Classroom Management 101

It's about three weeks into our school year, and I'm only just beginning to tread water rather than drown. I am, once again, a new teacher. And while I don't have to relearn a lot of important teaching skills that can act like anvils attached to the ankles of a teacher new to the profession, I do have some big hurdles to clear, which include: developing a discipline system that works with my school, developing a data collection system with the materials I have in my classroom, writing and implementing a curriculum for my world history course and advisory, developing relationships with families and staff members, and tweaking the existing curriculum provided by the district for my language arts course.

As a result of the time I've devoted to my new classroom, I've been away from education policy for a while. In fact, I don't have a clue what's going on in the world of education outside of my school (and the Tacoma teacher's strike). Therefore, I thought I'd blog on - get this - teaching.

This year, I have two freshman language arts classes, one freshman advisory, and one sophomore world history class. I've noticed that the classroom management techniques I use with freshman are significantly less effective with my sophomores, who I think pose one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced teaching.

With my freshman, I use the time-tested technique of raising my hand to get their attention. When they see "the hand", my students are trained to raise their hand, stop talking, and nudge their neighbor. This is far more effective than simply saying, "I need your attention." The hand is a visual signal that remains in place until everyone is paying attention. It doesn't die quickly like the spoken word, and it's not as obnoxious as turning the lights on and off. It respects students and their conversations. However, for it to work, it requires that the vast majority of your students have at least a modicum of respect for their teacher and peers. They must care that they're inconveniencing someone else.

After three weeks of waiting for everyone to stop talking completely before I begin my instruction, my freshman classes work smoothly. Not so with my sophomores.

In my sophomore world history class, there are a significant number of students who "the hand" doesn't work for. Waiting for everyone to stop talking in that class increases its toxicity. Instead of nudging their peers, my students become frustrated with me for assuming that they'll ever stop talking. I suspect this is because they've been in classes with each other for the past few years and know what works and what doesn't. So today, I tried something different.

The bell rings.

"Okay guys, we're going to try something different today," I say. "Instead of waiting for people to stop talking, I'm just going to teach. If you want to learn, you should sit close to me so you can hear and with people who you know won't distract you. How much you learn today will be entirely up to you." How much they learned last week was up to both me and their talkative peers. The frustrated faces of the students who wanted me to move on compelled me to rethink my approach.

Although it was rough, especially for the first half hour or so, the gears were turning. I didn't feel like the class was failing those students who wanted to learn. We read a portion of Bartolomé de las Casas's A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and analyzed it using the SOAPSTone technique. About 3/4 of the class had a meaningful conversation about las Casas's credibility, his purpose, and the effects of his writing. I then asked how they thought Europeans found their way to the New World in the first place. We made some predictions and then did Cornell Notes on the causes of the "Age of Discovery" - first making a point of discussing the implications of referring to the period with such a moniker.

After about an hour, I felt I had most of the class participating. Unfortunately, our block periods are unusually long (105 minutes), and after about 80 minutes, I started losing students again.

When class ended, I interviewed students on the way out: "How did it go this time? Do you think it was better than last time?"

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Everyone agreed that moving on was the right move, including myself. Nobody's education was sacrificed. I got through the material I'd hoped to and the interested students managed to have some rigorous conversations about the material.

Had an administrator walked in, it wouldn't have looked very organized. My disengaged students were very disengaged. But if there's one thing I've learned in the past year and a half, it's to eschew appearance in favor of substance. I think it's unfortunate that so many of our new teachers are being taught the exact opposite. If you want to teach something meaningful, focus on the content. If you want it to look good and please you administrator, focus on the appearance.

(More on meaningful teaching here. More on the problems with appearance-centered teacher training here.)

By no means would I call this class a success. It was progress. Better than before. We still face significant barriers on our way to a high-functioning class. My hope is that an ongoing concentration on building positive relationships with my students and their families in addition to their increasing ownership of their own learning will move us closer to something we can call success.


  1. I love this post! This is exactly how I feel about my co-taught (with invisible co-teacher) classes. My other classes have some sense of order, but these two classes feel like they could implode spontaneously. I'm glad that you're experimenting and continuously working to make sure that those who want to learn, do.

    I do have to say, though, even I wouldn't be able to be completely on task for 105 minutes - in high school or now! I hope you continue to blog about how things are going for you on the west coast. :)

  2. You're not alone. I have 10 years in at my school, and with sophomores, and they never get easier to manage. I transition between a high-functioning senior AP class, and an end of the day sophomore English class; what an abrupt shift.It is my routine to stand in the hallway and monitor, and greet students, but with this group I have to post-up inside and manage their behavior from the moment they enter the classroom.

