov would say the warning is not taking action, only telling students “a certain amount of disobedience will not only be tolerated but is expected” (p. 200). He would say students will get away with what they can until they are warned, and will only refocus and cease their side conversations afterwards. Lemov makes a valid point, and I have indeed seen this happen to a degree. As a whole, however, the system has been effective, and most of my classes do not at all take advantage of their warning. Knowing they can receive a consequence without a warning has helped, perhaps. After a month of using the cards, I have given my homeroom a red card three times. In my other five classes combined during the same period, there have been two yellows and only one red. I have issued a few individual yellows, but no reds.
Perhaps it is counterproductive to have a warning, but I personally feel that since the primary focus of the system is on group accountability, I need to give talkative students a chance to correct their behavior before consequences are doled out for the entire class. Sometimes a reminder is necessary, the reminder that their actions affect their classmates and that they need to refocus. I do not want to punish the students who are not being disruptive along with those who are without issuing some sort of warning that they are on thin ice.
During my two student teaching placements this semester, I greatly enjoyed getting to know my students. It was one of the more rewarding aspects of teaching. Introducing myself and my interests in detail on the first day I arrived proved to be an excellent start; I told them I liked history, soccer, drawing, reading, etc. Building relationships was easy, as students seemed fascinated by me and had an endless array of questions about who I was and where I came from.
Art is something I used to connect with students. At both my schools, the first students I got to know were the budding artists, as I was able to observe them sketching in the corners of their notebooks and later ask to see their work. There was one girl at my first placement who drew a new breed of horse on the homeroom whiteboard each morning; a boy at my second placement was drawing incredible fantasy figures every spare second he had. I was the same way when I was their age, so naturally I struck up conversations about their pictures. I tried to take advantage of such an interest by asking students to draw posters of Hindu gods or sketch images next to vocabulary words to aid recall. Not everyone likes to draw, but I like to encourage the skill and at least provide them an opportunity to try. Beyond this, I would use what novels students had with them to learn about their fascinations and engage them, and many were excited I knew The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. We would discuss our favorite characters and compare such fiction to recent films.
For all my students, I strove to engage them each day with positive behavior, including greeting them by name at the door, drawing with and for them, laughing and joking with them, maintaining a high level of interest in what students were telling me (even if they rambled aimlessly, as they had the tendency to do) and even twice playing soccer with them at recess. The Catholic community of my first placement also provided the chance to worship and pray with my kids, an experience I will not forget.
One of my successes was remaining emotionally cool, giving students a sense of calm, confidence, and control about me. Marzano (2007) writes, “It is important to keep in mind that emotional objectivity does not imply being impersonal with or cool towards students. Rather, it involves keeping a type of emotional distance from the ups and downs of classroom life and not taking students’ outbursts or even students’ direct acts of disobedience personally” (p. 152). Even when I was feeling control slipping away from me, I did my best to be calm, keep my voice low, and correct students in a respectful manner that reminded them they had expectations they needed to meet. Lemov (2010) agrees, writing, “An emotionally constant teacher earns students’ trust in part by having them know he is always under control. Most of all, he knows success is in the long run about a student’s consistent relationship with productive behaviors” (p. 219). Building positive relationships required mutual respect and trust, and emotional constancy was key.
Another technique I emphasized was the demonstration of my passion for social studies, to prove to them the gravity of my personal investment in their success. One lesson from my first placement covered the persecution of Anne Hutchinson in Puritan America; we connected it to modern sexism, such as discrimination against women in terms of wage earnings. Another lesson was about racism, how it originated as a justification for African slavery and how the election of Barack Obama brought forth a surge of openly racist sentiment from part of the U.S. citizenry. I told them repeatedly that we studied history to become dissenters and activists, people who would rise up and destroy sexism and racism. I told them I had a personal stake in their understanding of such material, a personal stake in their future, because they were the ones responsible for changing our society in positive ways. Being the next generation, ending social injustices would soon be up to them.
Marzano (2007) says, “Arguably the quality of the relationships teachers have with students is the keystone of effective management and perhaps even the entirety of teaching” (p. 149). In my observation experiences, I saw burnt out and bitter teachers, who focused their efforts on authoritative control and left positive relationship-building on the sideline. The lack of strong relationships usually meant more chaotic classrooms and more disruptive behavior. As my career begins, I plan to make my stake in student success and my compassion for each person obvious, and stay in the habit.
Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Marzano, R. (2007). The art and science of teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.