First-Year Teacher? Tame the 25-Headed Terror Monster
Yes, today I’d like to talk about the woolly mammoth in the classroom, the looming obelisk of first-year-teacher conniptions, the set of soft skills that contains all other soft skills sets:
Did you shudder? Did you just imagine that student who tried to ingest the butyric acid the day after he wasted 20 minutes of discussion asking about waffles? Did you just imagine the class that listened to your carefully thought out instructions (planned to the minute even!) and then proceeded to just talk among themselves, because, like, you know, prom is coming?
For me, managing my room has always been my favorite part of the job. Good management is kind of like a well melded rock power trio, there’s not really that much going on, but yet you can’t tell where the texture of the guitar ends and the grind of the bass begins; the drummer moves the music, and you just can’t help but shake what God gave you.
Students will not work with you, if the environment is too sterile; just imagine trying to feel comfortable in a hospital (daily). However, the opposite end of the spectrum results in a bit scarier of a room; lack of control breeds yelling, confusion, and a farce of the educational endeavor.
A quick Google search for “classroom management” literally results in millions of motivational posters, insipid PowerPoints, and as many edu-jargon, Cornally-Hulk-inducing acronyms as can be made combinatorically with the Latin alphabet (I don’t even know how to get that number, it’s big though).1 So, how does one sift through the fluff and find the core practices that create a healthy classroom through proper management?
Find a good preschool teacher and take notes like you’re studying Silverbacks in the Congo, that’s how.
From the Cornally-Goodall Journal:
It’s been four days since the helicopter dropped me in this jungle. I’ve made contact, and it appears that they’re going to accept me at a tangential level. I’ve attempted to interact, but they generally pay attention for less time than it takes me to complete a sentence. Topics of conversation change so fast! I can barely keep up, it appears they believe their imaginations, and follow their innate curiosity with complete abandon for their own safety. I must find a way to become a part of their culture…
Here’s what I’ve learned about management in my few years of teaching (and more so through my years of observing my wife’s preschoolers):
1. Extrinsic Toy Economies are Dangerous:
I’m wary of saying that I hate these summarily, because we all are somewhat extrinsically motivated, and to deny that would make me a liar. However, creating terribly complicated toy economies has obvious dangers. These may cause those students to buy in that otherwise wouldn’t (they want candy), but in the end they’re not doing it for the right reasons, and that scares me. Most likely they eventually won’t care about your candy, and now you’re back at square one, but hey, at least your up one sticker chart!
By changing my assessment scheme, I’ve created a room where the motivation is understanding, and the rewards come whenever the students move forward. That’s the real job of assessment. Your time line is made up, and the end of the reporting period (as long as it’s not too short) is really the only respectable deadline for me. Some of you hate this, and that’s fine, but I can’t go back. Students turn things in on time for me because they wanted to do the work. They know I’ll give good feedback and they actually have motivation to fix their misconceptions (grades change, things are learned). If sacrificing deadlines is necessary for that, than call me Abraham (don’t, though, that’s too far).
I’m a bad blog/twitter fiend, as I’m sure you’re all aware. I show up randomly, talk at length, and then disappear into the haze that is Iowa’s August. However, I just read this, which is a part of the Virtual Conference on Soft Skills, and I’ve never been so validated in my quest for finding colleagues online:
The Sarcasymptote Writes:
I cringe when I see teachers with their complex Skinner box system that they had set up in their classrooms, with stickers! and demerits! and free pencils! and pony rides! And then they complain about how many kids are still disruptive or not buying in.
You have to hand it to him for laying it out so simply. He goes on to say that he just lets the kids be weird. I don’t know The Sarcasymptote personally, but his usage of the word “weird” is dead on.
We’re all a bit off, because the concept of the “average human” is made up. An analogy: Johnny scores a 1/10 on the parabola quiz. Next week he scores a 10/10 on the same skill. Should his grade really be the average of those two (a 5.5)? Or is there something more hiding in the raw data? Averaging fails with student behavior too; the phrase “average student” makes no sense when you take into account each individual datum.
2. Build Student Choices Within Your Parameters:
I’ve said this before, but if you want a child to eat vegetables, you don’t give them a choice between cake and carrots. You give them a choice between peas and beans. The same works for teens, but they need bigger choices. If I want them to interact with F=ma, I first allow them to choose a question that is valid and interesting to them. Do I approve a grant for a question that will not help elucidate the content at hand? No. Do I generate a list of sterile boring questions that perfectly show F=ma (even though the kids don’t understand the motivation so the whole thing is just recipe following)? Also, No.
This kind of trust and choice solves a lot of my management issues before they even have a chance to take seed. It’s amazing how hard kids’ll work when it’s something they decided to do. It’s also amazing how you’ll stop caring what they’re doing, when you know that it relates back to your standards.
Kids don’t want to work in the lab that day? Then I have a list of other things they can choose. Again, it’s my list of things, but their choice. Lab partners are gone? You can work on practice problems, read the book, work with me on an experiment I’m building for the next investigation cycle, whatever.
Hell, do work for another class, they know what they need to get done for me (and their other classes) Choose never to work in the lab? Looks like you’ll never demonstrate those standards, and then we know that this kid needs probing at a psychological level for something a bit more important than just “not staying on task.”
This carries over into my homework philosophy. When homework represents practice for a skill, I firmly believe that it should be ungraded and that students should choose how much to do and when they should do it. Giving this choice has increased the amount of homework done in my classes, and it has increased the quality of questions students come to me with. Win win.
3. Consistently Consistent
This one is straight from teacher school. If the kids don’t know what to expect, they get edgy. If they think Timmy is governed by a different set of rules than Sally, their injustice gland inflames and you’ve lost them. Be consistent.