  3. I have a similar problem, but the freshman / sophomore part is reversed. My 2 full-year Biology classes are mostly sophomores (with some freshmen and an occasional junior) are reasonably functional, and we have a decent rapport. I actually enjoy teaching them, and I'm hopeful that they'll keep it together, do the work, pass that [blessed] Maryland Biology HSA, and I won't have to question why I decided to teach secondary (much).

    My semester Biology class, on the other hand, is comprised of about 2/3 freshmen and a handful of upperclassmen who are either repeating or had scheduling snafus. It's a weird mix, and this last week it's become pretty toxic. The freshmen are capital-W-Whiny, overwhelmed, argumentative, stubborn and unfocused. Every last damn thing I ask them to do prompts some sort of push-back, and when I've gotten one kid settled down, another starts up. It's bizarre herd-mentality at work - it seems they don't know why they're doing it, but they can't help themselves. The older students want to escort them out of the classroom (through a window), and we simply haven't found a strategy that works with them. (Functional parent contact info would help, I think.) This class shows up in my dreams, where I spin my wheels and try to construct a script that will somehow convince them to cooperate and let me teach. I can't afford to lose more sleep than I already do.

    But this isn't my blog - I simply wanted to say "Word." and THANK YOU for highlighting the distinction between meaningful and appearance-centered teaching. I'll keep experimenting (hey! it's science!) to see if I can find something that works for my panicky little herd (including me), and then I'll do the appearance-driven thing for observations. BLERG.

  4. Does your school have a functioning discipline system? It sounds like if you have to resort to teaching to only 3/4 of the class that you have limited or no administrative support.

  5. What exactly does a "functioning discipline system" look like?
    Punishments are rarely effective at changing behavior; just look at the U.S. justice system's recidivism rate.
    Kicked out of class: whatever.
    Call my parents: whatever.
    Suspend me: vacation.
    A wise man once told me, "you wouldn't send your own kids across the street to the neighbors for discipline. Why would you send your students to the admin for discipline?" Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but most infractions, even those that interrupt instruction, are trivial. Teaching to 3/4 of the class is probably a better option than sending 1/4 of the class to admin. They're just going to throw it back in your lap and tell you that it's a classroom management issue and to follow your discipline plan.

  6. While I agree with you ANON at 9:02, I think any admin worth their weight in salt should be aware of and helping Mr. Boutin with that class. I'm sure they can make time to stop by, conference with troublemakers, and help facilitate meetings and interventions. It just seems like all administrators do these days is plan for standardized testing or make useless spreadsheets and action plans. That leaves them no time no time for traditional administrative responsibilities like helping a teacher struggling with a large difficult to manage class.

  7. ANON at 9:02. A functioning discipline system is one where students know that there are actual consequences if they are referred to an administration.

    Of course you wouldn't send your kids across the street.
    A) You may not know your neighbors
    B) They are not invested in the process of raising your kids.

    If your kid was being bad and normal parenting wasn't working, and your parents or close relatives lived across the street that might be a good option. I think that is a better analogy.

    This gets me thinking though, if Mr. Boutin had any admin that were worth their weight in salt they would be aware of the problems he is having with this class. They would be helping facilitate interventions, meetings with parents, and dropping by the class now and then to "check in" on trouble students. Administrators always used to do that stuff to help my teachers when I was in high school. Now all they do is plan for standardized tests and write useless spreadsheets and action plans.

  8. Just had an IMPACT eval by a Master Educator in DC, and this is one of the problems with the process. Most teachers weren't ready this week, we are still trying to get our students used to their new classes, new teaching focus this year, and many of us are still experimenting with classroom management to see what works. Not to mention many students are scheduled for the wrong classes, but while the kinks are worked out you get observed as an "effective" or "ineffective" teacher. Even if your 4 other scores are good, your first assessment brings down your average. Some teachers were observed last week, which was even worse. Many teachers have SpEd students in class but have not yet received any data on them, hence classroom management (a key component of IMPACT) is impacted. As for administrators helping, you're lucky is you see them during the day. To be ALWAYS ON and EFFECTIVE is ridiculous, when do you ever have the time to experiment, try out new teaching and class management methods to see what really is effective for your students, in your school, in your classroom?

  9. Great post -- it's easy for some (some administrators, say) to just say that one or two techniques work for every grade/class/kid/teacher. And they don't.

