I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I always want the “difficult” kids to be placed in my classroom. They’re like those gifts that are wrapped in a series of boxes that continue the suspense until you get to the end. Plus, they help me practice patience (one of my early classroom management mistakes I’m still learning to work on).
I work hard at classroom management because if I want the more difficult kids, I better be ready for them. Here are some of the classroom management mistakes I’ve made—or seen—and how to fix them:
1. Smiling when you mean business
This is a tough one to master, but it’s so important that I made it first on the list. There is nothing more confusing for a child than to have a teacher smile when they’re actually angry. Or frown but be fine with the situation. Have you ever heard of environment as the third teacher? Consider facial expressions and body language as the fourth teacher. We’ve all made that mistake, I think. We smile even though we mean business. Unfortunately, this may falsely give kids the sense that you don’t really mean it. You don’t have to look like you’re about to freak out, but it’s important to have a serious face when you want kids to take something seriously.
2. Giving directions even though students aren’t paying attention
Class time is precious, but it’s a mistake to move forward with directions or a lesson when your students aren’t paying attention. Here’s what you’ll wind up having to do: saying it again! Instead of repeating yourself, take the time to get everyone focused before you continue. You can do that in one of two ways: a) Wait them out silently until they get the picture or b) sit back down at your desk, whip out a notebook, and begin taking notes. Glance up at kids every so often and then go back to writing. They’ll think you’re writing something about them and alert everyone else to pay attention as well. Pro tip: Never tell them what you are writing.
3. Standing in one place for the entire lesson
If the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club, the first rule of classroom management is that you can’t manage people you aren’t paying attention to. Proximity, proximity, proximity. Imagine your personal bubble space is about 12 inches around you. Walk around the room in a sweeping manner, stopping casually to make eye contact or to make a point. Don’t hover, don’t get too close, or proximity control doesn’t work. You’re just giving every student the vibe that you are never very far away.
4. Misusing sarcasm
Sarcasm relies on the ability to understand subtlety, which is a finely tuned skill. Young children do not arrive at school with this skill. With young kids, nonverbal information and tone must match truth, or the meaning is lost.
Let’s say a teacher tells a student, “I love it when you talk over me.” The student thinks:
1. I should keep talking over my teacher, or
2. There’s some message here I’m not getting.
By middle and high school, many students have developed the skill to understand and appreciate sarcasm, but not all. Humor can be a great classroom management tool, but be careful that your sarcasm is used sparingly and never in cutting ways or for serious redirection. Here are more pros and cons on using sarcasm in the classroom.
5. Not tracking student data
Let me tell you a little story here. Once I had a first grader whom I thought interrupted me no fewer than 1,462 times each day. So I asked my mentor teacher if she would spend an hour in my room to tally how many times this kid interrupted me. She’s been around the block, so she knew that it would be better if she tallied how many times any child interrupted me. Turns out this particular kid only interrupted me a couple of times, but another one interrupted me 49 times in 60 minutes! Data helps you see what’s really happening.
Being a teacher can be tricky. Our minds are doing all kinds of crazy psychological things to keep one step ahead of 33 different kinds of kids in the classroom. Don’t rely on your memory. Choose one or two things that matter and track them for a period of time to see what’s really happening.
6. Teaching the same way every time
It might require a little more planning, but it’s so worth it to vary your teaching methods. Not only will you be more interested in the way a lesson goes, but your students will need to be on their toes. An additional benefit is that varying your teaching usually results in meeting more of the needs in your classroom. Varying your teaching strategies means using different ways for kids to work with new or existing knowledge. They might turn to talk to each other, create videos of their understanding, or do readers theater.
7. Using the same instructions or formatting day after day
Isn’t this the same thing I said before? Not really. How you teach is different from the formats you use. Using multiple media for directions gives students a way to practice following directions in different ways. Record your voice on a tablet that kids can play back as many times as they need to. Write directions on sticky notes and personalize them. Give oral directions to everyone at once. Give directions to kids as you meet them one by one. Changing it up is good for kids and keeps them paying attention.
8. Expecting kids to respond immediately
I know there’s never enough time to get everything done during the day, but kids (everyone, really) need time to process their thinking and to do the work. When was the last time you knew you needed to do a task and you just sat down and got it done? Hardly ever, right? Some of the kids push back because they have to be in go mode all the time. Use metacognition strategies like talking through the length of time it might take you to develop a lesson. Tell your students about how you garden or go on a run to gather ideas for things to do in the classroom. Then, let them procrastinate a bit by the pencil sharpener before they sit down to do the work. They’ll respect that you respect the process.
9. Addressing a student’s unacceptable behavior in front of the class
There is literally never a time when it’s OK or better to shame someone publicly. Ever. Seriously. Not ever. In addition, when you give yourself a little bit of time before addressing a student’s poor choices, you tend to keep your cool a bit better. Find a way to pull that student aside to address the issue and be sure to state what you expected the behavior to be.
Don’t expect students to know what you want them to do. Even if it seems like common sense. I’ve worked with enough families at this point to know that everyone has their own definition of what behavior is acceptable.
10. Forgetting to emphasize what the class is doing well
I don’t care if it’s academics or behavior, there is nothing worse than listening to a grown-up talk about how bad everyone is. The very first response kids have to this is, why are we getting blamed for everything? This one may take a bit of retraining your brain as many of us are used to focusing on the bad. I need to lose weight. I take too much work home. So start with yourself. At the beginning of the day, take out a sticky note and write one thing you’re doing well. I packed my lunch today. During the day, try to find one or two things your students are doing well. I love how everyone has a pencil today or helped someone else find one. At the end of the day (or class), check in with your students and ask them to share something they feel like they are doing well right now. It’s surprising how joy begets joy.
11. Taking everything personally
The second agreement of Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic The Four Agreements tells us not to take anything personally, and I agree (though it’s easier said than done). The best thing about teaching is that we are all human. The worst thing about teaching is that we are all human. So much baggage comes with school. There’s not enough time in the world to figure out why kids say or do what they do. So step back and address what’s happening without personalizing it. The next time you find your patience challenged, ask yourself, What does this student need right now?
You won’t remember all of these tips and tricks for classroom management, but with practice they’ll become second nature. As kids begin to stop what they’re doing and listen because they know they need to use what you’re saying, it’ll encourage you to do it more. I mean, they’re kids. They won’t be listening all the time. These tricks aren’t magic, but they help kids maintain their dignity. Giving kids dignity shouldn’t be a tall order, it should be an expectation.