Consistency can be tempered with impulsiveness, you just need to explain yourself. Don’t just stand up in front of them and present something ridiculous. Kids tune out when they think what you’re doing is for you and not explicitly for helping them move forward. Once they trust you, impulsiveness becomes a fun story-telling tool, just beware of we-can-always-get-teacher-to-go-on-tangents-to-waste-time syndrome. Always ask yourself how what you’re doing relates back to what you really want them to learn.
Consistency also includes feedback. No matter how you do it, consistent feedback is key for getting students to buy into what you want them to do. If they don’t get their papers back for a month, you’ve lost the ability to teach with that assessment. I make it a point to try and return anything that’s worthy of feedback within 2 days. This is sometimes murder on my prep, but it’s way easier than dealing with a mutiny the next time I assign something that the kids don’t want to do because “it’s pointless, we’ll never see it again.”
4. NEVER RAISE YOUR VOICE UNLESS A STUDENT IS ABOUT TO BE SERIOUSLY INJURED:
This is hard. Sometimes the kids are working and you want their attention. Say you forgot to give a pertinent instruction about how much string to cut, so you yell over them for their attention. This is bad.
You have to have an ever-present way of calling attention without yelling. Yelling must be reserved for moments when your instructions must be followed without question. They should not be able to identify your yelling voice, so that when a student is about to put the Tesla coil in their mouth you can stop them from dying (This happened to me). Not to mention that many teenagers get a lot of yelling and/or raised voices at home, they instinctively respond negatively.
The opposite is also important. Keep your voice low in situations where stress may be high. Students that want to create management issues — for whatever reason — feed off of negative emotions. It is much easier for them to get kicked out of class than for them to have a reasonable and productive conversation about their behavior (which is what you want). Don’t make these conversations about compliance, make it about empathy. Why are they being a jerk? What’s wrong at home? Are there other students creating an uncomfortable environment that you’re not aware of? You just don’t know, and raising your voice will ensure that you never find out.
5. Expectation is the Soul of Discontent:
I used to get frustrated with my students’ presentations. They just didn’t meet my expectations. Why? Because the kids had very little idea about what I expected.
I would say something like, “Show me what this data implies.” My mind would race to the far reaches of the data analysis universe; my kids’ minds wouldn’t even realize they should start the car. They’d basically just turn in a graph with no labels, and hope that I liked it. It’s the “hoping teacher likes it” that breeds management issues.
Kids will only vie for your love for so long. After a while they’ll just say that the class is “stupid” or “Cornally just gives A’s to who he likes.” These are defense mechanisms covering up knotted mats of confusion which are obfuscated by a sticky pellicle of “I don’t even care.” And the whole thing always seems to smell of onions.
Be clear with them about where boundaries are before you do things. Be super clear about what minimum amount of standards you want demonstrated (we assume SBG now, btw). If the student offers you more, then that’s freakin’ fantastic. If they give you the bare minimum, perhaps you should stop getting angry with them and turn the microscope towards your expectations.
There are many of you who say things like, “If you want the ‘A,’ you’ve got to show me that you’ve earned it by extending your learninating” That’s nice that you want them to think on their own, but most of the time kids have no idea what “earning it” looks like. You know what you want, but you also went to college and have a degree in your subject. A small dab of clear direction at the beginning is worth an entire loaf of awesome results in the end. Don’t be afraid to orchestrate the beginning of a project and then step away to wait for the results.
This kind of preemptive management does a whole hell of a lot more good than the British Petroleum approach. You hopefully heard this in teacher school, too. Suffice it to say, it’s a lot easier to manage a few students with genuine issues than to get mad at everyone because they haven’t managed to read teacher’s mind.
6. Shut Up for a Second and Listen to the Kids:
If the students feel that their input can change the flow of the class, and that these changes are dedicated towards helping them, management issues almost always fail to manifest in all but the most pathological of students (who need to be served in other ways).
This was by far the most fun and difficult management technique for me to learn. We all say things like, “do you have any questions from the homework?” Generally, we get crickets, or perhaps a few hands from zealous students. Some eyes will avert your gaze as if to say, “Homework? Really?” Others stare right at you with a burning gaze hoping their millimeter-thick facade of badassitude will scare you away from examining their confused trembling innards.
This is why talking is so important. Talk to them about assessment. Why do they think a test question was unfair? Don’t let them be douche bags about it, but if it’s a good conversation, then the efficacy generated will go a long way in the future. Ask them if they’re ready to move on? Are they sick of some material? Do they want to go into it deeper? Do they hate how you obscure the white board because you’re left handed? These are the things students will never tell you unless you invest time in conversing.
You’re objecting with the trump card of “coverage” right now, and all I have to say is that a well-managed class will move faster when they hit the rails than a poorly managed one.
What’s It All Mean, Basil?
So, my advice for new teachers on classroom management:
- Hold the extrinsic motivators, lest you create a miniature Wall Street in your classroom
- Give them choices between options you like.
- Be so consistent that your management practices supplant your need for Fiber One.
- Never raise your voice, unless a student is about to get hurt.
- Expect people to meet your stated expectations.
- Listen to them for as long as the conversation is productive; use that information to affect instruction.
1. Actually, I couldn’t resist: Assuming all 26 Latin letters are valid, used, and we don’t want to repeat any (bad assumption) we get 26! which is = ~ 4E+26 permutations, which is consequently the number of seconds that I’ve thought about how to light myself on fire during bad professional development sessions. To satisfy the nitpickers, we could include smaller acronyms, but 26! is of such high magnitude that the lower ones just heap on. Remember, 4E+26 is using a low-balling assumption. Yikes, that’s too many acronyms!