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Classroom Management: 3 Important Big-Picture Questions

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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It's a Sunday night in early September and you can't sleep. Your mind is racing with possibilities and streams of questions for the following day. You toss and turn as you play through your plans, trying to anticipate every possibility.

The first day of school is fast-paced, stressful, and exhilarating all at once. We spend hours contemplating how we'll incorporate the changes that we've been planning since June and how we'll set the tone for the rest of the year. Often, we get caught up in procedures, activities, and schedules, trying to get to know our kids and help them get to know us within the constraints of lunch, class changes, and other daily routines. For many teachers, their biggest concern is classroom management. How will I make sure that my classroom is a safe community and that kids will follow the rules?

It's easy for teachers to get caught up in the day-to-day minutiae and focus on things like where we place the tissue box, how to handle broken pencils or laptops that need charging, or assigning seats or cubbies or spots on the rug. But in the end, what makes our classrooms run smoothly is thinking about the bigger picture.

There are three important big-picture questions that we should grapple before we whittle down to those minutiae. These are also questions that, if thought out carefully, will address many of our classroom management worries.

1. How have we organized our classroom space?

Throughout my career as an elementary teacher, I spent most of the time as a "prep teacher" or "specialist teacher." This meant spending lots of time in other people's classrooms. Sometimes I covered a class when a teacher was out. Sometimes I was pushed into the classroom to teach. I learned a lot about learning spaces from these visits.

Some classrooms were nearly impossible to navigate. In others, it was obvious that the students' "traffic pattern" had been clearly thought out. Quick and easy transitions are really important in any classroom. As a guest in these classrooms, it was clear to me which teachers had thought through how space impacts the ease of these transitions. No matter how many procedures you have, if you haven't thought through the spatial configuration, your classroom will not run as smoothly as you'd like. Think ahead about things like storage areas or the placement (or elimination!) of your desk and shelves. A great place for ideas is the book Classroom Spaces That Work.

Lastly, think about what it would be like as a student in your classroom. Sit in different chairs and look around the room. Can you see the board? Are you comfortable? What's in your direct line of vision? You may find that what you thought was a great arrangement is not comfortable or makes it hard for some students to see or access important information.

2. What does learning look like?

Learning spaces can also communicate about what learning looks like in a classroom. For instance, many teachers go back and forth contemplating whether to set up desks in rows or groups. Both setups have the potential for efficient, thoughtful use of space, but before making the decision, consider the kind of learning that will be happening in the classroom. In my experience, rows make it difficult for students to collaborate, or for me to work with or help students. Table groups also have their challenges, since it can be harder to get students' attention when you need it. However, I find tables much easier for collaboration and for me to circulate through. Usually, when desks are set up in rows, the teacher spends most of the time at the front of the room while students work individually. And usually, when desks are set up in table groups, the teacher is circulating more and students are collaborating more.

One of the best phrases that I learned early in my career was "Good instruction is the best classroom management." If students are given the opportunity to collaborate, move around, create, and engage with each other, they're less likely to misbehave. The more invested they are in what they're doing, the busier they are, and the less likely they are to get sidetracked. If the teacher is constantly moving around, working with students and engaging with their learning, they're more likely to stay on task. If you were sitting at a desk alone doing worksheets, wouldn't you get bored and look at your phone or talk to your neighbor? If you think about your best professional development session or class that you've had as an adult, think about what made it great and incorporate that into your teaching.

3. How are we building relationships with families?

The last piece to the classroom management puzzle is the relationships we build with our students' families. One of the most important lessons I learned as an elementary teacher is to avoid having your first contact with a family being the first time a kid acts up or misbehaves in your classroom. It's important to treat families as partners in their child's education. There will always be challenging or absent families, but in the end, parents want what's best for their child. If we're clear from the beginning that we want to work with our parents and that we care about their child, then it's easier to have a conversation when a child has an issue in class.

It’s important to have conversations with parents about how you're supporting their child, how they can help at home, and about things going on at home that may impact the child's behavior and mood at school. I've also found that when kids know you have a working relationship with their parent about something beyond discipline, they work harder in your class.

Rather than thinking about how you're "managing" your students, think about the systems you can put in place while setting up the learning space, about creating engaging lessons, and about the kinds of relationships you build with your students' families. These higher-level, big picture aspects of your classroom environment will do more for the atmosphere and community in your room than any behavior chart ever can.

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Adam Buchbinder's picture
Adam Buchbinder
Passionate about teaching students with learning differences with empowerment, grit, and resilience

Classroom management can be such a challenge, particularly for new teachers. My worst nightmare as a rookie teacher was how to handle the chaotic moments. I agree with your moniker of "Good instruction is the best classroom management" but it is vital that we provide teachers with the kinds of supports to improve instruction. I also think it's worth having everyone consult an organizational psychologist---these are professionals who specialize in social dynamics and understand how to arrange classrooms in the most conducive ways to promote learning. This really helped me in my second year of teaching.

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