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The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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I had an epic battle with a tangle of barbed wire a while ago. I'm glad to report that my cuts and scratches are healing nicely, and I'd like to share with you about how this battle revealed to me a number of brilliant truths about classroom management.

I had decided I had to do something about the tangle of barbed wire hidden in the grass on our property, so I began to untangle it. Very quickly, I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number One: Even when barbed wire is not tangled, it is tangled. There are so many barbs that they catch on one another and the strands between.

Soon, I noticed a pain in my left arm. To my dismay, I saw that I was tangled in the wire. Barbed Wire Fact Number Two: It has a life of its own. No sooner would I untangle a few feet of wire than the wire would attempt to bounce back and try to tangle itself again. Applying this new knowledge, I hooked the free end of the wire to a fence post and resumed the untangling process.

Now I had another problem. Barbed Wire Fact Number Three: Barbed wire doesn't thread. It gets caught on the other wires as soon as you try. So, I ingeniously rolled the end of the wire into a loop and passed the whole loop through the tangles. Controlling an ornery loop of barbed wire was dangerous enough, but trying to put it through other tangled loops was just asking for trouble. It worked OK for the first few loops, but quickly the wire decided it did not want to be cooperative.

I didn't have enough hands to keep it all in place, but then I put my foot on the wire and used a bit of baling wire to tie it back and make it stay in a loop. That is how I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number Four: You cannot control barbed wire without help.

Finally, I began to make decent headway with the tangle. But, sadly, I noticed that as I added loops to my threading loop, it was starting to threaten my arm. I thought about getting some more baling wire, but then I stumbled across Barbed Wire Fact Number Five: If you roll the wire upon itself, instead of just looping it side by side, the barbs work in your favor and keep the rebellious loops under control all by themselves.

Now I was in charge, and I made the barbed wire work for me, which made untangling the rest of it a cinch.

Coiling the Classroom

As unpleasant, frustrating, and painful as untangling that barbed wire was, sometimes I find that managing classrooms can be even worse. But one can apply the brilliant truths I learned about barbed wire to a classroom to get it under control, too. Simply recognizing (and respecting) the nature of education will help us deal with all of its prickly tangles, but I have also added a few ideas that might be of use to you in creating your own neatly wound classroom-management coils:

Even When Barbed Wire Is Not Tangled, It Is Tangled
Even in the most organized classroom, anytime you get students together, there will be friction. Their emotional barbs get caught on one another, and it is the teacher's job to untangle the mess. Add to that the multitudes of state standards, and it's no wonder that lesson plans sometimes get jumbled. The true task, then, is to focus on one tangle at a time. Find where the barbs are getting caught and target that particular standard or behavior until students have mastered or solved it. Then go on to the next tangle.

Barbed Wire Has a Life and Mind of Its Own
Classrooms are ever changing and evolving. What worked very well one day may not work the next. And there's often another tangle that appears, especially with older students. They prefer the comfort of being told what to do and not having to think for themselves. They know it is a lot easier to do worksheets than to actually write, create, or produce a viable product.

We constantly have to struggle with overcoming mediocrity (laziness) and getting our students to think and behave in creative ways. Our job is to stay at least one step ahead of the students and to differentiate the curriculum to match their current needs (not wants), because they might change at a moment's notice. Variety is the key.

Barbed Wire Doesn't Thread or Cooperate
Today's students are more sophisticated than kids of years past, and the threat of discipline is less capable of motivating them to modify their behavior. Thus, we need to employ other creative methods that fit the students we have now. Closer contact with the students' parents will help untangle some knots. Cell phones are a huge benefit. Parents carry them all the time, so you can get in touch with them all the time.

Another strategy is to avoid the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Put that on the shoulders of the student, where it belongs. Students understand consequences, and if an infraction occurs, they need to take responsibility. It is a question of changing "I am going to punish you" to "Your actions are punishing you. What are you going to do about it?" The difference between these statements is that with the second one, when you are not there, your students will still monitor themselves.

You Can't Control Barbed Wire Without Help
I see teachers struggling to "control" their students by keeping them busy. The students wait around to be told what to do, or they get fidgety and start mischief. However, when students help create a binding, high-performance contract with their teacher that has consequences, the teacher can leave the control method behind and move into the channel method, described below.

You Can Make the Barbs Work in Your Favor
Lockstep instruction, with no student choice or input, is a barbed tangle waiting to happen. The students are the learners, so channel their energies into productive paths. It just takes some encouragement, suggestions, and individual concern. The very tangle of chaos and confusion that we tried to control -- and that was causing us grief and pain -- now becomes our helper.

Focusing Student Energy

When correctly channeled, the frenetic energy most students display becomes enthusiasm and zeal for learning rather than reasons for disciplinary action. When students get done quickly with their assignments, do we give them busywork or allow them to play, or do we encourage them to choose a project that will feed their interests and truly engage them in individual study? (This is differentiation, extension, and enhancement.) A student of any age can write a book, create a movie, choreograph a dance, create a song, design a house, build a skyscraper, solve a problem, paint a masterpiece, or discover and share something new. Project learning and inquiry learning fit the bill nicely.

