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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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

Bruce Borchardt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks Mr. Johnson for the analogy. My toughest experience in the classroom came when I was a pre-algebra teacher for one year. I had some very interesting students that had a difficult time understanding how to have a classroom subable for all to learn in. I kept trying different things and getting some of the behaviors under control more. As soon as I would be able to some things under control, other things would pop up and I would have to solve those problems. It was a very interesting school year, but one that I learned a lot in.

Jackie Persinger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I get ready to begin my fourth year of teaching, I am interested in hearing very specific strategies for managing behavior related issues in the classroom. I really like the comparison of classroom management to barb wire. I feel like this is such an accurate description of what goes on during a school day. Sometimes at the end of the day, I am just exhausted from dealing with the behaviors of the children. Of course I've tried all of the things that I learned in college, and in various workshops. What I would like to know now is what other people do in their classrooms to handle behavior problems?

Jon Beach's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that the analogy is very true. I don't believe that the "barbed wire" is ever truely untangled in a class. When you solve one problem, another one seems to arise, and sometimes you might not have a plan to deal with this situation. Teachers need to be flexible, and incorporate the proper techniques on the fly. In my classes there always seems to be one child that can distract a class and tangle the "barbed wire" again. That is when we implement a new technique. This was my first time blogging, and it was an interensting experience.

Jessica HAvens's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this analogy. I never would have compared classroom mangagement to barbed wire, however, once I read throught this posting, it makes a lot of sense. I sometimes struggle with classroom mangagement, but this year, I will reflect back to the barbed wire posting and just work on one problem at a time. Thanks for this analogy. It gave me a lot to think about.

Alexia Crowley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"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."

Having copied the above statement from Ben's description, I have to say that I cannot agree with it more but often overlook this idea. Classroom management is like barbed wire, with the classroom is more tangled some years than others, its always fixable but there are certain ways to do it. One of the best ways I think is supporting Ben's idea of putting the accountability in the students court. This is something that should coincide with the first day and relying your personal expections to the students. This year, I am consciously going to use this analogy with my students and let them know that they are responsbile no one else. I think with this it will put much more ease on myself and let the children know that I respect them all as equals and learners.

Jamie Dowd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A true educator, catch others attention, get them hooked. What a great way to start your blog. This is actually my first time blogging also but when I read your blog I was instantly intrigued. I have worked many years trying to untangle wire to produce a more effective classroom. I worked for the last 4 years in an inner city classroom and the wires were always completely tangled. From day to day it would be a new adventure. I found that you must gain the "trust" of the students before any learning can begin. Now gaining trust does take some time but definitley worth it! Teachers can gain trust in many ways, listening, asking questions, allowing students to see that you really do care by involving yourself in student activities or in the community, the list goes on and on. Students will then begin to realize you really are here to help them rather than to fight them.
Jamie Dowd
Ankeny, Iowa

Cynthia Arko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for sharing your analogy of the barbed wire and classroom management. As I read about your frustration with the barbed wire, I knew exactly how you were going to relate it to the classroom. Everyday is different in the classroom. There are days that go very smoothly and days that are rough. Teachers must understand this in order to stay committed to the profession. I particulary liked how you handle students' disciplinary situations. Here's my suggestion. If one of my students has trouble with another student and they come tell me, I say, "Did you talk to him/her about it?" Of course he/she says no and so I tell the other child to come here. Then I leave it up to the complaining child to explain what bothered him/her and how it made him/her feel. Nine out of ten times the child who supposedly bothered the other doesn't even realize what was done. So, the child apologizes and it is back to buisness as usual. I try to stay out of it. This way I am not the judge, jury, or the executioner like you stated.

Cynthia Arko
Euclid, Ohio

Christina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really found Ben's analogy of using the barbed wire to show our understanding and problem-solving of classroom manangement, fascinating and thoughtful. For me, it was an issue for about the first three years into teaching. I must have reorganized my room at least three times within the year. I felt that my groupings were always fair and planned well, so it could not have been that. Oh! was it the missed gym period that we did not get today? Or maybe, it was the fact that our reading period overshadowed writing workshop... The point I have realized is that the essence of teaching is day-to day maximization-planning well to meet the needs of all of our kids and doing our very best to meet our targets within a limited timeframe. Once you've uncoiled part of that wire; keep pacing yourself, until eventually, all parts are uncoiled and working together.

Stephanie Highsmith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is so comforting to see so many other educators that have struggled with the classroom management issue, just as I have! In my first year of teaching, I looked around at other classrooms with veteran teachers and wondered why mine never seemed run as smoothly. I struggled initially with trying to be a dictator, because being a young female teaching for the first time in a behavior program, I thought I had to be intimidating. Being 5'3, I never really pulled that off! I struggled through so many other attempts, then found that the best way to manage my class was the old saying we have all heard so many times "Treat others the way you want to be treated." I began showing the respect, compassion, empathy, honesty, etc, that I wanted from my students. I have implemented behavioral contracts, and began using more incentives that students earn by following their behavior contracts. This has helped enormously. I also use group rewards that the whole class has to earn as a team, which has helped the students encourage and support their peers. I really enjoyed the analogy of barbed wire, as classroom management can be frustrating and tangled!!!

Maria Summers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, liked the barbed wire analogy. Having dealt with barbed wire, both literally in real life and figuratively in the classroom, I see the analogy is a very accurate one, including the personal scrapes that one can receive handling the wire. Too often teachers try to hide those scrapes and attempt to heal them on their own, rather than seeking outside advice. That is something I want to avoid in the future. I want to get insight from other teachers in how to handle the barbs of individual students from teachers who have taught these students in the past.

I also liked the statement "Your actions are punishing you" This helps to turn the responsibility back onto the student squarely where it belongs. However, it will best when consequences for behaviors are natural and not arbitrary.

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