    A slight tinge of disappointment upon reading though, I thought you had a post about the use of Manga in classroom management and that your title was a clever pun! (how's that for subtle typo noting?)

  10. I don't understand why you need to write your own curriculum for a World History class. Can't you use one that already exists, perhaps with some tweaking? I can see that you don't want your teaching to be "canned", but it seems like a lot of re-inventing the wheel. Surely you're not the first person to teach World History!

  11. FedUpMom:

    Finding curriculum that matches your resources and standards is harder than you think. Especially free curriculum. You would think schools would have it for each subject but some (mine) do not.

  12. In regard to my administrator - she's aware of the situation and has been very supportive thus far. I've asked to deal with the challenges myself so far. I'd prefer to avoid referrals until my methods have clearly failed.

    FedUpMom - thanks so much for that question. I think I'll write an entire post on it.

  13. Since it seems pretty-much impossible for people to be engaged for such a long period of time, would it not be OK to find something that students would find interesting to use as a hook?

    Could you use, say, immigration in the US today as a starter to get students to start thinking about the issue and then move to your desired document - compare and contrast and so on?

    P.S. - The SOAPstone method may be good to teach kids to extract info for an AP test, but sure looks like boring discussion fodder to me, but I'm easily bored.

    Good Luck and thanks for your efforts!

  14. abellia: My hook was las Casas's account. It's incredibly engaging. If you can't get kids engaged around that, good luck!

    On SOAPSTone: that wasn't much of a problem either. Kids appreciated the questions it asked. It allowed us to interrogate las Casas's credibility. We had pretty good discussions over his motives. Also, SOAPSTone (and tools like it - e.g. the APPARTS method) trains students in the historical habits of mind. It's great for both literary and historical literacy. These are the skills I most hope to inculcate in my students.

  15. I like this idea... as sophomores they're getting close to college, where they'll be responsible for their own learning. If they choose not to pay attention, they are the only ones who suffer! In college, of course, they'd probably get kicked out of class for talking, but you probably can't do that with high schoolers!

  16. Hi James,

    A very interesting post and you highlight a problem that all teachers face at some time in their career - how to get student attention and get them to listen to you. Your system of a raised hand is, in principle, quite sound but you need to consider using a whole process for intervention rather than just a series of individual actions.
    There's not enough space to go into a lot of detail here on your blog but if you want to have a look at my website you might find some useful information: I have a page called classroom-management-strategies that has links to how to start lessons well, how to get student attention, and behavior for learning. You might find some useful tips.
    Whatever you do, remember that being consistent and persistent is the key to success in everything you do in the classroom.
    Keep at it and best wishes.

  17. Yes! Always substance over appearance. I would not call your situation Classroom Mgmt "101"...sophomores require a much higher level of mgmt. I honestly would take burned out seniors in second semester over sophomores. The development level of each year of high school is dramatically different, and I approach each one differently. No teens have an easy time of 105 minutes. I try three separate activities each long period, sometimes it works. Sounds to me like you are making progress, if you take the long view. You shall prevail, everyone will be happier.
    (I read the post about "teachers are paid too much" first--this is the stuff that they will never pay us enough for......

  18. 105 minutes a period? That is rough! I have 90 minute periods, and I feel that is too much time at once. I can use that amount of tomes usually, but the students are not suited for that length of attention. And more problems occur because of that long class period. If I had 55-60 minutes, that would be a good amount of time for instruction, and not too long to get monotonous. 45 minutes is too short for instruction obviously but at least 45 minutes per class conveys a sense of urgency in the students.

  19. I like a lot of things about this post, and hate a lot of things too. The line "If you want to teach something meaningful focus on the content" gives me pause. Time and time again I've worked with teachers who insist getting to point x,y, or z by day a,b, or c. They focus exclusively on content rather than the academic processes (I would argue the latter is exponentially more valuable) they at the pace of the district's suggested timeline, rather than at the pace of the actual learning occurring in their rooms; the funny thing is these same teachers still admit to only covering a fraction of the district's material by the year's end. The content is only a vehicle for instilling quality academic skill sets people! Even the most knowledgable, passionate, engaging teacher will still only have 40% of their students remember 10% of the content a year after their course has ended. Focus on processes, not names and dates in history, stanzas in an ELA class, etc. Also "the kids that want to learn can," this is an error in perception....ALL students want to learn, and their apparent indifference or misbehavior is almost always a manifestation of a larger problem...the hallway conference piece of this post seems to illustrate the author's understanding of this fact...but the "kids who want to learn" line directly contradict it.


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