This fall I will begin my sixth year of teaching, which is still weird to see written down because it seems like just yesterday I was struggling through my first. (And second. And probably third, too, for good measure.)
Classroom management was my biggest struggle in those beginning-teaching years. I went in suspecting I would have classroom management in the bag because I’d had pretty extensive experience working with kids from babysitting, being a camp counselor and other volunteer-type roles. But as it turns out, managing a classroom was way different and way more difficult than anything I’d done before.
In my first year, I had no procedures in place and thought that my students wouldn’t learn if I wasn’t always nice to them. Because of this, I had zero control over my classroom. Like a helpless kitten.
In my second year, I overcompensated for my leniency the previous year and behaved somewhat like a dragon. I used procedures this time and had near-perfect control over my classroom, but was so strict at the beginning of the year that it made it difficult for my students to relate to and/or trust me. Not OK.
My third year is when things started to even out. I knew I needed to have set boundaries and be firm with my students who pushed them, but I also wanted a classroom environment that was warm and engaging so that kids wouldn’t even want to push boundaries. In my fourth year, I worked on perfecting this balance, and in my fifth year, it finally felt totally natural, like riding a bike.
Classroom management isn’t like following a recipe, where you follow exact steps and end up with a beautiful finished product. It takes time, practice and patience. But these are some tricks I’ve learned that help move that process along:
1. Use a quiet (but firm) voice for redirecting behavior.
A quiet voice is way more effective than a loud one in the long run. What I mean by this is that while a loud voice might scare a student into doing what you want in the moment, you may completely lose their respect and/or ability to focus in your class. A loud voice says “Congratulations, teenagers! I’ve given you complete control of my temper. Allow me to demonstrate how easily manipulated I am. ” A controlled, calm, quiet voice says, “I’m still in control—of my emotions and of this classroom. And you ‘ll need to listen carefully to what I’m saying.”
We all make careless mistakes or bring frustrations from our personal lives into the classroom by accident. If you carry on without acknowledging or addressing it, the only example you’re setting is that people in power don’t have to apologize. But when you can admit your mistakes and ask for forgiveness, you are modeling an extremely important character trait (humility), and your example will matter to your students.
I probably had to apologize to my first-period class eight times last year since I had them right after what were often frustrating faculty meetings. I found that taking that few seconds to apologize often put me in a better mood. They even helped me come up with a routine to “reset” me, which involved looking at pictures of baby animals for 60 seconds.
3. Come up with some kind of unique activity, game or tradition that is quirky, fun and unique to your class.
This is not only fun for students but perfect for building classroom camaraderie (which is tough to do with secondary kids). Here are some examples from some outstanding teachers around the country:
- “I love doing Monday morning share! I get to hear about their weekend and they get to hear about mine. We celebrate good weekends together and sympathize with bad weekends. It also makes Mondays something to look forward to!”
- “My classes are split into four Houses, like in Harry Potter. They’re named after four great thinkers/innovators: Nikola Tesla, Maryam Mirzakhani, Percy Julian, and Ida Wells. Students get “sorted” with the Sorting Hat and their first project is to research their founder and teach a lesson to the rest of the group about him/her. They get House points for answering warm-up questions, being awesome, etc., and I randomly give prizes to whatever House is in the lead.”
- “I’m in a portable, so I have a sidewalk out front. I use sidewalk chalk to write students notes on their birthdays, write quotes or wish them good luck on testing days. It makes for something special that everyone in the school can see when they walk by.”
- “On the first day of school, I ask each of my eighth graders to address a blank postcard for me. The most time-consuming part of mailing home a note is addressing envelopes/cards! As the days/weeks pass, I’ll write a thoughtful note to my students and mail them. Fourteen-year-olds seem to love getting mail at home, and it’s such a fun way to build a positive relationship with your students and their families!”
- “I teach high school Spanish. I wait outside to greet my students and every day I have a new question for each of them. Usually it is somewhat related to the vocabulary we are studying, always in Spanish, and I try to make it as personable as possible “Do you prefer cats or dogs?” “Who is better: Justin Timberlake or Justin Bieber?” At the beginning of the year they are all kind of weirded out by it, but before Thanksgiving they all wait for their question. If I don’t ask them, they tell me they want their question!”
- “I put stickers on the outside of their reading journals rather than the pages inside. I teach in Ohio, so they always compare it to the Ohio State football players’ helmets.”
- “On my door: ‘Late? No entry without dancing.'”
- “We use the sign language symbol for ‘I love you’ to respond when a student shares a writing, when they admit to something difficult—pretty much whenever we feel one of us needs and/or deserves love or appreciation. I don’t like clapping as it sometimes becomes a symbol of popularity (louder = more popular). The kids are pretty awesome with this one. Someone will be sharing a writing about sadness, and the signs just go up. It makes me cry.”
4. Don’t engage in an argument with a student.
Kind of along the same lines as #1—engaging in a heated argument does nothing except show the student that they hold the power to control your emotions. When you redirect a student or give a consequence, give it calmly and immediately move on with some kind of task, whether it’s continuing your lesson or filing folders. The student may object or try to rile you up, but you’ll clearly be busy with whatever it is you’re doing to notice.
5. Make ’em laugh!
One of the best ways to have kids eating out of your hand is to show your sense of humor. Laugh at yourself! Add goofy questions to your finals! Dress up in something related to your lessons! (Just don’t use humor to redirect a serious rule violation or to embarrass a student.)
Here’s to hoping that you won’t find yourself as a kitten or a dragon in the classroom this year, but somewhere in between. Like a horse, maybe. Or a griffon.
What’s your best classroom-management tip for secondary students?