“Sometimes, it’s okay to be a dictator” – those are words of advice given to me by my husband as he saw me struggle with our one-and-a-half-year-old twins fourteen years ago. He didn’t want me to turn into a Stalin or Mussolini, but he saw my frustration and called on my leadership skills. Being a natural consensus builder, I was frustrated as a parent when one twin wanted to go to the pool and the other to the playground, or one pointed to Good Night Moon and the other to The Itsy Bitsy Spider for the bedtime story. I wanted them both to be happy and come to agreement on an activity or book. But you don’t build consensus with toddlers! I had to learn to accept that I was in charge and sometimes needed to be the “dictator” – or at least a unifying and determined leader.
At this point you may be wondering what raising twins and being a dictator has to do with teaching. I think teaching is a lot like parenting. Both involve unfolding malleable minds to infuse common sense, wisdom, skills, interests, passion, and more. As educators, we are often passionate about our subject areas and willing to share our knowledge with our students endlessly. But how informed are we about the skills of teaching, of transferring information and generating knowledge in the classroom? How prepared are we to transform our classrooms into well-managed and bustling hubs of learning? Just like I had very little formal education in parenting before I had children, I never took a course in pedagogy or classroom management prior to teaching. I learned most of what I know about teaching from my mother, who was a school teacher for over 50 years. I also learned from my colleagues, from being a student myself, from parenting, participating in workshops, and from experiences in the classroom. Classroom management is not an easy task and it is not something that just happens without effort. However, with some directed energy into classroom management, you can achieve teaching and learning experiences that are rewarding for both yourself and your students.
Here are my seven tips for classroom management:
1. Model behavior: This is the most important aspect of both parenting and teaching: they will copy what you do. If you want your students to be on time, you need to be on time and ready to start the class when the bell rings. When you give the students respect, they will respect you in return – well, at least mostly. If you are organized and have a well-thought-out lesson plan, students will take the classroom experience seriously and organize their notes, learning and participation accordingly. If you have a no-cellphone policy, that means that you also need to put away your cell phone and not answer texts or calls during class time – or even use the phone to check the time. If you expect students to turn in assignments on time, you need to return assignments, exams and quizzes on time.
2. Set clear expectations: Many experts of classroom management will tell you that it starts with the syllabus. If your syllabus spells out clear expectations and you follow it, the students know what to expect in your class. Taking attendance is always a great idea – it helps you learn the students’ names and it signals to the students that you expect them to be in the classroom. Take attendance at the beginning of class and mark latecomers tardy if you expect students to be on time.
3. Be consistent and fair: Treat everybody the same, give everybody a chance to participate, don’t change policies midstream; if an assignment is due at midnight on Monday that is when it is due – not the next morning, not the next day and not at a different time for a privileged few.
4. Don’t take it personally: Students that act up in class are usually not reacting (only) to something that you did or didn’t do; they are likely bringing in baggage from their life to the classroom. We all have good and bad days. Students that are stressed because their relative is in the hospital, their partner is cheating on them, or their car broke down may not be the best student that day, or even that week or month. None of this is your fault or something that you have control over. You only have control over the classroom and yourself. By letting go of resentment you can focusing on how your behavior may help the student manage him or herself better in your classroom.
5. Be flexible: The students at Lincoln today are very different from the students ten years ago. Society changes and our students change with it. Take the example of fake news on social media. Social media was just starting ten years ago and while fake news has always been around, it was never as contagious or damaging as it has proven to be in the last several months. This means that you have to change your teaching to keep up with the times. For example, today students need to learn how to distinguish an ever-increasing onslaught of inaccurate information from accurate information. How have you adapted your teaching accordingly?
6. Redirect behavior: Let’s say you have a student or two that always seem distracted by their cell phones – they just don’t seem to be able to let go of their attachment to these devices. Rather than yelling at them, calmly call the student out (thereby letting them know that you are watching and that you care) by asking him or her to use the cellphone to look up information for the class.
7. Don’t be afraid to lead (because sometimes it's okay to be a dictator): The students are looking to you for direction, recognition and approval. It takes both courage and trust to stand in front of the class and direct a positive learning experience. Be brave and try new ideas in the classroom – more likely than not, your students will like it. If something doesn’t work, be honest with yourself and your students; admit that we are all fallible and tweak your next lesson plan for the better. A good leader is not afraid to fail.
What tips for classroom management do you have and where did you learn the skills of being a teacher?