There are two main aspects to classroom management. The first operates at a school-wide level. Schools, particularly those facing challenging circumstances, need to have robust and clear behaviour policies. Front line teacher, and particularly new teachers and substitute teachers, need the backing of their more senior colleagues. And I mean actual backing and not just well-meaning advice. Senior leaders who teach one or two classes do not face the same issues as less experienced, less well-known teachers teaching a full load.
If you work in a tough school without a clear, enacted behaviour policy or a school that has the habit of blaming teachers for poor behaviour then my only advice is to get out. Now.
The other aspect of classroom management is the bit that the teacher has control over. It’s about how she runs her own class. This is what this list is about. None of them are ideas that I have come up with myself. All of them have been pinched and they represent the classroom management tips that I’ve found most useful over the years. They won’t work for everyone in every context. I’ve never taught in a special school, for instance, and I imagine that the challenges are very different.
1. Have a seating plan
Seriously. Have a seating plan. Sometimes this is school policy, sometimes it is not. Regardless, have a seating plan. Even if you are teaching 18-year-olds, have a seating plan. Even if the students complain about it, have a seating plan. If there are roughly equal numbers of males and females then alternate them in the seating plan.
It sends an important signal to students that you, the teacher, decide where they sit. Left to their own devices, children will opt to sit with their friends and so anything that happened before class, at recess or lunch, will be brought into the classroom and will distract from the academic work. This is also why you should alternate the sexes if possible; mixed sex friendship groups are generally less common than single sex friendship groups.
I would go further and suggest that you arrange the seats in rows or a horseshoe. Yet you might not have much control of this. It is definitely the right thing to do, even in primary schools, because students will complete more work with fewer distractions, particularly those students most likely to be distracted. As a child, I hated having to lean over my shoulder to listen to the teacher and I hated having peers constantly interrupt what I was doing. Grouped desks seem to encourage busywork over instruction because they make teaching from the front more difficult. I’m sure that’s part of the appeal.
But you might want to pick your battles. In most primary schools, you are likely to be run out of town with pitchforks to cries of ‘child hater!’ if you try to arrange your desks in rows.
2. Have a starter and clear routines
I think of a starter activity as having the role that pickled ginger has in eating sushi. Pickled ginger cleanses the palate between sampling different flavours and a starter activity cleanses the attention of whatever happened before your lesson. It makes the lesson start with the right focus – my starters are often a review question on the previous lesson or maybe something from earlier in the course. A lot of issues can arise at the beginning of a lesson but if a starter becomes a habit and an expectation then these may often be avoided.
In fact, the more routines you can develop for giving out books or setting homework, the more you can focus conscious attention on the concepts that you are teaching.
3. Use praise and rewards
Praise and rewards are condemned by pretty much everyone. Traditionalists favour praising only the truly exceptional, fearing that too liberal a use of praise devalues the currency. Progressives such as Alfie Kohn see praise as a form of coercion that works against intrinsic motivation. I would largely accept this argument if we were suggesting giving a monetary reward for a certain exam score.
But in classrooms, things often operate on many levels. If I am teaching a potentially difficult class and the back row have come in to the room, opened their books and engaged in the starter activity without prompting then I want to highlight this. Why? Firstly, it provides a model for the students who haven’t done this. They get a subtle prompt to do the right thing without me having to confront them. In my experience, most of these students will then take the hint. Secondly, it demonstrates that there are students in the class who are doing what I want them to do. This is a better narrative than highlighting that there are students who are not doing as I ask. It lends me authority. Despite all the rhetoric about student-led and child-centered learning, I firmly believe that most students want the teacher to be in charge of the classroom and so this kind of positive reinforcement makes them feel safe and relaxed.
The flip side of this is that you should try to admonish as privately as possible both to avoid confrontation and to not draw unnecessary attention to poor behaviour – never write names on the board. One way to do this is to walk towards a student who is misbehaving. Often, your proximity will be enough to make the student stop but, if not, you’re now in a position to have a quiet word.
The kind of reward that I have used would be something like this: “If you all work in silence for the next fifteen minutes then we’ll pack away five minutes early and you can ask me any question about science that you like.” It’s not about giving pizzas or stickers; the subject itself is the reward. And it gives kids an excuse to play along with working in silence, something many of them quite appreciate the opportunity to do. Silence is underrated.
4. Stay on track
Students ask all sorts of personal questions. Sometimes, when you know a class well and the question is appropriate, it is worth answering. Until that point, I would suggest refocusing them on the lesson: “That’s not what we’re learning about today,” closes down the discussion without you having to signal that you are not comfortable with the question. Acknowledging a comment without providing an opening for a further response is also useful. If a child says, “This is boring!” then you might respond with, “I’m sorry that you feel that way,” or, “you may well think that.”
I learnt about the ‘broken record’ technique as a baby teacher when my school offered training in Lee Cantor’s “Assertive Discipline” programme. This involves simply repeating an instruction:
Teacher: Please go and wait for me outside the classroom door
Student: But it wasn’t me. Jayden was messing with my bag!
Teacher: I am asking you to go and wait outside the classroom door. We will discuss it there.
Student: It’s not fair. Why is it always me?
Teacher: Please go and wait outside the classroom door.
Most students will give up at this stage and do as you ask. If they don’t then I would quietly signal an appropriate sanction and move on.
5. Keep yourself civil
It can be hard to smile or be courteous when you feel anxious but it is important. Teaching is partly acting. Sometimes, you have to be pleasant even if you don’t want to be. And as teachers, we should model being polite; always saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Again, if you appear calm and in control then many students will assume that you are calm and in control. If you look like a rabbit caught in headlights then the class will take their cue from that.
6. Mean what you say
Many classrooms have sets of rules pinned to the wall and most of these will include, ‘no talking when the teacher is talking’ or ‘listen quietly when anyone is addressing the class.’ This is very sensible. Yet all too often teachers will talk over the top of students who are chatting to each other. Never do that. Even if it takes time to establish the silence. If you let such a situation become normal then you are demonstrating that the rules don’t really apply.
Similarly, you should never threaten anything that you cannot go through with. Tempting as it may be, you should not find yourself suggesting a child might have to stay in at recess if you know that you have a duty at recess and so cannot enforce this sanction. Do something else instead.
7. Keep a record
In some classes, you might find that you need to keep track of any warnings you have given or sanctions that you may have applied. This will depend on your school policy. The old Assertive Discipline plan had a graduated set of five sanctions that students would work through. Some policies might have three. Particularly at the start of the year and with a new class, you might find you have a number of students simultaneously on different levels and you’ll struggle to remember that. This is one reason why teachers sometimes write names on the board. Instead, I would suggest that you use an annotated class list to record this stuff.Embed from Getty Images