When I first started teaching, my classroom management was a mess. I might as well admit it, right?
My career started in a third grade regular education classroom. I had been teaching for three years before I felt like I wasn’t just trying to keep my head above water. By the fourth year, I finally felt like I had the hang of classroom management.
I wish I’d had more information about classroom management when I first started. I think that is one reason I always like to talk to teachers about the topic and work to help develop classroom management resources.
If I could go back in time to my first year teaching, I’d give myself instructions to do some very deep reflection on the following understandings about classroom management.
Discipline Is Not Classroom Management
I do not think that discipline is part of classroom management. Discipline is a separate thing because classroom management should be proactive. Yes, we have to handle discipline as teachers, but a well-managed classroom will eliminate a lot of disciplinary issues.
As a beginning teacher, it was hard for me to understand that my students had to be taught how to function in my classroom. There was always a lot of talk about students being ready to learn when they start school. I really misunderstood that to mean that they would know what to do in every classroom setting. I thought it meant they held behavioral traits that would ensure they could automatically function. Then, when they didn’t function well, I had to deal with discipline issues.
My thinking was backwards. Being ready to learn does not mean that students will know how to behave in every setting. Every classroom setting is different and new for them. You have to teach them how to walk, where to sit, and any other little thing that is required for your classroom to operate. This is a proactive approach.
Teach them what they need to know, give them opportunities to practice, and hold them accountable. If they know what to do, they will most likely do it. When they choose not to, you can address that. You will not have major discipline issues to handle if you teach what you expect.
Set Up the Classroom and Leave It Alone
Setting things in motion that will prevent issues is classroom management. There needs to be a systematic and standardized way for students to take care of daily tasks.
A mistake I made was rearranging things in the classroom. I would move the folder bucket where the kids were supposed to put their take-home folders. Or, I would put it on my desk and forget to put it back in its place for the next day. The kids would be wandering around looking for it, and as they wandered around they would talk and play. Instruction was always delayed.
I didn’t realize that I needed to have a plan for things like where the folder bucket would be located before the school year started. I really didn’t think it mattered, but oh how I wish I’d known then what I know now. Sometimes the smallest tweaks in things like where the folder bucket is located will have a huge impact.
For instance, once I finally realized this was causing a problem, I set up a station near the door where students could put their folders, pick up sharpened pencils, and choose lunch. The only had to visit the station one time to take care of everything. It cut out all of the roaming around, which cut out all of the talking and playing. We were able to use that thirty minutes much more effectively for instruction.
It is really important to set up the classroom before school starts and have a plan. Don’t change anything unless you have to once the classroom is set up. If you have to change something, make sure you teach the students about it.
Every classroom is unique. It is a microcosm of the school and society. As such, the whole balance of the classroom can be thrown off by getting a new student in the middle of the year or even being off for a week of school. It is delicate even with the strongest classroom management. This is why it is essential to build community within the classroom.
The physical environment impacts community. I recommend creating an artful environment where your students will feel welcomed to learn. Music playing in the background during centers, soft lighting, and artwork on the walls go a very long way. I’m not advocating for teachers to spend hundreds out-of-pocket to create a Pinterest-worthy classroom. It is entirely possible to get a lamp at a yardsale for two bucks, turn on an app that plays classical music, and print some artwork off of the computer.
Conversations also build community. Students want to get to know their teachers as human beings. It is also human nature to want to socialize.
When I first started teaching, I thought I was supposed to be all business all the time. I also thought the students were supposed to be quiet all of the time. Neither of these things worked for me or my students. When I started making a video about myself (with pics of my dog and me telling them about my favorite color and the books I’d read over the summer) for the first day of school, I noticed a dramatic increase in the level of respect I got from students. They knew me, so they cared about me.
Additionally, when I finally started building talk-time into my lessons to allow for the human need to socialize, I saw an increase in engagement and a decrease in discipline issues.
Admitting It Was Worth It
As I reflected about classroom management and my career, I initially had a hard time with the admission that I had not always been a good classroom manager. I am one of those with perfectionistic tendencies. It made me realize how much I have grown in this area. I feel like classroom management is one of my strongest areas as a teacher now. I’m proud of my growth. If I can use my story to help any other teacher also grow, or feel empowered, it is worth it!
What is your classroom management story? How have you grown? What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time?
Amanda Koonlaba, Ed. S. is an educator and educational consultant with over 12 years of experience teaching both visual art and regular education. Her career has been driven by the power of the arts to reach all learners. She is a published author and frequent speaker/presenter at education conferences. Amanda was named the Elementary Art Teacher of the Year for the state of Mississippi in 2016 and received the Arts Integration Service Award from the Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative (Mississippi Arts Commission) in 2015. She holds an Elementary and Middle Childhood Art certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Amanda is on a mission to ensure every student in America has access to a high-quality arts-based education. She blogs at SimpleArtClass.com