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“Are we going to talk about classroom management?” Several of my graduate students asked this question last week as we prepared to enter the final month of our methods course. It was clear that as they approached the end of their work in the Masters in the Arts of Teaching program that they felt unprepared for this aspect of teaching. I understand the anxiety. It is hard to teach if the class is acting out and exhibiting distracting behaviors or jeopardizing the safe space learners need to take academic risks.

I am not a fan of the idea that teachers must manage students; instead, I’d like to focus on supporting students in learning how to manage themselves by developing their self-regulation skills. However, even if the goal is to help students regulate their own behavior and emotions, the teacher plays an essential role in that process.

Marzano and Marzano (2003) wrote an article titled “The Key to Classroom Management” that asserts “the quality of teacher-student relationships is the keystone for all other aspects of classroom management.” The article explores three specific teacher behaviors that lead to the most effective teacher-student relationships, thus resulting in stronger classroom management.

  1. The teacher’s ability to provide “strong guidance regarding both academics and student behavior.”
  2. The teacher’s ability to demonstrate concern for students’ needs and to partner with students in the learning process.
  3. The teacher’s ability to be aware of high-needs students and respond appropriately, adjusting their responses based on the student.

Let’s break these down and explore what these teacher behaviors look like in practice.

Provide Strong Guidance Regarding Behavior

First, teachers must establish clear expectations for behavior. I believe this is best done by engaging the class in co-constructing agreements. Students have valuable prior knowledge on this topic they can draw from. They know what makes them feel safe and supported in learning environments. They also know what makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable taking academic risks in a classroom. So, teachers can ask their students to draw on their prior experiences in school to compile a list of behaviors and norms they believe will make the classroom community feel safe, supportive, and productive.

Step 1: Reflect on Past Experiences
Ask students to describe learning environments that have made them feel safe sharing their ideas, engaging with classmates, and taking risks. What was it about those classes or spaces that made them feel comfortable? Then, ask them to describe a moment in school when they did not feel comfortable sharing their ideas, engaging with classmates, or taking risks. What has happened in those moments that made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable?

Teachers can give students multiple means to capture their reflections to remove barriers. Some students may prefer to reflect in writing, while others might like to record a video or draw a concept map or sketchnote.

Step 2: Collaborate to Identify Key Norms and Behaviors

  • Create small groups of students.
  • Give them time to share and discuss their past experiences.
  • Encourage them to identify three norms or behaviors they think are critical to creating and maintaining a safe learning environment.
  • Ask them to write their norms or behaviors on a paper or post them to a virtual post-it note wall, like Jamboard or Padlet, and have one student ready to share their norms with the class.

Step 3: Create a Class Set of Agreements

  • Ask one person to share their group’s three norms and briefly explain why these norms should be added to a class set of agreements.
  • Once all norms have been shared, give students time to review them (e.g., silent gallery walk). If they captured their norms on poster paper or post-it notes, ask them to put dots on the five norms they think are most important. If they posted their norms online, ask them to heart or post a comment to the norms they want to select. Creating a heat map with dots, hearts, or comments helps the learning community identify the norms they value most.
  • Compile the top 10 norms into a class contract of agreements for students and parents to read and sign.

Teachers may want to facilitate this process for general class norms and specific norms for activities like discussion, collaboration, transitions, and independent work.

Create a Clear Path of Consequences

Once the class community has established agreements to guide their interactions and behaviors, teachers should establish a clear path of consequences. The more transparency teachers create around what will happen if a student is disruptive or violates a class agreement for behavior, the less likely a consequence will result in a power struggle in the classroom.

When working with a class that was about to begin using the station rotation model, I engaged the group in the activity above to identify behaviors they thought would make rotations runs smoothly. Then I asked groups of students to discuss a series of consequences they thought were appropriate for disruptions or disrespectful behavior during the rotation. The series of consequences pictured below is what they came up with as a class.

  • First disruption: The student receives a verbal warning asking them to correct the behavior and stating how that behavior is negatively impacting the learning environment.
  • Second disruption: The student moves to a “floater desk” apart from a group to work on their own for the remainder of the class.
  • Third disruption: The student has a conversation with the teacher about the behavior and completes a safe space reflection about what led to the behavior and how they can avoid it in the future.
  • Fourth disruption: The student contacts their parent or guardian by email or phone to explain the situation.

Another activity I like to facilitate is “What’s the consequence?” It asks students to identify specific missteps that might occur in a specific situation, like online discussions or collaborative group work. I ask them to work in groups to describe possible missteps or negative behaviors. Then they switch documents with another group and discuss what they believe would be appropriate consequences for each misstep.

This activity aims to raise awareness about specific behaviors that are not productive or might make other students feel uncomfortable engaging with each other. Teachers can decide if they want to pull from this activity to create consequences for missteps during a particular learning activity, like discussion or group work.

Be Assertive and Consistent

Engaging the group in the co-construction of class agreements and a path of consequences are important steps in cultivating a supportive and positive learning community, but missteps will happen. Students are learning to regulate their behavior and their emotions. Making mistakes is a natural part of that process. So, teachers will need to navigate those situations without damaging their relationships with learners. Teachers must also keep in mind that they will have high-need students who may require more delicate interventions. For example, I had a student with an emotional disturbance IEP and working with him in moments when he violated a class agreement required more fitness.

Below are some tips to keep in mind when managing these moments:

  • Do not ignore bad behavior.
  • Use physical proximity and eye contact to signal that behavior is not okay.
  • Be consistent with consequences.
  • Don’t talk over students.
  • Ensure the interventions are less disruptive than the behavior you are trying to correct.
  • Avoid public power struggles by pulling students aside to discuss a distracting or negative behavior.
  • Be respectful and clear about the why. Why is this behavior unacceptable? How is it negatively impacting the learning community?
  • Engage parents or guardians if negative or distracting behaviors continue.

Classroom management presents an opportunity to engage the class community in conversations that help them develop a higher level of awareness about their behavior and what is expected of them in an academic setting. If teachers view their students as partners and engage them in defining class agreements and consequences, students are more likely to comply with the expectations because they have played a role in articulating them.

Classroom management can feel tricky to tackle as a new teacher, or even for many established teachers. It’s tempting to jump into “covering curriculum” at the start of the year instead of laying a firm foundation for what is expected as the class community engages with each other to make meaning and collaborate around shared tasks. This foundation takes time to build, but it pays dividends as students work to make meaning and collaborate around shared tasks. The more safe, supportive, and positive the learning environment, the more likely students are to take risks and authentically engage with each other.

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