I survived my tangle with barbed wire, and after intense effort and experimentation, I was able to master it and finally get it all coiled neatly -- well, as neatly as one can coil barbed wire. I felt a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, the way I felt as a teacher when my carefully planned and choreographed unit was effective, even with all of the on-the-fly adjustments. Maybe that is why there are so many people, but so few teachers. We are willing to tackle that barbed wire, knowing that we probably won't come out unscathed. But we are willing to take the risk if it will help our students. So, wear your scars with pride.

Please share some of your nasty tangles and how you were able to tame them.

Comments (98)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Arturo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As the story suggests, your success in managing your student's behavior issues requires that you have an assortment of plans to handle each delicate situation, and also you need to be persistent and willing to try new strategies, because each child and/or class is unique.

Peggy Evatt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben Johnson, I found your blog quite interesting. My husband, who is also Ben, and I raise miniature animals. Our Zebu cows decided to visit the neighbors last week. As Ben was going to put barbed wire across the path that the cows used, he requested that I join him. I have had my tangles with the barbed wire so my solution was avoidance. I took my time getting to the woods and made it just as Ben finished. Yet in my life at school, there is no avoiding the issue of classroom management and I thoroughly enjoyed the comparisons you made in Teaching with Tangles.

Tabatha Burcher Canton, GA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved this blog! This is my first time blogging, and I was pleasantly surprised not only at the information and insight given, but also at the interaction that we are able to have with others around the world.

Ben's comparison of barbed wire and classroom management rang true to me. I was a first year teacher last year, and classroom management is something that I struggled with. I am so appreciative of his ideas on what to do with kids when they finish an assignment early.

I am taking a graduate course right now, and one of our professors mentioned the importance of speaking with families to find out more of the child's culture; not just how they celebrate holidays, but why they will or won't look you in the eye, and other things like that. I loved Ben's thoughts that you can and should be in contact with parents frequently...after all, that's what cell phones are for, right?!

Another topic she (my professor) spoke about had to do with learning and unlearning strategies in both teaching and classroom management. Ben reaffirmed this when he talked about how teachers have to be flexible and be constantly changing to find out what works with kids, and telling us that what worked today, might not work tomorrow. It is good to know that I am not alone in this tangle of barb wire called classroom management!

John H's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a engineer in the Army I can relate to trying to roll the wire back on its spool. You feel you are never getting it perfect but as you go you learn how to get it done. Everything I plan on putting into use this year in my classroom. This analogy is a great way for me to remember all the little things that go into managing my classroom. We could never roll the wire back up perfect, but we rolled it back up so it was functional, not dysfunctional.

Thank you for a great post!

Tasha Mickens's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Classroom management is definitely a progress in the making. I love the analogy of the barbed wire. With classroom management you have to be creative, flexible, and spontaneous at all times. You must be willing to change the management to benefit the class. I found myself trying to fit a circle peg in the square. In college I had my classroom management plan laid out. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew the consequences. When I entered the classroom and tried to implement my plan I soon found out that it wasn't working. Each year I have to find a plan that will best suit my students. At my school we have a school wide incentive program, which also plays a part in the classroom management plan. Teachers must be willing to be flexible, and open to your students. Classroom management is not always a democracy, but should allow students to have a choice. In my class we set goals, and they have to be responsible for their own learning, and response-able to the success of the class. Thanks for your insight!!

Cicely Lee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read the analogy between classroom management and barbed wire, I began to feel very frustrated and overwhelmed. I have experienced these same feelings in my classroom as well. The feeling of being out of control haunts me in my classroom and at times I do feel tangled in a group of energized uncooperative children. However, I have learned to tackle one undesired behavior at a time.
I do wish that more teachers could make the barbed wire work in their favor, but there are so many demands being place on teachers. Allowing students to explore and be creative may be a challenge to teachers who are required to follow a rigid curriculum that focuses on standardized tests.

Sabrina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed this article. I thought the barbed wire was a really unique way of looking at classroom management. Classroom management is one of the hardest things to successfully accomplish as a new teacher. I am going into my third year and it is still something that I struggle with on a daily basis. Each year I have found something else that works, as well as something that does not work. Most days I struggle with my classroom management more than the actual curriculum and instruction. This article was very interesting and gave some very good suggestions, and I will be referring to it closer to the start of my year.

Monica Will's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too have found myself using word such as "you are responsible for you" or "make good choices" many times in my classroom. Often times students get frustrated with rules and are upset when they in turn get punished for not following certian rules at school. I teach 4th grade and find that my students are beginning to understand that they are the only one that is in charge of how they act. Being smart does not only mean doing well in school but also making good choices along the way. Putting the responsiblity of making wise choices for themselves in the students' hands is an important lesson that students must learn.

Jim Q's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thanks for such an egaging metaphor. I am currently going into my second year of teaching, and while I have gotten caught in some barbed wire, I have not yet been hurt. Just a few gray hairs have resulted as collateral. It seems to me that there are two types of teachers in reference to this metaphor... those who come out highly scarred and jaded, and those who turn potential wounds into advantageous learning experiences. My experience as a student has taught me that the wounded are highly ineffective teachers. As I look toward my future in teaching, I hope that I become an experienced untangler instead of licking my wounds.

Thanks for a great blog.

Kimberley Sydney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved your blog. I really agree with you. I have been teaching now for a year and I really believe children can be like barded wire. Children can have razor sharp edges. In many cases just when you feel like you have got a child under control they can return to the same behavior all over again.

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